The transformation of St Bernard's church

By Simon Hart

St Bernard’s Church in Toxteth has been turned into 16 new affordable homes thanks to the vision of a Liverpool housing charity.

‘The big rose window in the top bedroom.’ So responds Colette Byrne when asked to name her favourite feature in her new home.

It is a home within St Bernard’s Church in Toxteth, one of 16 created by the housing charity Housing People, Building Communities (HPBC), and – as a tour of the development reveals – this rose window, with its panoramic view taking in both of Liverpool’s cathedrals, is far from the only eye-catching feature.

‘They’re very, very quirky houses,’ says Liza Parry, the chief executive of HPBC, pointing out archways and high ceilings and even a segment of spiral staircase positioned in the corner of another bedroom in Colette’s four-storey townhouse. It is a turret-like space from which St Bernard’s parishioners used to step out onto a viewing gallery; today it could serve as a particularly striking walk-in wardrobe.

The quirks continue: the townhouse at the opposite end of the building has a stoup in the entrance way and a stained-glass window in one of the bedrooms. Small wonder that when the BBC filmed at St Bernard’s recently, Liza heard one crew member comment that ‘if these houses were in London they’d be worth over a million pound’. Instead, thanks to HPBC’s commitment to providing affordable housing, these homes are around one-eighth of that price.

The development of the 1901 church building cost around £2.2m and has yielded 16 units – 11 of them within the church itself. A new-build house stands on the site of the parish hall, which could not be saved, and there are additionally four two-bedroom apartments.

The St Bernard’s project is the latest impressive undertaking by HPBC which had already built 32 homes on neighbouring Alt Street and Kingsley Road, taking full use of a 2.2-acre swathe of land bequeathed it by the Archdiocese of Liverpool back in 2002. Adding the 16 homes now built in and beside St Bernard’s Church, some 140 people of 16 different nationalities have benefited from the vision of the award-winning, Liverpool-based charity.

As Liza observes, these residents would be either renting or still living with parents but for a model that comprises a combination of shared ownership and sweat equity. Put simply, sweat equity involves gaining £10,000 towards a deposit in return for 500 hours of labour on the building site.

Meanwhile, HPBC has partnered with the housing association Onward which shares ownership with the buyers – otherwise known as home partners. In addition to their mortgage repayments, the home partners pay to the housing association 2.75% in rent each month on the portion of the house not yet purchased.

According to HPBC’s estimate, a home owner with a 50% share in a house costing £125,000 will pay £370 each month – a considerable reduction on the £730 average cost of renting a three-bedroom house in Liverpool.

‘I feel really proud and blessed to have been given this opportunity,’ says Colette Byrne, who made a successful application for a home in early 2018. She is grateful for the support and encouragement received from both Liza and Rev Shannon Ledbetter, the founder and chair of HPBC. ‘They have made sure there have been plenty of opportunities to do different types of tasks too to utilise our individual skills,’ explains Colette, who works at Cafod.

Her details of the work done underline that ‘sweat equity’ is no misnomer. She elaborates: ‘I joined the project at the very beginning when the church still had everything in, so I was part of the process of clearing the site, which entailed working in all weather, on a muddy building site, shovelling rubble and filling a heavy wheelbarrow to take across wooden planks to empty it into the skip. I’ve scrubbed filthy windows, filled the foundations of the apartments next door, carried heavy breezeblock bricks up four flights of stairs and sat in the loft piling them up. My legs and arms were like jelly afterwards.’

Thankfully, continues Colette, her father, Michael Byrne, has been on hand to help out. ‘He’s worked really hard in winter weather, outside in the freezing cold and high up on the scaffolding in strong winds doing all kinds of heavy lifting, pointing brickwork and fitting kitchens.’

It is here that Liza explains another positive aspect of her charity’s endeavours – that they are, as their name suggests, building communities. A sense of fellow feeling grows as home partners work together. In Colette’s case, Liza notes, ‘she completed her hours weeks and weeks ago but carried on coming. She and her dad donated their hours to the neighbours and that’s happened with quite a few people.’

On Saturday 9 November, a shared celebration took place to mark the final home partners’ ‘team build’. The spirit of goodwill extends beyond this small patch of Toxteth. Wienerberger, the world’s largest brick manufacturer, donated all the bricks and block paving used. Ainsley Gorman, the architect involved, provided the initial drawings free of cost.

Liza praises the latter’s efforts. ‘Because we tried to utilise the space as much as possible and retain the architectural features there’s been a lot more work that’s gone into the design. A surveyor from the archdiocese came around last week and said it is best church conversion he’s ever seen. With the archdiocese we’ve now identified a couple of others they want us to have a look at.’

As an illustration of the meticulous approach taken, she explains how the 15,000 original tiles on the church roof – ‘really good quality Welsh slate’ – were taken off to allow the roof to be insulated before being then put back in place.

‘An extraordinary and imaginative design’ was the verdict of Father Peter Morgan, who was parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes and St Bernard’s until the church was closed in 2012. Now responsible for the realigned parish of St Anne and St Bernard, Overbury Street, Fr Peter was a visitor with some former parishioners in the second week of November.

Liza explains: ‘I was really pleased by the reaction from Fr Peter and the parishioners as they walked around – they absolutely loved it. We understand this building holds really treasured memories for so many people.’ One visitor in particular, she adds, ‘had been an altar boy here and he was christened here, his mum and dad had got married at St Bernard’s, and his mum was the cleaner there too.’

It is a place with more than a century of history, a place which has witnessed countless personal milestones. Fresh memories will now be made. Colette Byrne, for one, can barely wait for her move-in date of 30 November. ‘It's been really exciting to be part of this process and to see such a magnificent building be used and turned into beautiful homes,’ she says. ‘I just can't wait to move in now.’