I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit St John’s several times over the years and doubly pleased to visit with a group of some 30 Modernists in March 2020 as part of a Rochdale Walk, prior to the lockdown days later.
I cannot thank Christine Mathewson and her fellow volunteers enough for the warm welcome we were given. They take such pride in their church and are eager to convey that pride along with their obvious erudition.
Approaching from the adjacent railway station we could not fail to be impressed by the scale and grandeur of the church, a wonderful mix of the Byzantine and restrained Art Deco – most clearly expressed in the sculptural angels looming high above the tram stop.
The building is Grade II* Listed and deservedly so – details can be found here on the Historic England site.
The original design pre-1917 by Oswald Hill, executed in 1923-25 by Ernest Bower Norris. Henry Oswald Hill was a promising architect with a clear interest in contemporary church-building trends, as evidenced here and at the nearby RC Church of St Joseph, Heywood, he was tragically killed in action in the First World War.
The church uses concrete to its advantage in the construction of the striking, 20m-wide central dome, surrounded by the delicate touch of several arched stained glass windows at the perimeter.
Illuminating the concave space in a heavenly manner.
The apsed sanctuary contains an encompassing mosaic scheme of powerful emotional intensity designed by leading mosaic designer, Eric Newton of specialist firm Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd.
The mosaic is breathtaking in scale, design and execution – nothing can prepare you for its impact as you enter the church.
The quality of the sanctuary mosaic is further enhanced by the use of high-quality tesserae made of stone, coloured marbles and coloured glass, set off by a shimmering background of gold tesserae.
The apsed sanctuary is completely covered in a mosaic scheme with the theme Eternal Life designed by Eric Newton. Newton was born Eric Oppenheimer, later changing his surname by deed poll to his mother’s maiden name. He was the grandson of Ludwig Oppenheimer, a German Jew who was sent to Manchester to improve his English and then married a Scottish girl and converted to Christianity. In 1865 he set up a mosaic workshop, (Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd, Blackburn St, Old Trafford, Manchester) after spending a year studying the mosaic process in Venice. Newton had joined the family company as a mosaic craftsman in 1914 and he is known to have studied early Byzantine mosaics in Venice, Ravenna and Rome. He later also became art critic for the Manchester Guardian and a broadcaster on ‘The Critics’. Newton started the scheme in 1932 and took over a year to complete it at a cost of £4,000. It had previously been thought that he used Italian craftsmen, but historic photographs from the 1930s published in the Daily Herald show Oppenheimer mosaics being cut and assembled by a Manchester workforce of men and women. It is likely, therefore, that the craftsmen working on St John the Baptist were British.
The whole building is full of surprising details of the highest quality.
Lit by simplest yet most effective stained glass.
This is an exemplary building, on entering one is filled with both calm and awe, an experience which is never diminished by subsequent visits.
The mosaic work is on local and international significance – it is unthinkable that it may ever be lost to us, or that funding was not forthcoming to secure its future into perpetuity.
I implore you to visit, whensoever that may be possible.
Please take a moment append your comments on this post and play some small part in ensuring the St John’s is preserved for generations to come.