Falkirk church praised as one of the best

The new St Francis Xavier's Church in Hope Street was opened in 1961 by Archbishop Gordon Gray
The new St Francis Xavier's Church in Hope Street was opened in 1961 by Archbishop Gordon Gray

The old adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has a hollow ring to it judging by recent events in Falkirk. But fortunately for us there are more than a few occasions when our town and district have made national headlines for all the right reasons.

Mega projects like the Falkirk Wheel and more recently the Helix with those photogenic kelpies have caught the attention of the media and brought visitors from a’ the airts to our doorstep.

But these multi-million pound developments are not the only attractions of interest to the media. Just a few weeks ago the Herald reported that St Francis Xavier’s Church in Hope Street had been selected as one of the top 10 modern church buildings in Britain. This comes just a couple of years after the congregation celebrated the 50th anniversary of their ‘new’ building which opened for worship in 1961.

Many readers will remember the old church building on the same site which served the catholic community in Falkirk for over a century, from the time in 1843 when a number of Highland and Irish families had settled in the area as a result of the construction of the canals and railways.

For a few years visiting priests used hired rooms for services until the congregation was large enough to finance a church of their own. Father Paul Maclachlan from Glenlivet was appointed as parish priest. Under his leadership the site in Hope Street was bought and the church erected. It was described at the time as an “elegant structure” which formed a “conspicuous object in the thriving town of Falkirk”.

For the next 112 years the church served a growing Catholic community until October 21, 1955, when a fire broke out during the night in the sacristy and, along with water damage, destroyed a large part of it. The congregation decided it was better to replace than repair and the bold decision was taken to go for what was then an ultra modern design by the architect A R Conlin.

While the work progressed services were held in the Oddfellows Hall in Grahams Road and in the little ‘catholic hall’ in Manor Street which had once been St Francis School. The foundation stone was laid in April 1960 by the then Archbishop Gordon Gray and he was on hand again on October 29 the following year to conduct the opening service.

The building is very striking both inside and out. The huge ‘brick wall’ behind the altar with its 35 gold crosses attracted a few comments at the time, but generally the light and airy openness of the sanctuary was a welcome contrast to the old cramped gothic of the earlier building.

The stained glass is particularly attractive, especially the innovative work of Felix McCulloch, which is an example of the ‘decorative application of automotive safety glass’.

The exterior is dominated by the huge statue of St Francis by Maxwell Allan and there are also the four evangelists carved from concrete by Elizabeth Dempster. A fine wall plaque of the coat of arms of the Archbishop by the great Scottish sculptor Hew Lorimer, the son of Sir Robert, is also there.

Despite its 50 years the church still looks very modern and the judges clearly felt that it was a very special building indeed. But Falkirk folk already knew that.