The Church of Our Lady & Apostles is a large, imposing, Edwardian building in the town centre of Stockport, near Manchester. It is Grade 2 listed; and in the official “reasons for listing”, it makes especial mention of its Margaret Rope stained-glass window.
Yet – here’s the odd thing – this window is almost completely blocked from view.
Why would this be?
Margaret’s window is made up of three lights, showing, left to right: Mary, the Christ Child, and Joseph – a life-size Holy Family. It came relatively late in her career, 1933, by which time she had been in an enclosed convent for over ten years.
It doesn’t show the psychological insight of her best work, but instead it has a deliberately ‘modern-design’ approach (more so than was usual for her), being two-dimensional pictorially, and with a background of blocks of solid, vibrant colours. The ‘flatness’ of the illustration shows the influence of her best-known collaborators, Clare Dawson and Margaret Edith Rope (her cousin).
It is curious that the window should be in the very significant location of the church’s east end, just behind the altar. In this position, a window usually becomes the focus of the congregation’s attention, because they face it during services – which is why the east end is often given over to a large ‘glory’ window.
However, Marga’s east-window, by contrast, is a memorial piece to a former parishioner, usually the sort of window to be placed in a side-chapel, or somewhere along the south wall of a building.
But the most striking aspect of this window is that it is almost completely hidden behind a large carved screen. Visitors often even have to ask where it is…!
To guess why it is hidden, one first has to know that, in 1925, almost a decade before Marga’s window was installed, a memorial to those soldiers of the Stockport parish who had died in WW1 was created in the church – at great cost. The memorial took the form of a new high-altar, created in marble, alabaster and oak. Behind it, a semi-circular five-feet-high wall of granite, surmounted by a wooden screen, was erected. And, immediately behind the altar itself, was placed a very tall carved reredos-screen made of oak. The whole project cost some £2,000 – equivalent to £120,000 today – a huge sum for this relatively poor parish.
One imagines that the whole initiative was pushed through by the formidable Canon Hugh McGeever, Stockport born and bred, who had been the parish priest since the building was put up, in 1904. To all intents and purposes, it was his parish, and surely he regarded this as his lasting legacy.
But, see what happens next…
Ten years later, when the Holy Family window was installed, it was placed just a few feet behind this huge reredos, making it – to all intents and purposes – invisible! In fact, the only way to see it as a whole is to squeeze oneself into the tiny ‘ambulatory’ space behind the altar and look up at it from underneath.
And, thus, with Marga’s window hidden, McGeever’s creation remained the supreme focal point of the church…
Clash of personalities?
One can only speculate why this bizarre arrangement was put in place. However, one possible solution does present itself, even if there is no proof to support it.
It is well-known that Margaret’s chief patron was Canon Ambrose Moriarty, the then powerful assistant to the Bishop of Shrewsbury. The Roman Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury is huge, spreading from southern Shropshire to the outskirts of Manchester – and includes Stockport.
One wonders whether Moriarty got the commission for Marga, as he so often did, and then insisted that McGeever agree to having it as the east window in the church.
However… Canon McGeever was a conservative in many ways, and his conservatism may have stretched to a dislike of stained glass. Although there are many windows in this lofty, large church, nearly all are clear-glazed (with diamond leading).
Was there now a clash between these two strong men on this issue?
It is also likely that McGeever would not have wanted any feature to overshadow his altar-&-reredos creation. He was so proud of it that he even permitted it to be taken away temporarily and exhibited in London in 1925. Would he really have been happy to see a stained-glass window replace it as the focus of worshippers’ attention?
If McGeever was reluctant to carry out his superior’s orders, this could also explain why the Holy Family window is so low down on the wall. After all, it could have been installed higher, ie in the window row above. But…installed where it is, it can’t be seen at all.
So – did McGeever carry out the letter of Moriarty’s order, but undermine the spirit of it…?!
This is an intriguing speculation, reminding us of the days when Catholic parish priests were laws unto themselves, yet also of a time when the Catholic Church in England was very determined to push itself into the contemporary cultural life of the country, after its many years in the wilderness.
McGeever versus Moriarty – parish versus diocese – conservative versus moderniser. It would have been good to be a fly on the wall in their discussions!
Thanks for the facts, dates and references to “Our Lady and the Apostles Stockport, 1799-1999” by Gerard Wright & Hazel Dove, 1999 (a booklet marking the bicentenary of the parish).
References also taken from the Taking Stock, Stockport Our Lady webpage
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