Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 15, 2003
Bath hides a jewel of a church
One of the sons of thunder, St. John the Evangelist, is the patron saint of booksellers
St. John the Evangelist -- Feast Day -- December 27
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Historic Bath is known everywhere as the Avon River site where wealthy Romans enjoyed the waters and where Catholics raised a great abbey church only to lose it to the Reformation.
So arriving visitors are amazed to find that an impressive jewel of a church that dominates the town with its soaring bell tower and spire is rarely mentioned in travel guides and is identified on maps, if at all, only as "R.C. Church."
This is St. John the Evangelist Parish, substantial symbol of the re-establishment of Catholicism in the pretty resort town.
It's well worth visiting and since attractions such as the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey and even the Parade Gardens park, all charge admission fees, it's possibly the best free deal in town.
The church, consecrated in 1863, is built of local Bath stone in the Decorated Gothic style. Architect Charles Hansom, designer of 50 British Catholic churches, considered St. John's his best work. It features transepts and a 74-metre-high spire, tallest in town.
Disaster befell the building when a 1942 air raid destroyed the rectory, killing the curate and four others. Severe damage sustained by the church has since been repaired. Viewed from almost any direction, the church is an artist's delight.
A block-wide parking lot allows great views of the West Front from Manvers Street and the South Parade. Particularly attractive is the church in the evening, seen in silhouette.
Worshippers arriving for weekday morning Masses at the north porch entrance to the church pass beneath a niche containing an effigy in stone of St. John, accompanied by his symbolic shaggy eagle, characteristically gazing upwards at the saint.
John, theologian, apostle and evangelist, was the son of Zebedee and St. Mary Salome. He and his older brother James the Apostle were called "sons of thunder" by Christ because of their personalities but John was also "the beloved of Jesus" and "the Divine."
He was the youngest apostle and is known for his Gospel, which supplements the other three, three epistles and the mysterious Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse). He is portrayed in art with Mary - the only apostle present at the crucifixion.
John is the patron of Turkey, booksellers, art dealers and several other professions. His feast day is celebrated on May 8 on the Eastern Catholic calendar, which also observes his death on Sept. 26.
While waiting for the 10 a.m. Mass to begin, some have found that friendly parishioners are most anxious to show visitors around their huge church. The interior is impressive with slim polished marble columns separating the nave from the aisles with a uniform d‚cor of flattened Gothic arches.
St. John is portrayed in the central stained glass window of the apse, with Mary at the foot of the cross. He also appears, sculpted with her, flanking the rood high above the altar and also to the right of the sanctuary. Scenes from his life adorn panels of the reredos.
There is an active parish life here, with many lay organizations and scheduled events. Five Masses are celebrated at St. John's on weekends.
Bath is a relaxing place to visit, with its many open spaces and long history. And the well-proportioned church of St. John the Evangelist is a dominating landmark, particularly in the evening when the tower and slender spire are floodlit.
Another fine way to appreciate the setting of the church is to have lunch in one of the shops on the historic Pulteney Bridge. From there the vista includes the placid Avon, its weir and the Parade Gardens against a backdrop of picturesque St. John's Church.