17 May 2018

Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St Denis, Portslade

Judy Middleton 2002 (revised 2021)

copyright © G.Osborne
A.W. Wardell of Brighton took this fine photograph of the church and presbytery shortly after all building work was completed in 1913.
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 

Early Days

In the days before the church was built, Roman Catholics living in Portslade had to make do with Mass being celebrated in a number of different rooms. In 1885 there was a Mass Centre in Trafalgar Road, but it did not last long.

Bishop Bourne, later Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, asked the newly founded order of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God to open a house at Portslade, and to try and do something for the local Catholics. The nuns established the St Marye's Convent at Portslade Manor in April 1904, the property having been purchased on their behalf by Miss Kathleen Nelson. It was the sisters’ chaplain, Father Whelan of the Order of Charity, who made the first attempt at creating a place for the Roman Catholics in Portslade. He used to celebrate Mass at 10 a.m. on the first Sunday of the month at a laundry in Norway Street that was owned by a Catholic Frenchwoman.
copyright © D.Sharp
Father Kerwin's former home in Drove Road 
next to St Marye's Convent

In 1909 Father Kerwin arrived in Portslade, and took up residence in Manor Cottages (now numbered 18 and 20 Drove Road). The household consisted of the priest, his housekeeper and a live-in maid. It may have been the necessity of keeping the living accommodation separate that led to the two cottages having three staircases.

Father Kerwin set about finding premises where Mass could be celebrated on a regular basis. At first he established a temporary chapel at 82 St Leonard’s Road, Hove, and Mass was celebrated there for four weeks until more spacious premises became available. This was a large, double room at 45A North Street, Portslade, adjoining the Clarence Inn. The chapel was named after St Aldhelm, an Anglo-Saxon saint, who has been described as England’s first librarian.

copyright © G. Moore
The earliest long term 'Mass Centre' was in the Assembly Rooms next to the Clarence Inn
These Assembly Rooms were converted into a chapel and named after St Aldhelm.
North Street at this time was Portslade main shopping and commercial area, all the buildings in this road have long since been demolished.

Father Kerwin went about his duties riding his trusty bicycle. He also owned a Buick motor car, but this was reserved for special occasions.

Catherine Broderick

It was to Father Kerwin that Mrs Catherine Broderick came with the idea of donating enough money to enable a church to be built. Her husband Denis, died in 1911, and it was his last wish that a church should be built for Portslade Catholics – hence the church’s dedication to Our Lady and St Denis. The Brodericks both had an Irish background, and Catherine was born in very poor circumstances. When she met her future husband, she was unable to read or write, but later taught herself the necessary skills. Denis and Catherine went on to build a successful business life, and acquired a fortune through their trade in silks. No children were born to them, and so the Brodericks dedicated their wealth to building Catholic churches, the impressive final tally being nine churches. At Portslade, besides the church, Catherine also paid for the Catholic School (still flourishing to this day as St Mary’s School) and the Presbytery next door to the church, where the priest lived.

The New Church

copyright © G.Osborne
This photograph c1920 shows a wall built around the Presbytery and there is also a half round structure at the east end of the flat roofed extension forming an apse for the new Lady Chapel. 
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 

Father Kerwin had the choice of two sites – one at the foot of Worcester Villas, Hove, and the other in Church Road, Portslade. Father Kerwin chose the latter site because he thought it offered a more commanding position; he also fully expected a new road to be built across what is now Vale Park, to link up with Franklin Road and New Church Road and thus provide a direct route from Hove to Southwick. Indeed, the tower and copper spire did provide a focal point throughout the length of New Church Road for those travelling westwards.

copyright © G.Osborne
In this early 1920s photograph the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis is visible from New Church Road Hove and Franklin Road Portslade. 
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 

There seems to have been a disagreement between Father Kerwin and Catherine Broderick, because whereas she had offered £4,000 originally, this was later reduced to £3,000. This meant that the church was never faced with flint, as was intended, but ended up with rough-coat exterior – popularly called pebbledash. Father Benedict Williamson was responsible for designing the church in a Gothic / Romanesque style.

On 12 October 1911 the foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Southwark, the Right Reverend Peter Emmanuel Amigo.
On 28 July 1912 the new church was officially opened, and Father Oscar Leake, a newly ordained priest, sang the Missa de Angelis. The new Church could seat a congregation of 300.

The Sussex Daily News commented ‘the interior of the edifice is lofty, the light well diffused and not too intense, and the symmetry of the structure was on this occasion admirably set off by the numerous body of worshippers’.


copyright © G.Osborne
This photograph was taken shortly after the church was open in 1912, the walls as yet not covered with paintings.
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 

Although the church’s exterior was strictly utilitarian, it was more than compensated for by the richness of the interior.
copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries 
A close up of the richly adorned High Altar and the sanctuary screen 
made from wrought iron.

Mr Fonteneau, a French carpenter and native of Brittany, who lived in the parish, built the wooden baldacchino. It was richly painted in red, blue and gold, and above it hung a large crucifix.

George Greed, who also lived locally, made the sanctuary screen – the design owing its inspiration to an Italian church Father Kerwin discovered while on a walking holiday. He was so impressed with the ironwork that he copied the design, and commissioned the screen when he returned. At the same time as Greed was working on the screen, he was also engaged in repairing or replacing some of the iron girders at the Palace Pier, Brighton.

There were six stained-glass windows depicting saints and a small, round window above the altar.

The walls were bright with paintings by Nathaniel Westlake (1833-1921). 

Although Westlake was noted for his work in designing stained glass, he was also responsible for some church paintings. The Portslade paintings were not murals, but were painted on canvas that was later attached to the walls in a method known as marouflage. There were large paintings of the twelve apostles, six on either side of the nave.

Stylised flowers decorated the arches from the capitals of the stone pillars, while the spandrels of the windows had their share of Art Deco flowers.

copyright © G.Osborne
This photograph serves as a sad reminder of the beautiful interior, now sadly lost.
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 

Lady Chapel

copyright © J.Middleton
A concealed window in the roof of the apse cleverly lit the statue of 
Our Lady in the lovely Lady Chapel. 
 (wall paintings were added at a later date)

The Lady Chapel was particularly rich in decoration, with the predominant colours being blue and gold with some red tendrils. The paintings depicted the Archangel Gabriel on the left, and St Catherine of Siena on the right. Above the arch there was a scene representing the Virgin Mary, as a child, being presented in the Temple, accompanied by her parents St Anne and St Joachim, who were standing lower down the flight of steps.

The statue of Our Lady was cleverly lit by natural light emanating from a small, hidden window above her. The statue, modelled on the famous one at Lourdes, arrived at Portslade in around 1921. The box containing the statue was carried ceremoniously into the church, and the children came up to kiss her before she was set in place above the altar.

copyright © G.Osborne
In this c1914 photograph, the buildings in Church Road from left to right:- St Mary's School, The Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis, the Presbytery, St Andrew's vicarage and St Andrew's Church
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph  from his private collection. 


The organ was located in the choir gallery at the west end of the church. The organ could only be played with the assistance of an individual vigorously pumping air into it. Little Willie Johnson performed this duty in the 1920s. Mr Goad was the organist, and he lived in Carlton Terrace.


A coke stove at the back of the church attempted to heat the building in the winter. It also belched forth fumes, but fortunately the incense masked the smell.


The church possessed one bell weighing 4 cwt. Messrs Mears & Stainbank cast the bell in 1930, and it was named Francis. The bell bore the inscription Mater Dei Ora Pro Nobis (Mother of God pray for us).

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
This historic photograph dating from around 1914 shows long-vanished parts of Portslade. The Britannia Flour Mills stand at the centre with a ship at the wharf, the Crown Inn with the Tamplin's Ales sign is on the right, the Star Model Laundry is on the left. 
The spire of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, is visible and being on the highest point of Church Road would have been a location bearing for sailors and fishermen out at sea ('a guiding star')

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Brighton Herald 2 May 1914 - a concert in aid of the Catholic Church
in Portslade at the Great Hall of Hove Town Hall

First World War

copyright © G.Osborne
The double gabled roof of the 'new school'
next to the Church in 1914. 
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting
 permission for the reproduction of the
 above photograph. 
In September 1914 a most notable event occurred in the life of the Parish. On hearing of hundreds of Belgian refugees arriving in English ports fleeing the German invasion, Father Kerwin invited 47 refugees to stay in the new St Mary’s School (built in 1913). Father Kerwin, with members of the congregation, improvised mattresses from calico sheets and hay to be placed in the school’s classrooms. He also organised the installation of bathrooms and kitchens in the school for the refugees.

Father Kerwin gave up the presbytery for use as a collection depot where the Parish received donated clothes, furniture, children's toys, vegetables and fruit from Portslade’s allotment holders and meat from a local butcher. By the end of September 1914, 154 refugees were housed in the school and at the end of October this number had risen to over 300.

Fr Kerwin used his Parish's buildings as temporary accommodation for the refugees until he could find homes for them in Portslade, Hangleton, Southwick, Hove and Brighton.

  copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
One of the groups of Belgian refugees that stayed at St Mary’s School, 
which included the Very Revd Canon Henry Otto of Malines (Mechelen) Cathedral (seated) and 
Baroness Beyens (standing in centre) wife of Baron Beyens, the former  Belgian Ambassador to Germany.
 (In 1921 Baron Beyens was appointed Ambassador to Pope Benedict XV and in 1922 to Pope Pius XI)
 The Very Revd Canon Otto was later found accommodation at the Convent of Our Lady of Sion in Worthing 
and Baroness Beyens moved to Hove and served on the Belgian Local Relief & Refugee Committee
copyright ©  Royal Pavilion &
Museums, Brighton & Hove

When news reached Hove Council and Brighton Council of the remarkable humanitarian work that Father Kerwin had instigated by bringing refugees to Portslade, the respective Councils’ Mayors formed the ‘Belgian Local Relief and Refugee Committee’ which took over Father Kerwin’s initiative with a higher level of fund raising, more options for housing and job creation for the refugees.

In the official war time (1914-18) publications of Hove Council,
St Mary's School was referred to as the 'Portslade Hostel for Belgian Refugees'.

During the course of the Great War over 250,000 Belgian refugees sort refuge in the UK.

Father J. Kerwin died aged 70 in 1941.

See also Belgian Refugees in Portslade for more information.

 copyright © J.Middleton
St Mary's Catholic Primary School, Church Road, Portslade in August 2018

There was a small brass plate fixed to the wall of the Church, which read ‘Pray for the soul of John Tew, for twenty years an altar server’. He was killed in action in 1916. Since his name does not appear on the Portslade War Memorial, it must be assumed he was not a native of this place. Although Tew is a comparatively rare surname, there are several Tews in the national war records, together with the name of their regiments. But we do not know to which regiment the altar server belonged.

Corpus Christi

copyright © G.Osborne 
St Marye's Convent and Chapel in the 1950s
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph from his private collection.  

In June the Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated with much solemity. A large procession of people used to walk from Our Lady, Star of the Sea, via Church Road, Trafalgar Road, Locks Hill and Manor Road to St Marye’s Convent, where a special service was held. It was not just an occasion for the Portslade Catholics, but for everyone in the district.

The young girls were decked out in dresses of white broderie anglaise, washed and starched at the convent. Children, who had just made their First Communion at the age of seven or eight, were given the task of strewing rose petals in front of the monstrance.

 copyright © D.Sharp
In this unique photograph taken from 81 Trafalgar Road in the late 1940s, the Corpus Christi procession can be seen passing the Battle of Trafalgar on its way to St Marye’s Convent. At the front of procession are acolytes with a processional cross and candles, followed by young children, a group of nuns, a large group of girls in white dresses supervised by a nun and the monstrance and canopy is just coming into view.
 A policeman is standing in the middle of the road with his bicycle to stop any cars coming out from Victoria Road and the shops in Trafalgar Road are hanging out bunting and flags to mark this special day.

The tradition of the procession was still going strong in the 1950s and early 1960s, and police were on duty especially to ensure the safety of the people as the procession crossed the Old Shoreham Road at Southern Cross.

copyright © J.Middleton
   A view of Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis from Trafalgar Road in the 1930s

The 1940s and 1950s

Portslade was not declared a Catholic Parish until 1943, and so Father Thomas Hayes was officially the first parish priest.
copyright © D.Sharp
St Theresa of Lisieux, Southwick.

In 1957 a new pulpit was installed, and a new set of crib figures arrived at the church. These crib figures were purchased as part of the memorial to those killed in the Second World War. The previous crib figures were restored, and donated to St Theresa’s Church, Southwick.

In the 1950s there was a staff of three priests – Father Henry Lewis, Father John O’Byrne, and Father Michael Albon; they were responsible for services at the Portslade church, the Southwick one, the chapel at the convent and the Mass Centre at Mile Oak (held in the Community Hall).

Father Lewis was the driving force behind the building of St Theresa’s Church at Southwick, and he was also oversaw the enlarging of St Mary’s School.

copyright © G.Osborne
Church Road in the 1930s
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph from his private collection.  

The 1960s and 1970s

By the 1960s there was a feeling that soon the Portslade church would become a chapel-of-ease because of the population shift to Mile Oak. In March 1964 a Mile Oak fund was started, and it was envisaged that a new Catholic church could be built either at Mile Oak, or possibly in the field south of Easthill Park.

In the 1970s the interior of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, and St Denis, was given a severe dose of simplicity when the walls were whitewashed. The historic paintings by Nathaniel Westlake were taken away – either because it was too costly to restore them, or because Father Ruane was in favour of a plainer interior.


In April 1991 Catholic parishioners were given a vote to decide on the future of the two churches because apparently it was financially impossible to keep both of them going. There were 49 votes to close St Theresa’s, while 186 people voted to close Our Lady, Star of the Sea.

In May 1992 plans were submitted to Hove Council to demolish the church, and build a two-storey block of six flats on the site.

However, in July 1992 there was anger when it was discovered the church authorities had informed Hove Council that the church was redundant, when in fact there was a congregation of 150 people. An action group was set up to fight against the demolition of the church, and 700 people signed a petition to save it. But by August 1992 the battle was lost because a letter from Rome arrived with the news that the ‘Pope and Holy See are not competent to intervene in such matters’. There was still anger that a well-loved building, gifted to the people of Portslade, should have been taken away from them.

The last service at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, and St Denis, was conducted on 26 July 1992. It was a very sad occasion when the congregation, many of them in tears, watched the de-consecration ceremonies, and the stripping of the church. Demolition work started the very next day – the phrase ‘undue haste’ comes to mind. A small, round window from above the altar was preserved, and placed in the Mass Centre on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The cost of demolishing the church and presbytery was put at £10,450, which had to come from church funds. There was also the cost of refurbishing the church hall to become a Mass Centre (in fact, back to square one) and it was likely to cost £50,000.

Bird lovers were also sad at the demolishment. This was because for the previous four years a pair of kestrels had nested on the church roof, raising a family each time.

copyright © J.Middleton
These houses were built in 1994 on the site of the demolished church.

The Past and Present

The Roman Catholic community of Portslade has probably the oldest continuous history in the City of Brighton and Hove with its historic links to St Nicolas Church, which was Roman Catholic for nearly 400 years before the Reformation, after which secret meetings in a 'house church' would have to be made.

St Nicolas is the second oldest and the only church building in the City of the early medieval period never to be closed throughout its history by ruin or dilapidation or depopulation, as was the case of St Helen’s Hangleton, the oldest church building in the City. 

copyright © D.Sharp
Our Lady's Mass Centre, Vale Gardens, Portslade.

It may seem that it is ‘back to square one’ to go from the Mass Centre (North Street) to the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Denis and then back to a Mass Centre (Vale Gardens). If the long view of Portslade’s history is taken into account, the Catholic community have always seemed to be on a cyclical path in the case of church buildings, the Mass Centre has now closed down, maybe a new Church building in the future ?

copyright © D.Sharp
The former 'Our Lady's Mass Centre', (the low building next to the white school building)

The Roman Catholic community of Portslade now comes under the Parish of St Theresa of Lisieux and St George, which serves the communities of  Southwick, Portslade, Hangleton and West Blatchington

Additional research by D. Sharp. 

See also St Marye's Convent Portslade


Lewis, Revd Henry M. Catholic Portslade, Past and Present
Middleton J, Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Parish of St Theresa of Lisieux and St George

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Thanks are due to Mr G. Osborne for allowing me to reproduce ten of his wonderful photographs  

Copyright © J.Middleton 2018 
page layout by D.Sharp