(Although St. Benet’s has a north-south orientation, we follow the customary description of a church which places the altar at the east end.)
Approaching the church you see the statue of St. Benet above the west door. He is holding St. Peter’s church, being founder of that church and monastery in 675 AD. This statue was erected in 1950 to replace the original one damaged in the Second World War.
As you enter you will be struck by the spaciousness of the church with its high pine ceiling, large windows, and graceful arches and columns of Bath stone. Around the walls are paintings of the Stations of the Cross, copies of ones exhibited in the Vatican at an exhibition in the 1890’s. Placed in the church in 1900, they were cleaned and restored in 1980-83, The benches which seat over 700 people are after the design of those in Cambridge cathedral.
On your right is a door leading to the sacristy corridor and monastery. On either side are carved heads: on the right the face of the church’s founder, Fr. Jules Du Floer, and on the left that of our patron St. Benet.
As you move down the south aisle you will notice small crosses and candle brackets on the wall. These mark the consecration of the church in 1960. You also pass a confessional on which there are wooden carvings of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and St. Alphonsus taken from the pulpit which was removed in 1983.
Just before the statue of St. Joseph is a stained glass window, its centre panel depicting the meeting of Jesus with his mother on his way to Calvary , on the left is the Adoration of the Magi and on the right Jesus blessing children. In the early days of the church there was a shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus beneath this window,
Next on the left is the door to the sacristy and above it a gallery added when the sacristy was enlarged in 1909.
The entrance to the chapel ahead of you marks the east end of the original church before the enlargement in which the church was also lengthened by 35 feet, providing a new sanctuary and two side chapels.
This chapel, flanked by the statues of St. Patrick and St. Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists, is dedicated to the Redemptorist brother St. Gerard Majella, and was designated a Memorial Chapel in 1919. On the right pillar are the names of the parishioners who died in the First World War and on the left those of the Second. Above the altar are etchings in gilt of armaments of war. As well as the statue of St. Gerard there is, in niche on the right, one of St. Clement Hofbauer who brought the Redemptorists over the Alps from Italy to Northern Europe.
Coming round the sanctuary steps to the centre, you see the High Altar beneath a stained glass window depicting Saints Cuthbert, Alphonsus, Benet and Patrick.
The altar, made in Fr. Du Floer’s native country at Antwerp , is of Caen stone with marble pillars. The carving on the right side of the screen depicts Moses and the Israelites gathering the manna from heaven, with the text “This is the bread that the Lord has given you. Exodus 16.15.” On the left side are Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper with the words, “Take and eat: this is my body. Matthew 26.26 .” The text below reads, “O Sacred Banquet at which Christ is received.”
Above the tabernacle is the Crucifixion. with Our Lady, St. John and kneeling Mary Magdalen. There are many angels, and on the front of the altar is Our Lord on the seat of judgement with emblems of the four evangelists and the text from Apocalypse 22.13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
The new marble altar facilitating Mass said “facing the people” was erected in 1983 when the sanctuary was brought forward by some 18 feet. This new area is that of the original sanctuary when the church was built.
Bear this in mind as you look up and see groups of angels on the broad pillars marking the sanctuary holding banners proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy,” together with one playing a harp and another a trumpet. The pillars at this end of the church are decorated with foliage and with ten carved heads. Eight are of Saints Cuthbert, Bede, Patrick, Benet, Margaret of Scotland, Oswin, Cecilia and Gregory. One is of Leo XIII who was Pope when the church was built, The tenth one has not been identified.
Near the base of the left hand pillar is the foundation stone with the inscription, “A.M.D.G. (To the greater glory of God) In honour of St. Benedict Biscop this stone was blessed by his Lordship Thomas Wilkinson Auxiliary Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle on 28th July 1888 .” Behind it are copies of the Sunderland Echo and other local papers, with coins of the time and a description of the occasion.
Now turn round and look down the church. The porch and gallery are made of the same pine as the ceiling and wall panelling. Originally the whole organ, dating from 1900, was in the gallery. In 1924 when it was renovated the pipes were divided and placed over the side aisles to reveal the fine latticed window.
Statues of Our Lady and St. Therése of Lisieux flank the chapel of Our Lady on the left of the sanctuary. The stained glass window represents her Assumption into heaven. The icon on the altar is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the original of which is in the church of the Redemptorists in Rome who promote devotion to her under this title throughout the world. The altar was renewed and the chapel clad in marble in 1940.
As you make your way down the aisle you see the Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Before it is a brass candle stand donated by parishioners in 1949 in thanksgiving for their preservation and in memory of their war dead. In the original church there was a shrine to Our Lady under the window. Further down the aisle you pass a confessional with carved figures of St. Benet (right) and St. Bede (left).
You conclude your visit at the end of the aisle by the notice boards. This is the original site of the baptistry where a large stone font (now in the monastery garden) stood behind iron railings. There is a cupboard in the wall where the baptism oils were kept. In days of high infant mortality babies were often baptised shortly after birth with only the father, priest and godparents present. In 1973 the Vatican directed that baptism should take place where a large number of people could gather. It is now celebrated before family and friends at a font on the sanctuary.