Holy Rood Church was built as a result of the dedication and generosity of Mr Stephen Taprell Holland, who paid for the church to be built.
Stephen Taprell Holland (b. 1843) was a partner in the building firm of Winslow and Holland, based in Bloomsbury. He was an active local citizen even before becoming a religious benefactor, acting as a trustee of the district hospital, serving as a local magistrate and as Colonel of the Watford District Rifle Corps. His other business interest was serving as a director of the London & North Western Railways company.
Stephen Taprell Holland was not born into a Catholic family but became a convert in middle age. In thanksgiving for his conversion, Holland decided to build a church and acquired a prime site close to the centre of Watford for this purpose. The site was acquired jointly with Dominican Sisters from Harrow to allow for the development of a church, a convent, a presbytery and a school. Stephen Taprell Holland paid all of the costs of building the church, school and presbytery, a sum in the region of £35,000 at the time.
Stephen Taprell Holland died at his home on 9th December 1922, following a short illness. He lies in the churchyard of St John’s Church, Aldenham, near his home.
The architect employed to build the church was John Francis Bentley. Bentley was a Non-Conformist who had converted to Catholicism in his early twenties.
Bentley had been apprenticed to the building firm of Winslow and Holland at 16. His interest in church design led him to be introduced to the architect Henry Clutton. In 1860, Bentley was offered a partnership with Clutton which he refused, and set up his own practice.
Much of the work he performed from this point onwards was with churches, including the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, London and St Francis of Assisi in Pottery Lane, Notting Hill. Bentley started planning Holy Rood church in 1889 and continued working on the project at various times for twelve years. By 1894, he had been commissioned to build the new cathedral at Westminster.
Bentley was commissioned to build Holy Rood when he was fifty and was not curtailed by expense. He designed one of the loveliest Victorian churches in Britain. An outstanding example of Bentley’s architectural talent, its furnishings also illustrate the depth of his abilities in diverse areas such as the design of woodwork, painting and stained glass. A memorial to Bentley can be found in the church, above the inner doorway leading to Market Street.
Bentley produced the plans for Holy Rood in 1889 with Canon Keans laying the foundation stone of the building, on behalf of Cardinal Manning, on 29th August. It opened in mid September 1890, by the Rt. Rev. William Weathers, Bishop of Amyela.
When opened, the church was not in the impressive completed condition that it is today. It had a temporary High Altar and none of the impressive stained glass present today had been fitted. Bentley also deliberately left the side chapels unfinished to allow the parishioners to provide the side altars and so take a meaningful part in the building of their church.
It is interesting to consider the description that Bentley himself provided of the church:
“The church when completed will fairly represent an old English church of the Hertfordshire district prior to the Reformation; though it is in no way a copy of any particular church. He believed it was the largest example of a Rood erected in this country since Edward VI ordered that all such should be destroyed and burnt”
Fr Ryan became the first priest at Holy Rood, on loan from Ireland. Later in 1893 when recalled to Ireland by his bishop, he was replaced by Fr Thomas Roche. However after only a few months, Fr George Cox took over until 1895 when Fr Thomas Regan was appointed.
At this time, Bentley began to build the tower, baptistry and chapel of the Holy Ghost and the north aisle. Cardinal Vaughan laid the tower’s foundation stone in May 1894. The temporary high altar was finally replaced by the present altar and tabernacle in 1899. Also in 1899, the original gas lighting of the church was replaced with electricity, while retaining Bentley’s original gilded bronze pendants. Finally, the tower, baptistry, Holy Ghost chapel and north aisle were completed in 1900.
Consecration of the church took place on 5th of July 1900, with the Right Rev. Bishop Brindle officiating on behalf of Cardinal Vaughan. Although Stephen Taprell Holland was present at the consecration, sadly the architect, John Francis Bentley was not, being seriously ill at the time.
(Adapted from “Church Of The Holy Rood, Watford. A History and Description of the Church” by R. Bennett and J.E. Wright, 1989, ISBN 0-9515046-0-6)