The first church to stand on the present site was the modest Gothic building that now serves as the Parish Hall. Built in 1837 on land given by Lord Petre, it accommodated a congregation of over 200. By the late 1850s the parish had outgrown this (by then, attendance at Mass often exceeded 500) and a Gothic church dedicated to St Helen was built on an adjacent site.
In 1917 Rome established a new diocese to cater for the growing population of Essex. St Helen’s, Brentwood, became its cathedral church. However, with congregations of around 800, the building had become totally inadequate either as a parish church or as a cathedral.
In 1974 a new cathedral was built, extending the Gothic church on the north side to form a multi-purpose building holding close on 1,000 people. Sadly, after only 15 years it became apparent that there were severe structural problems and that enormous sums of money would be required to restore the building. So the question of whether to build a completely new cathedral arose…
Through Divine Providence, substantial sums of money were given that made a new cathedral possible. The donors chose to remain anonymous and the money was given solely for this purpose. The architect, Quinlan Terry was commissioned to build the new church in the Classical style. Architecturally, he took his inspiration from the early Italian Renaissance crossed with the English Baroque of Christopher Wren. This, it was felt, would be appropriate for the town and its conservation area, but above all it would provide the right space and light for the liturgy to be celebrated. Work began in 1989 and was completed two years later.
The north elevation consists of nine bays each divided by Doric pilasters. This is broken by a huge half-circular portico, which was inspired by a similar one at St Paul’s. If you stand just in front of it, you get some idea of its giant scale! The Kentish ragstone walls have a natural rustic look, which contrasts with the smooth Portland stone of the capitals and column bases. The handmade traditional Smeed Dean vrick of the clerestory leads up to the octagonal lantern, or cupola, the high point both of the outside and inside.
It would be rare to find an ancient house, parish church, let along a cathedral, that doesn’t have a blend of styles. A conscious decision was taken to retain part of the Gothic revival church of 1861 alongside the new classical cathedral. The east elevation juxtaposes the old and the new, linking them through the scale of the 1991 building and the sympathetic use of ragstone and Welsh slate roof tiles.