A Short guide to Our Lady of the Wayside Church

A very warm welcome to this short guide to Our Lady of the Wayside Church situated in Shirley in the heart of the West Midlands. What follows, in many ways, is a guided tour of the church building itself but we must never forget that in reality the church is, in fact, the people of God. This year 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Father Paddy O’Mahony, parish priest of Our Lady of the Wayside from 1962 until 1991. In many ways the building itself is a reflection of his vision of not only what church is but perhaps more importantly of what the church is called to do. As you read this guide, therefore, please be aware of the simple truth that for Catholics the church, that is to say the people of God, is nothing less than the mystical body of Christ present in the world today. The building enables the people of God to come together so that they may worship him collectively but it should always, in addition to this, point to the deeper reality that Christ is always present in the world and never absent and that this includes all people and excludes no one.
Construction of the Church began in 1965 directly after The Second Vatican Council ended. Without going into too much detail the Council completely changed the way in which Catholics worshipped by emphasising how Christ is, actually, present in the midst of the worshipping community. Our Lady of the Wayside Church clearly expresses this new approach in both its design and build. However, the original Church, now the parish hall, was built in 1937 but the growing Catholic population in the area required something on a grander scale to meet its need and by its completion in 1966 this was clear for everyone in the area to see.
The architect was a local man by the name of Brian Rush and Our Lady of the Wayside was to be one of his earliest projects. He was helped in this process by the then parish priest one Father Paddy O’Mahony who was to remain in charge of the parish until 1991. I think it is fair to say that he was a larger than life character but hugely inspirational to all those who knew him and a man who definitely knew what he wanted. Hence he worked closely with Mr Rush in his plans to bring to life, in a physical and tangible form, the vision of the Second Vatican Council for God’s people in Shirley.

Now let us move on and explore the Church building itself. To get the most out of any visit to the parish Church of Our Lady of the Wayside it is best to enter the building through the main entrance located on the Stratford Road. Immediately you find yourself in a light filled Narthex or Porch. One of the first things you cannot help but notice is the abundance of plants to be found there. This is quite deliberate and is a main feature of the Church symbolising life and growth both in the natural world but equally also in our own lives of faith. On the left hand side, as you enter through the large glass doors, is a picture of Fr. O’Mahony and list of all those people who, in the early days, gave so generously to equip and beautify the new Church. As we pass the day chapel, again on the left hand side, we come across a piece of art which has proved to be so influential in my own life of faith that of ‘The Crucified Christ,’ built directly into the brick wall. It is stunning in both its simplicity and beauty and I would urge any visitor to take the time to reflect on its profound faith-filled meaning. The creator was a local artist, Walter Ritchie, based in Kenilworth. It was this very image, which inspired me to write the book, ‘Only in the Crucified God – Questions and Answers on Faith, Hope and Love.’ If you have the time it is also worthwhile, at this point, popping into the day chapel where you will find a life-sized framed sketch of ‘The Crucified Christ,’ presented as a gift by the artist to Fr. O’Mahony.  By the main door of the Church you will also find a striking sculpture of a murdered dove entitled, ‘Peace in Our Time.’ This was given to Fr. O’Mahony by its sculptor Angelo Bordonari, in tribute to his well-known work for justice and peace.

Now let us turn our attention to the right hand side of the Narthex as you enter the Church from the Stratford Road. Here you cannot help but notice the baptistery. At its heart is the font, made out of Portland stone, situated on what looks like a small island surrounded by flowing water. Carved on the side of the font are images from God’s creation both human and animal. The whole of the baptistery is encased with stained and painted glass designed by Tom Fairs. The aim is to depict in three pivotal scenes, moments in history when God intervened to save his people.

  1. The Passover of the Old Testament – seen in the symbols of the desert, a pillar of fire and the sea.
  2. The saving actions of Christ in the New Testament – seen in the tomb/womb, the cross and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The Resurrection – seen in a flash of light and energy along with the five wounds of Christ.

Around the font, itself is to be found a swirling cascade of running water, which reminds us of the living, life-filled water of baptism through which those who are baptised are given new life by Christ. Finally, behind the font but built into the fabric of the baptistery is a holder for the Paschal (Easter) Candle, a symbol of the Risen Christ, the Light of the world.

To complete our journey through the Narthex, opposite the baptistery you will find the Day Chapel. This is most often used for weekday masses for small groups. It does, however, afford a full view of the main church through a large window and has linked speakers so that families with young children can use it, if they wish, during the Sunday services. Around the walls of the Day Chapel can be found a variety of scenes, depicted in stained glass, reflecting on the various stages of life from birth to death. It is a place where you can sit down and be quiet, perhaps, spending time in silent prayer and reflection. At the Maundy Thursday Mass the Blessed Sacrament is reserved here and it becomes a place of devotion where the faithful can spend time with Christ on the night he was betrayed.

As we leave the Narthex we enter the main body of the Church through rather large sliding glass doors, which again serve to make everything as transparent as possible for the faithful. At this point it is worthwhile standing still for a while to take in the large space you are confronted with. Your eyes will inevitably be drawn to the huge figure of the ‘Risen Christ,’ which dominates this area, designed by Dame Elizabeth Frink 1930-993, one of the most famous women sculptors of the century. Once again, as with Brian Rush this must have been one of her earlier pieces of work. She was given the challenging task of showing the ‘Risen Christ’ who greeted the apostles and disciples after the Resurrection in a body somehow recognisably the same but in some mysterious way different, bearing the five wounds of the Passion. It is said that viewed from the left we can see the more Jewish aspects of Christ with a beard, whereas from the right he is seen more like someone from the Greek world wearing the laurel crown of victory. The New Testament especially in the writings of John and Paul represents Jesus from the Greek and the Hebrew points of view. All of this seeks to reveal that the God of Jesus Christ is the God who includes everyone and excludes no one. His victory over Satan, Sin and Death and his bursting forth from the tomb is something he shares with all people, for all time. This wonderful image of Christ still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion, yet coming in search of us, to find us, simply because he loves us, is what inspired me to write the book, ‘Sharing in the Life of God – a Journey Into the Real Meaning of Easter.’

Below the statue of the ‘Risen Christ’ we see the large altar made of a single block of Portland stone weighing no less than seven tons! On the front is inscribed words from both the Old and the New Testaments, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,’ a reference, once again, to God leaving no one out; the lettering was, incidentally, carved by Walter Ritchie the man who also created the ‘Crucified Christ’ in the Narthex. To the left and right of the altar stand two large ceramic altar candlesticks, made locally in Henley in Arden.

Behind the altar and growing up the wall towards the natural diffused light coming in above the sanctuary are many different types of plants, with their different texture and shape, first encountered in the Narthex. Once again we are reminded of the challenge given to us by Christ to grow constantly in our faith, never standing still but always on the move towards a greater love of him and of each other. The altar itself is positioned both carefully and deliberately so that the congregation is gathered on three sides creating a very real sense of community sharing together in the worship of the parish. In fact close to four hundred people can be accommodated very close to the sanctuary. At the back of the church is a gallery complete with cantilevered supports, useful for special occasions and the great festivals and solemnities when the Church is particularly crowded.

If you now stand on the sanctuary steps with your back to the altar and look right then high up on the wall you will find a beautiful icon of Mary holding her Son, Jesus. This stunning image portrays Mary as the mother of God and was commissioned by the then parish priest Fr. Gerardo Fabrizio to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Church. If you now take the time to look left you will be able to spot the Lady Chapel with its beautiful carved figure of Mary holding her Son close as she gazes out across the church. It was carved from a single block of teak wood by Walter Ritchie and depicts Mary clasping to her breast the naked and vulnerable Christ child. Just like the image of the ‘Crucified Christ’ in the Narthex this remarkable work of art deserves to be treated with dignity, respect and devotion as it draws us deeply into the Gospel narrative of the God who, once again, comes in search of us. The humility of ‘Mother and Child,’ of humanity and divinity found in this image eventually became the inspiration for my first book, ‘Born for Us – A Journey into the Real Meaning of Christmas.’ Carved into the brickwork behind ‘Mother and Child’ is a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, ‘Men are meant to share her life as does air, if I have understood, she holds, high motherhood.’ Finally, if you look carefully behind the side altar in the Lady Chapel you will see some stained and painted glass by Tom Fairs, which suggests by its shapes and colours fruits, recalling Mary, Mother of God, as honoured in the prayer, ‘Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,’ (Luke 1:42) and the fruits of the Holy Spirit as described by Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 5:22)

Looking at the Church as a whole, natural materials are used in a simple and pleasing way; brick for the walls, glass for the windows, stone for the sanctuary, wood for the floor and ceiling. The effect is to make everything as transparent as possible. As a result from the inside you can catch glimpses of the outside world, whilst on the outside you can catch glimpses of what takes place within. The effect is for the Church to be a conduit connecting the world with God’s people by offering a place where not only worship can happen but where everyone is made to feel welcome. In many ways it reminds me of the painting, ‘The Last Supper,’ by the artist Salvador Dali, which serves to remind humanity that the Church only exists to make Christ known and that this should be clearly visible for all to see by not only by what we do but how we do it. In the end what we find at Our Lady of the Wayside is a remarkable building with an atmosphere of beauty, harmony and peace, which even after all these years, continues to speak to the human spirit of the things of God.

A Personal Reflection to Finish

I first walked in through the doors of Our Lady of the Wayside Church in 1993 and I was ordained to the permanent diaconate there on 23rd May 2004 by Bishop Philip Pargeter. There have been many times since when I have reflected, personally, on the importance and meaning of the Church building for me. Then when I came to the end of my recent three-book project I found myself, once again, reflecting on what the Church building meant to me. So finally, I share here the three main influences, which were so instrumental in my writing. The first concerns the Narthex or the porch of the Church. This for me is where everything begins both physically and spiritually. We physically enter the Church from the Stratford Road as we step through the impressive glass doors and our spiritual journey begins when we are baptised at the font in the baptistery. Here we become members of the Church, the body of Christ on earth and receive his most precious gift of new life. Pausing at the ‘The Crucified Christ,’ we call to mind the words of our Lord as he journeys with us through life, ‘Anyone who would be a follower of mine must take up his cross and follow me.’ (Matthew 16:24) How true those words are as each of us calls to mind the struggles we all have in just living. Yet this is the pattern for all of us that the cross always comes before the resurrection. Through the glass doors in front of us, however, we can see the resurrected Lord, above the altar, bursting out of the tomb still bearing the wounds of his cruel death. As we enter the main body of the Church our eyes cannot help but focus on the ‘Risen Christ,’ the God who knows our pain and suffering because he has shared directly in them, comes in search of us, to find us because he loves us. Beneath this victorious figure is the impressive altar where the Mass is celebrated so that God can share his life with us, where once again the brokenness of the Crucified God will heal the world and in so doing restore his people to the fullness of life. Little wonder, therefore, that the only response to this is to fall to our knees.

So to end, I share three experiences of my own with you. The first comes from my encounter with Mary and her Son Jesus, carved out of a single block of teak wood in the Lady Chapel. Here we find the figure of an ordinary woman and her child emerging out of the harsh reality of life. To say, ‘yes’ to God could not have been easy for such a young girl and the price she had to pay would be a high one that would cost her much but despite this she was still able to say, ‘Be it unto me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38) It was this encounter with Our Lord through the bravery, love and absolute devotion of his Mother that inspired me to write my first book, ‘Born for Us – A Journey into the Real Meaning of Christmas.’ In particular I refer to chapter thirteen, ‘Our Lady of the Wayside – who are you?’ which emerged out of a deep period of prayer and reflection before this striking, intimate and extremely moving figure of Mary and her Son. I would draw your attention, in particular, to the way in which the child Jesus clings, lovingly, to the neck of his Mother and the way she, in turn, holds her close to him. It is as if the two can never be separated and it occurred to me that this is how God regards our relationship with him.

For my second experience I would take you back into the Narthex to stand in front of the ‘Crucified Christ’ so clearly falling out of the wall in absolute agony. Once again, this image spoke so profoundly and powerfully to me in so far as it said that there was literally nothing that God was not prepared to go through for us. Yet that was not all, there was something else, which punctured my heart and compelled me to write my second book, ‘Only in the Crucified God – Questions and Answers on Faith, Hope and Love,’ and it is this, that Christ shares everything we experience, every pain, every tear, every stumble, every fall – there is nothing that God, through his Son, does not share in directly with us. This is nothing less than the Crucified God, the God who comes in search of us, the God who will not stop until he finds each and every single one of us, the God who is willing to pay any price and do literally anything, for one reason and one reason only because he loves us more than we could ever know!

Now we come to my final experience, which is an encounter with the Risen Lord. Time really needs to be spent in the presence of God simply allowing him to love us. The figure of the ‘Risen Christ,’ still bearing those terrible wounds, served to remind me of something but equally became the source of what I can only describe as a revelation. The wounds call to mind, that what happened to Jesus was real, he suffered and he died. However, through his resurrection those same wounds are transformed, they do not disappear but are changed by God’s love, which is more powerful than hate and stronger than death. The resurrection of Christ is about life not death and it is life, God’s life that He offers to us, now. Putting it another way through the resurrection of his Son from the dead God invites us to participate in his resurrected life in the here and now. It was this realisation that inspired me to write the book, the final one in the series, ‘Sharing in the Life of God – A Journey into the Real Meaning of Easter.’

In our busy and hectic lives it can be tempting and so easy not to take the time to stop and just be present in the moment. The parish Church of Our Lady of the Wayside provides those who visit it with the opportunity to step out of the demands of everyday life and to just experience the love of God. For me, the truth is that God is closer to us than we could ever imagine and loves us more than we could ever know. This same God is always present, never absent, just waiting for us to feel and experience his all-embracing love. Why not therefore pay us a visit and spend some time in the presence of the God of absolute and unconditional love, after all who knows what might happen?

This now brings my journey to an end, at least for now, but who knows what God might hold in store for the future? In conclusion though what I would say is this. Please come and visit us at Our Lady of the Wayside where everyone is more than welcome, you never know, it might just change your life!

May Our Lady of the Wayside, pray for us all now and always.

Deacon Sean

Summer 2021