Gunnerton, Northumberland – St Christopher

On Tuesday 1 September I went over to Gunnerton, where they have a railway club that meets in St Christopher’s Church. I had been invited to give my talk on John Wilson Carmichael, and it seems to have been well-received. Typing this blog, I thought I had better go and get the OS map to check its grid reference, then went on the church website – and the reference is given to me (NY905750). It also tells me the church is 109 metres above sea level. Pontelandstmary tells you the grid references, but does not tell you the height above sea level! There are some good photos on the Chollerton site too.

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The church was designed by John C. Hawes. The church website says he became an Anglican priest, then a Catholic priest and finally a hermit. A sentence like that intrigues me, so one does a bit more digging. This website is about his work in Australia, and this blogpost writes about his spirituality.

John Cyril Hawes was born on 7 September 1876 in Richmond, and went to school at King’s School, Canterbury. It was evident he had a flair for visual art and in 1893 upon completing his schooling Hawes commenced an architectural ‘apprenticeship’ in a London commercial architect firm. During this time he also learned several other art forms including sculpture and stained glasswork.

According to the church website, in February 1898 Hawes had started work on the model of an imaginary church: it was placed on display in the foyer of the Royal Academy in London, and it was judged to be of “outstanding quality”.  The publicity was to bring him his first commission – a new church at Gunnerton for the then vicar of Chollerton, Bishop Hornby, who was to become Bishop of Nassau. Hawes commented in 1948 that “my village church is as good as I ever did”. It was through this project that Hawes came to study for the priesthood at Lincoln Theological College and in 1903 he was ordained as an Anglican Deacon in St Paul’s Cathedral. Apparently he worked in Clerkenwell in London and then on Caldey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast. (We were having a discussion yesterday about whether a Ministerial Development review should include the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years times?” “Well Mr Hawes, you’re working well in Clerkenwell. Where do you see yourself in five years time? … Caldey Island …”)

At the age of thirty two Hawes commenced a short period of missionary work in the Bahamas where, in addition to acting as a minister, he was charged with the task of repairing several hurricane damaged churches. I am beginning to feel that northernvicar needs to go to the Bahamas. Hawes left the Bahamas after just one year and began his journey with Catholicism, he  converted in New York in 1911. Just four years later he was ordained a Catholic Priest in Rome. He then went to Australia, and arrived on the Continent at the beginning of November 1915. In a letter home to England he described the climate as far too hot to do anything except “flop around struggling to exist”.

The following year he began work on St Francis Xavier Cathedral in Geraldton, Western Australia. The first stage of the cathedral was completed in 1918 but then work was halted until 1926 and it was another twelve years before the cathedral was completed and officially opened. Here is the Cathedral’s website. During his time in the Mid West of Australia he “was responsible for an astounding body of work throughout the region. His creations ranged from basic corrugated iron structures like St Patrick’s church in Wonthella Geraldton, to the unique design of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Mullewa or the grand structure of Nazareth House Convent perched on the edge of Champion Bay in Geraldton. There is little doubt that Hawes’ work in the region has contributed, and will continue to contribute to the vibrancy of the local build landscape.” There is a book about his work called The Builder Priest – details here – it doesn’t seem as if Cambridge University Library stocks it. Northernvicar will have to go to Australia.


In 1939 Monsignor Hawes left for Cat Island in the Bahamas – he was never to return. He designed and built the Mount Alvernia Hermitage on Como Hill at Cat Island which became his home. Along with the hermitage, he also designed and built five churches on the island as well as a second church at Clarence Town, St Peter’s – yet he is better known as a hermit. Hawes died on 26 June 1956 in Miami, Florida, aged 79 and at his own request was buried in a cave located beneath the hermitage at Cat Island. Northernvicar really, really needs to go to the Bahamas, to follow in the footsteps of the hermit, Father Jerome. What an amazing journey from Gunnerton!

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Back in Northumberland – the church was renovated and is now able to be used for all sorts of things. Although the entrance is stepped, there is flat access at the east end and a disabled loo. Nice little kitchen, but it still feels like a church.

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The west window was installed in 2013. It was designed by William Tillyer to fit the grid designed by John Hawes. The glass was cut by Mike Davis and installed by Cate Watkinson, both of Sunderland University (Cate designed our window at Milbourne). A good evening – and a lovely drive back.

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