ON Friday, one of Middlesbrough’s most striking buildings celebrates its 100th anniversary.

It looks like a continental cathedral standing amid the early 20th Century suburbs of the Linthorpe Road area and that’s because it was designed by the man who rebuilt the Belgian town of Ypres after it was reduced to rubble during the First World War.

(Image: Peter Loughlin) Sacred Heart Church, Middlesbrough

It is the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Philomena – to give it its Sunday name, although it has been known simply as Sacred Heart Church since the early 1960s – and it was designed by Belgian architect Jules Coomans who based it on an abbey church in Bruges.

In 1895, Coomans became the city architect of Ypres, which has medieval roots – its famous Cloth Hall, for instance, dates to the 13th Century. His major project was to restore Ypres’ old buildings.

He had just about finished the project in 1914, when the war broke out. An accident of geography placed the town at the centre of trench warfare for four years, and when peace arrived, no building survived above head-height.

Cloth Hall at the centre of Ypres was reduced to rubble, like the rest of the town, by the fighting of the First World War

Winston Churchill advocated leaving it like that as a “holy ground”, a warning to subsequent generations of what war could do, but Coomans wished to bring his beloved town back to life.

Not new life, as some Belgians were advocating creating an ultra-modern town, but reconstructing it as it had been – and because of his previous project, he had the plans showing how it had been. The mayor of Ypres and then King Albert of the Belgians and Coomans took charge of one of the world’s great reconstruction efforts.

Meanwhile, over in growing Middlesbrough, a new Roman Catholic parish was created in 1924, and it held its first service, conducted by priests from Middlesbrough cathedral, in a tin church in Ayresome Street on August 10. The first parish priest was Father Jules Claus, himself a Belgian, and he commissioned Coomans to come up with a design.

Coomans based his plan on the abbey church of St Andrew’s Abbey in Zevenkerken, near Bruges, and so a very continental-looking building rose next to Boro’s Albert Park. It held its first service on January 18, 1932.

Not only does Sacred Heart have a striking exterior but its interior is remarkably lavish with mosaics and marble.

Inside Sacred Heart Church, Middlesbrough

Coomans died in 1937 with Ypres’ Cloth Hall one of the few buildings incomplete, but the road leading to it was named Coomansstraat in his honour.

At 7pm on Friday, June 14, in Coomans’ Middlesbrough masterpiece, Bishop Terence Drainey will celebrate the parish’s centenary mass and all are welcome.

The restored Cloth Hall at Ypres

  • With thanks to Peter Loughlin