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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Willow Lane Chapel

The Old Chapel in Willow Lane, Norwich: formerly known asThe Holy Apostles Jesuit Chapel

The Old Chapel is situated at the top of Willow Lane, off St. Giles Street in Norwich. It was the first purpose-built Roman Catholic Church in Norwich following the 1826 Catholic Emancipation Act and was built in 1827-28 on land in Willow Lane purchased by the Jesuits. 

J. T. Patience designed the building with a grand Palladian frontage. The chapel was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul and became known as the Holy Apostles Jesuit Chapel. Patience also designed the Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane. Pevsner remarked that it is interesting that Patience chose an established Non-Conformist design for a Catholic Chapel. The building is built of grey brick with stucco details. It has a simple, dignified three-bay frontage with a central portico on paired Ionic columns and pilasters.

Opened for worship

The Holy Apostles Jesuit Chapel was opened for worship in September 1829. The interior of the chapel was richly decorated in 1847. In 1870, the Roman Catholic community in Norwich amounted to about 1,200 people with 215 children at Catholic schools. In 1875, the Catholic Bishop of Northampton estimated that his entire flock in seven counties numbered just over 6,000. By 1880, with their mission accomplished, the Jesuits were preparing to leave Norwich. They then withdrew from Holy Apostles, which became a secular Mission in parallel with St. Johns Maddermarket Catholic Chapel.

Holy Apostles was closed in August 1894 upon the opening of the nave of the newly built St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. This church, at the corner of St. Giles and Earlham Road in Norwich, was begun in 1884 and finished in 1910. It became the East Anglian Catholic Cathedral in 1976. The redundant Willow Lane Chapel was converted into Willow Lane Catholic School, which opened in 1896. This school was closed in 1968. (I attended this school from 1941-1947 and during WWII, whilst the children and teachers were in the school shelters, a daytime German bomb exploded nearby in Pottergate Street devastating the Jenny Lind playground adjacent to Willow Lane School wall).


In 1986 the chapel was placed on the Register of Buildings of Special or Historic Interest in the City of Norwich. In 1990 architect Michael Innes of Lambert, Scott and Innes, successfully converted the old chapel to an open-plan suite of offices. The chapel is now the head office of Rogers and Norton Solicitors. Pevsner affirms that 'one would not realise that it has been converted from the exterior, apart from the detached stair tower by the south return. Inside all is new, but impressive, with a glass upper gallery. It has a shallow bowed ceiling in squares and rectangles with plaster roses.'

The Jesuits in Norwich

Since the Reformation the Catholic faith had survived in small communities and in a few great houses in Norfolk struggling against persecution. In March 1628, the House of Lords decreed that idolatry was to be abolished by passing laws against Priests, Jesuits and Recusants. Nevertheless, the Jesuits first arrived in Norwich in 1647 when generally they were able to go quietly about their work. From 1687-72, they were leased part of Blackfriars.

From 1688-72 there is doubt of the location of the Jesuit chapel. At the end of the seventeenth century there were less than 1,000 Catholics in the whole of Norfolk. During the eighteenth century the Jesuits built a little chapel in a back street, at St. Swithins, Norwich. They were there from 1759-1826. There was also another discreet Catholic Chapel in Norwich, that of St. John the Baptist in Maddermarket (1793-1896). Catholics were forbidden public worship until 1778. The Catholic Relief Act of 1791 allowed building of Roman Catholic places of worship. St. Swithins Chapel was closed in 1831.

Further Reading.

Norfolk Record Office.

  • A short summary of Holy Apostle's Church contained in the NRO Catalogue of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia. Yellow Book Number 12.


  • Meeres, F.  A History of Norwich, published by Phillimore, Chichester, 1998.
  • Pevsner, N and B. Wilson, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 1. Norwich and North-
  • East, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1997


Web Sites.

  • Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, Norwich,

  •   Norfolk Churches, (Holy Apostle Jesuit Chapel, Norwich) author Simon Knott, 2005.                                                                                                                         

Shirley Wigg

September 2007.