Profile: Austin Winkley

By: Josephine Siedlecka

Catholic architect and liturgist Austin Winkley celebrates his 70th birthday today - Many Happy Returns!

Architect Austin Winkley chose his career before he could walk. One of his earliest memories is of sitting in his pram watching an uncle lay floor tiles in a new church.

"I've always had a strong visual sense" he says. "Perhaps that's because I'm dyslexic." The son of a family who worked in the Lancashire cotton industry - his mother was a weaver - his father a mill clerk - his grandparents used to walk five miles to church every week and took part in a campaign for a parish in Rishton in the 1880s. His parents were involved in building the new church of St Charles in 1937.

Of his schooldays, with the Salesians, Austin recalls: "they gave us all a great sense of being loved and encouraged." Thanks to their help Austin won a grant to study at the prestigious Architectural Association in London. During the holidays he worked for the Salesians with school architect Jeffrey Williams and has always kept up links with the order. After qualifying he worked for the London County Council school department.

Then, in the early 60s, Austin went to America to work for a firm in Washington DC. "It was an interesting time" he says. "I lived in a cheap hotel just down the road from the White House. President Eisenhower passed by each day. He was accompanied by a man on a motorbike. Later I used to see the Kennedys at Mass."

Soon Austin joined a firm of Christian architects and worked on a library and Catholic Club at Harvard. In 1962 he volunteered to help on a Mexico City slum project which included building a clinic, housing and church in an area that had been devastated by an earthquake. He has continued his links with Mexico ever since.

After that first visit he went on to travel around America, visiting friends, Catholic groups and architectural sites before returning to England to set up his own practice. Around that time, Austin began to design homes for the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS) - an involvement that would last more than 25 years. He has also worked for many other housing associations. Just a stone's throw from his Lambeth offices - Austin Terrace is named after him.

Austin's innovative combination of restoration work and new building has made him a leader in the field. Thanks to him, St Paul's Church in Bow became the first post-war church to be listed. His other churches include St Margaret's in East Twickenham, St Elphege in Wallington, the Sacred Heart Church in Coventry, and St Theodore's in Hampton upon Thames. Besides his architectural work, Austin also served as a member of the Liturgy Commission.

Austin met his wife Elizabeth (Lala), a drama teacher, at a national Catholic Youth Association Conference. They have two daughters, Emma, a sculptress and change agent, and Antonia who is a florist. He says their silver wedding anniversary celebration, held in CAFOD's garden was a "wonderful liturgical family event". During the Millennium Year, Austin represented England at the Jubilee of Artists held at the Vatican. Summing up his life Austin says: "I feel I have been showered with blessings on many occasions. In a very small way I am trying to give something back to God." Josephine Siedlecka

Share this story