HAVING rung up its 70th anniversary this month, the prominent church of St Gabriel in Blackburn dominates a tranquil Brownhill Drive in this 1949 view -- and is listed as a building of architectural importance because of its striking Thirties look.

But it is somewhat fortunate to have reached this milestone -- as the design for which it is noted was also almost its downfall.

For 34 years ago, the landmark building was facing possible demolition -- with the parish confronted with a then-immense bill of £15,000 for repairs. The crisis was due to serious damage to the roof timbers caused by water penetration.

But an expert's report in 1969 absolved St Gabriel's parochial church council of neglect. The blame, he said, lay in faulty design and unsuitable materials.

The upshot was not demolition, but a huge repair job -- and revamping of the original design of Liverpool architect F.X. Velarde which attracted so much attention when St Gabriel's opened in 1933. "The new building... marks a new departure from the accepted ecclesiastical style and is unique in this district," said the old Blackburn Times when it was consecrated on April 8, 1933, by the Bishop of Blackburn, Dr P.M. Herbert.

Eventually, it took £40,000-worth of refurbishment inside and out lasting until 1975 to save St Gabriel's -- at considerable expense to its original appearance. The main tower was shortened by six feet and later clad at the top with glass-fibre sheathing while the east tower was removed altogether and its flat roofs were made into pitched ones to deal with the rotting roof timbers and problems of settlement.

In fact, the difficulties that its design and construction posed were recognised much earlier in 1956 when the church, which had cost £20,000 to build, was found to be in urgent need of repairs that would cost more than £1,500. For an inspection by the Diocesan Architect found that major defects in the flat roof could have serious consequences unless they were given early attention and portions of the parapet wall were found to have large cracks due to settlement while half the building's brickwork needed pointing.

Yet, even when major repairs and remodelling of the building had radically altered its appearance, St Gabriel's remained sufficiently outstanding to appear in a 1992 guide book featuring the 500 best church buildings in the country -- though its "heroic proportions and simplicity," the book said, reminded people of a brewery or cinema and its glass-fibre sheathing was denounced as "horrible."

Even so, after all its troubles, the once ultra-modern church lies a long way from its origins -- in the back kitchen of a house at 532 Whalley New Road, Roe Lee, where the first services were held in 1889 when St Gabriel's began as a mission from St Michael's and All Angels Church, a mile or so down the road.

Soon afterwards, a corrugated iron building was erected nearby to serve as the church and in 1901 services commenced in the then-new St Gabriel's School in Cornelian Street and continued there until the 500-seat Brownhill Drive building was opened 70 years ago. The old school closed in December, 1979, when all pupils finally transferred to the extended new school at Wilworth Crescent.

Originally, a site in Topaz Street at Roe Lee, which had been given to the church in 1894, had been earmarked for the new St Gabriel's Church, but the location was switched to Brownhill Drive in 1924 in a deal with the Town Council that involved the development of Roe Lee Park and

the surrounding housing scheme which was to add more than 300 new homes to the area and swell the parish's population by 1,200.

It was in 1937 that the churchgoers among them were first called to St Gabriel's by the sound of bells from the tower -- broadcast by loudspeaker from a gramophone record. But it was not a unique innovation for when the peal first sounded to ring in the New Year, similar recorded chimes were heard the same night at St Francis' Church, Feniscliffe, after the donation of equipment by a parishioner there while that at the Brownhill church was its war memorial, paid for by subscriptions.

The wartime ban on the ringing of church bells -- except as a signal for invasion -- did not silence St Gabriel's system, however. Starting in January, 1942, Brownhill folk were treated to Sunday broadcasts from the tower of choral selections and hymns from gramophone records -- and one midweek evening the year before to the famous Glenn Miller big-band orchestra's recording of "Moonlight Serenade" blaring over a radius of about a mile.

It was a prank and a disc played by a couple of choirboys who, before their evening practice, sneaked into the vestry where the record player and relay equipment were kept. "It was a bit of devilment," confesses, one of the culprits, Ken Roberts, now 74, of Haydock Street, Roe Lee. "The choirmaster was just coming up Brownhill Drive towards the church when suddenly he heard it booming out!"

Another wartime incident involving the tower was when an air-defence barrage balloon broke free from its moorings at Great Harwood and became snagged by its cable at St Gabriel's where some of the brickwork was damaged as a result.

But in peacetime the tower brought another shock, after the installation in October, 1964, of the large cross illuminated by red neon light.

The bright-shining cross was the church's response to a call by the Mayor of Blackburn for buildings in the town to be lit up after dark. But, according to a story that appeared many years afterwards in the parish magazine, its appearance high in the night sky had a chilling effect on one Brownhill resident when he spied it for the first time.

Emerging at closing time from the Brownhill Arms down the hill, he believed the cross in the sky was an omen and swore himself off drink before discovering that the sign was man-made and not a heavenly one!