A church with 200 years of history, gloriously restored this year with gleaming marble and glittering gold. A comfortable room in the large basement area, also recently rebuilt and redesigned, with up to date kitchen and meeting-rooms, where an Open House is held with hot meals served for the poor and homeless. And, around a table on a November afternoon, a team of young people with notebooks and open Bibles, listening to a lecture on the Acts of the Apostles.
This is London, 2011, and the church is St Patrick’s, Soho Square. After a massive fund-raising campaign this fine church has been restored, years of dust and dirt removed, pews and kneelers scarped and renewed, the sanctuary gleaming with marble and gold, the whole church fresh and clean. The parish priest, Fr Alexander Sherbrook, has for years worked on a major evangelisation campaign centred on adoration of the Eucharist. The St Patrick’s Evangelisation School – SPES – is part of this. The young people commit themselves to one full academic year – running from the Autumn to the following summer. They make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience for that year, live together in community, embark on a programme of study, prayer, and charitable works.
For some years, the talks and lectures took place in a shabby room, amid a number of other interlocking shabby rooms, in the basement of St Patrick’s. It was quite fun, but rather disconcerting, to find one’s way down twisting stairs, through a narrow corridor with a damp musty smell and into the stuffy room where the young people crowded together on an assortment of odd chairs. Lots of other activities were – and are – also taking place at St Patrick’s: it is home to London’s Chinese Catholic community which has regular Masses there, and to a Brazilian group which has Masses in Portugese, and to a Cenacolo group which cares for people struggling with drug and-alcohol dependency, and there’s an SOS prayer-line offering help day and night. And all is combined with busy normal parish life – not only Masses of course, but processions and concerts and talks and special events for all the feasts and seasons of the year…
But now all the meetings and talks happen not in cramped quarters with peeling paint, but in a beautifully reconstructed basement area with solid granite-tiled floors and fresh clean walls and a sense of cleanliness and space. While I was busy with the SPES group, cooks were active in the kitchen preparing the Open House supper for that evening, and up in the church, all day, people were coming to kneel in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed for adoration and the centre of all that St Patrick’s is and does.
I was there on a special day – on the feast of All Saints, the young SPES students were making their formal commitment. During a beautiful evening Mass – St Patrick’s is now building up what promises to be a fine musical tradition – they made their promises, their clear voices ringing through the full church as they stood in a line in front of the altar-rails. It was moving, and unforgettable. St Patrick’s is in Soho – an area of London known for its mix of seediness and smartness, its restaurants and cafes and its shops mixing with loneliness, rent-boys, prostitution and homelessness. People drift towards Soho because it is alive at night – but if they lack money there is no place for them in the bars and restaurants. St Patrick’s offers a message of hope.
The church’s history goes back over 200 years, to the late 18th century when Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Acts, removing some of the penalties attached to Catholic worship in Britain. Full rights for Catholics were achieved under the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, shortly before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Founded initially by members of the large Irish community settled in this part of London, St Patrick’s thrived and over the years has played a major role in the life of London and of the Church. Damaged by bombing in World War II, it was restored and thrived throughout the post-war years. Archbishop Fulton Sheen made this church his headquarters when he was in London on visits, and liked to describe himself as an unofficial curate of the parish. St Patrick’s has always had good weekday congregations as people who work in the area can drop in for a lunchtime Mass. When the church was closed for the major restoration works in 2009-11, activities moved to other nearby Catholic churches – last year’s SPES team received their graduation certificates at a Mass in the church of Notre Dame de France in Leciester Square.
The Mass to celebrate the reopening of St Patrick’s this summer was a magnificent affair, the church packed to capacity, Archbishop Vincent Nichols concelebrating with an array of priests, and launching a week of celebrations that included a Mass celebrated by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney Australia, and a lecture by Papal biographer George Weigel from the USA. The latter spoke about John Paul II’s vision of “evangelical Catholicism”, invigorated by deep faith and authentic commitment to the fullness of the teachings of the Church. It is this evangelical Catholicism that is alive and thriving and shaping the future at St Patrick’s, Soho Square.