Elena Curti, for a number of years until 2016 Deputy Editor of The Tablet, has written an illustrated paperback with the somewhat demotic title of Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die, its cover adorned by a photograph of the sanctuary of St James’s Spanish Place. The reason for this choice becomes apparent later. “Each time I visit I am reminded of the long walk down the central aisle to the glittering sanctuary where I was married.”
The foreword is written by Archbishop George Stack, Archbishop of Cardiff, in his capacity as Chairman of the Patrimony Committee of the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales. One can therefore be reasonably confident that limited criticism will emerge of how the Catholic Church treats its buildings. The Archbishop was obviously in an ecumenical mood when he penned this foreword as he quotes three Anglicans – the hymnologist J.S.B. Monsell, John Betjeman and T.S. Eliot (“You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid”.)
Elena Curti writes well, but rather annoyingly the book lacks an index. She commences with a short but broadly accurate introduction covering the history of Catholic church building in this country. The statement “other new churches followed strictly the Vatican II instruction for “noble simplicity” is, however, not entirely correct. “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (4th December 1963) does indeed state, “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity” (Clause 34). The injunction regarding new buildings however states, “ordinaries, by the encouragement and favour they show art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display.” (Clause 124). There is of course a difference between “simplicity” (rites) and “beauty” (buildings). “Inter Oecumenici – Instruction on Implementing the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy” (7th March 1965) does not change this although Chapter V sets out such matters as the need for a freestanding altar for new buildings etc.
“Sacrosanctum Concilium” makes various interesting statements, all largely ignored “in the spirit of Vatican II”, viz “…steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the liturgy which pertain to the people…” (Clause 54). “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (Clause 116). “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.” (Clause 125). “Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of art are not disposed of or dispersed; for they are the ornaments of the house of God.” (Clause 126).
The author then moves on to describe the fifty churches (or rather fifty-two, as Beccles/Bungay and the two Wigan churches of St John and St Mary have double entries) “to see before you die”.
In 2006, the seminal work A Glimpse of Heaven – Catholic Churches of England and Wales by Christopher Martin published by English Heritage appeared. This covers 103 Catholic places of worship. Elena Curti – quite fairly in the circumstances – does not cover cathedrals (15). A Glimpse of Heaven has 88 actual churches. 36 of her 52 churches overlap with those in A Glimpse of Heaven. These are most of the obvious gems.
Her additions are Beccles, Bungay, Brighton St Joseph, Caldey, Droitwich, Farnborough, Gorseinon, Hampstead St Mary, London Notre Dame de France, the Oxford Oratory, Pantasaph, Rye, Strood English Martyrs (discovered by the author by accident), Twickenham St Margaret, Workington and the Bar Chapel at York. These (with possibly one exception) seem perfectly acceptable.
What has she left out? Chapels (East Hendred, Everingham, Lulworth, Stonor) do not fare that well. Liverpool is down from five churches to one. Poor old Pugin loses out on Derby, Hanley Swan, Macclesfield, Marlow, Mount St Bernard, Oscott and Warwick Bridge as well as his cathedrals. Giles Gilbert Scott loses out on the Annunciation, Bournemouth and Sheringham, both with their wonderful sense of light and space. Given her appreciation of Post Vatican II churches the exclusion of the remarkable Our Lady Help of Christians, Kitts Green, Birmingham (1966-7) by Richard Gilbert Scott seems surprising.
The 52 church descriptions each have a subtitle in italics. Some of these are unobjectionable – others are slightly more irritating, such as those for Brighton St Joseph (“For the love of Maria”), Cambridge Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs (“All present, and liturgically correct”), St Giles Cheadle (“Prepare to be dazzled”) and St Charles Borromeo Hull (“Glitz Galore”) etc.
Her actual architectural descriptions read well in the main. A few comments. The Anglican Benedictine community at Caldey did not in fact convert in its entirety to Catholicism in 1913; a small residue went to Pershore, and then Nashdom. At Downside it might have been worth saying that Sir Ninian Comper was a devout High Anglican rather than a Catholic; the author (justly) describes his alabaster statue of St Sebastian as “homoerotic to modern eyes”. It is also worth pointing out that the beautiful wooden 15th century Madonna there has only been preserved in the church through the legal efforts last year of Peter Howell; the monks wished to sell it. At St Margaret Twickenham one is glad to know “the mother-and-toddler group was meeting upstairs” when the author visited. It is not entirely fair to say at Wardour “The Arundells have long gone”. Richard Arundell, Lord Talbot of Malahide, still chairs the Wardour Chapel Trust; he owns, and farms, the estate (which includes the lease of Wardour Old Castle to English Heritage) and lives locally. The wonderful Valadier sanctuary lamps of 1775 there could have been mentioned to advantage as could the picture of The Samaritan Woman at the Well by Louis Boulanger, formerly in Notre Dame, Paris and purchased at the time of the French Revolution. The first person singular intrudes quite extensively at the English Martyrs, Strood.
At the bottom of each church description there is a “Visit Also” section. This is not entirely satisfactory as other Catholic churches only receive mention through proximity. Occasionally some ruins are mentioned – for example, Byland and Rievaulx (but not Fountains or Glastonbury). Various Anglican churches, slightly oddly, make the cut – such as Abergavenny Priory, Beverley Minster, Bonchurch, Littlemore, Winchelsea.
There is a list at the end of “Artists and Architects” and a Glossary which covers both architectural terms and wider issues e.g.”Catholic Emancipation”, “Glorious Revolution”, “Martyrs and Martyrdom”, “Recusants” etc. The book is competitively priced at £14.99 and is a useful addition to the corpus of literature on Catholic churches.