A community in East London is coming together to restore its church to former glory. St Antony of Padua in the Diocese of Brentwood was built in the early 1880s by Irish immigrants (many of them dockworkers) under the stewardship of Pugin & Pugin architects. After a post-Vatican II refurbishment, it bears little resemblance to its original form – but a recent discovery of some of the Pugin stonework prompted a rethink. The church is now undergoing what parish priest Fr John Jesus Moloney describes as a “facelift”.
The 1960s re-ordering of the church, Fr Moloney says, “got rid of a lot of its beauty. It was disappointing – some might even call it a massacre. Walls were painted over, floors were covered in plastic. The beauty was lost with it.”
Where to start? “Our first job is to expose the original stonework,” he says. “We want to repaint and bring out any frescoes that are hidden. I think that when everyone sees the beauty of the original works, it will incentivise them.”
Further planned works include bringing the level of the sanctuary down and moving the High Altar. Fr John stresses that they do require further permissions from the diocese of Brentwood, who have been “very very supportive”.
He has been the parish priest at St Antony’s for eight years. “The building is so special because of the presence of St Antony. He is seen as someone who people can reach out to in difficult situations.” When St Antony’s relics were brought from Padua in 2016, more than 10,000 pilgrims visited the church in three days. And it isn’t just Catholics who feel a special attachment to the church: Fr John estimates that one in 10 of those who come through the church’s doors are Hindu.
St Antony’s global appeal helps to explain the remarkable diversity of the congregation, which encompasses more than 80 nationalities. “Bishop Alan calls our congregation ‘the United Nations of East London’” says Fr John. “It is true. When I give Communion I am giving Communion all over the world.”
Community efforts to raise money range from the fun to the fearless. Cake sales, regular pledges, a dinner and dance, and group efforts have all contributed to the current funds of around £400,000. Fr John Jesus, aged 60, has contributed too by running the London Marathon. “Over the years,” he says, “my marathons have brought in about £25,000 for the church.” This year, of course, he will have to wait.
The younger members of the community are joining in as well. Local schools (the church has three under its wardship) have come together to organise a musical based on the prophet Daniel, which will be revisited when social distancing measures are relaxed. However, fundraisers are not letting the outbreak of Covid-19 obstruct their efforts. Last month the Filipino community organised an online raffle.
Fr John Jesus says the common motivation is having a place of worship that parishioners can “be proud of”.
“This is something that people really want, they want to see the church beautiful. Even though we have pressing issues of poverty in the area, people love having a place that they can worship in. None of our fundraising is supported by large donations. It’s the parishioners giving what they can, when they can.”