The ashlar facade of the London Oratory, next to its neighbour the Victoria and Albert Museum, continues to dominate the west end of the Brompton Road shortly before it becomes the Cromwell Road, as it has since its opening in 1884. It remains Ein feste Burg (A mighty Fortress) for adherents of conventional not to say traditional Catholicism. (Luther might not have appreciated the opening words of his great hymn being applied to such a child of the Counter Reformation as the Oratory)
In 1849, Father Frederick Faber led a Congregation of Oratorian fathers from Maryvale outside Birmingham to London where they established a house and church in King William Street off the Strand. Shortly thereafter they aspired to “a good, large and stately church” of Italianate style in a better position.
A committee of wealthy laymen under Lord Arundel (later the 14th Duke of Norfolk) was set up to find a suitable site. Brompton was eventually settled on although Newman, in distant Birmingham, did not approve of the area “essentially in a suburb… a neighbourhood of second-rate gentry and second-rate shops”.
Father Faber tried rather unsuccessfully to defend the choice of Brompton as being “the Madeira of London”. The vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton made a valiant effort to prevent the setting up of the Oratory on the site, doubtless (and correctly) worried that his rather meagre Commissioners’ church of 1829 would be overshadowed.
The first temporary church on the site was designed by JJ Scoles. By 1874 ,the Oratory Fathers had decided they needed a church which was not “almost contemptible”. An appeal for funds was made; the 15th Duke of Norfolk subscribed £20,000. In January 1878 it was announced that a competition would be held for a church “in the style of the Italian Renaissance”.
Some 30 architects bid. The winner was the virtually unknown Herbert Gribble (1847-94), a 29-year-old Devonian who had been a pupil of JA Hansom, the architect, inter alia, of what was to become Arundel Cathedral. The eventual cost was some £93,000.
The outside was built in Portland stone. The church is as massive as anyone might have desired. The nave is the third widest in England after Westminster Cathedral and York Minster. It is lined with pairs of large Corinthian pilasters. The baroque statues of the 12 apostles were made by Guiseppe Mazzuoli in the 1680s and originally installed in Siena Cathedral. The vaulting of the nave is of concrete.
All eyes are drawn towards the deep sanctuary, past the ornate pulpit on the left hand side, with its altar of marble and gilt dominated by its towering six candles. A carving of the Immaculate Heart of Mary lies above. The seven-branched sanctuary lamps were given by the Third Marquess of Bute in 1879 and designed by William Burges. The marquetry sanctuary floor was the gift of the Duchess of Argyll. The altar rails and wooden stalls survive from the old church.
The glory of the church is in many ways to be found in the chapels lining the nave and transepts. The most ornate is the Lady Chapel in the (liturgically) south transept. The altar with its reredos came from the Chapel of the Rosary in the church of San Domenico in Brescia made in 1693 by the Florentine Francesco Corbarelli and his sons. The statue of Our Lady (garbed in baroque vestments) comes from the first London Oratory in King William Street. One curiosity in the St Wilfrid Chapel opposite is the triptych by Rex Whistler.
The great outer dome of the church was completed after Gribble’s death by George Sherrin in the 1890s. The present opulent interior owes much to the decoration of Commendatore Formilli in 1927 to 1932 who wanted to make the interior “still more in keeping with the traditions of the Catholic Church”. To him are owed much of the painting of sanctuary and chapels, the mosaics in the spandrels of the dome and nave vault, the Stations of the Cross and the ornate carved cherubs.
The London Oratory was originally founded by Anglican converts in the form of Father Faber and his companions. That tradition has very much continued to the present day.
The London Oratory was extremely fortunate in having the convert Father Michael Napier as Provost in the tumultuous years from 1969 to 1981 (and again from 1991 to 1994). He read carefully the Vatican document Sacrosanctum Concilium and realised that it did not require the wrecking of existing churches in pursuit of some imagined cult of simplicity. He also saw no reason why the New Rite should not be performed in Latin which remained the official language of the Catholic Church.
The musical tradition of the church was preserved and encouraged. The tabernacle on the high altar and the altar rails were left unscathed. The eastern position has continued to be used for Mass
Of Father Napier one can echo the splendid inscription on the tower of Staunton Harold Anglican church: “In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation, either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, Founded this church; Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
The Oratory now supports no less than three choirs – its own, the Junior Choir and the Schola Cantorum. The late lamented “Fat Lady” Jennifer Paterson left a generous gift of £200,000 to the musical endowment fund on her death in 1999.
Since 2012 the church and community have been in the safe hands of yet another convert Provost, Father Julian Large. Both continue to flourish. Some 3,000 attend Mass each weekend in normal times.
Large numbers of confessions are heard by the 12 priests available. There are currently four young novices. In the present circumstances of the Catholic Church this is fairly remarkable. Birettas, incense, Latin and sound theology do not appear to have frightened worshippers or postulants away.
The social mission of the Church is not neglected. One recent example has been allowing the use of St Joseph’s Hall to act as a “hub” for the Companions of the Order of Malta to distribute food and clothes to the local homeless.
Architecturally there have been a few developments in the last decade or so. The Chapel of St Joseph, which uniquely suffered in the 1960s has been put together again through the generosity of the philanthropist John Studzinski; the new baroque reredos with scagliola columns was designed by Russell Taylor. The Newman Chapel underneath the organ was installed in 2010. Nearby, Alan Dodd was commissioned to paint the fresco behind Dario Fernández’s calvary scene, at the kind expense of the late Della Howard.
One can only say Laus Deo for all this.
Michael Hodges is the Herald’s architectural writer
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