In the 19th century, the “Potteries” in Notting Dale, west London, were an area of considerable degradation, with many poor Irish Catholic immigrants, known, inter alia, for the extensive piggeries attached to many of the houses. In 1856, the Order of the Oblates of St Charles were set up by the then Father Henry Manning at the instigation of Cardinal Wiseman. The ecclesiastical area of Notting Dale was entrusted to them. On a cramped site in Pottery Lane a humble church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, in the French Gothic style of stock brick with black brick bands, to a design by convert Henry Clutton, was built in 1859-60. The priest in charge was the former Anglican, Father Henry Augustus Rawes.
Clutton was assisted in the building of the church by a young man called John Bentley (1839-1902). After the opening of the church Bentley set up on his own. In March 1861, he designed the altar of St John the Evangelist in the church. It is of alabaster, marble, glass, mosaic and mastic inlay. The paintings were by the Catholic convert Nathaniel Westlake, his first co-operation with Bentley. The reredos shows St John presenting the Sacred Host to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Cardinal Wiseman was so impressed with the altar of St John that he invited Westlake to lunch. When Wiseman heard that Bentley was not yet a Catholic, he promised that if he became one, he would baptise him. In 1861, Bentley became seriously ill with rheumatic fever. He made a vow to Our Lady that he would become a Catholic if cured. Recovering his health he was bap-tised by Wiseman on 16 April 1862 in the baptistery of St Francis’s. He took Francis as his baptismal name and henceforth signed himself JF Bentley. He went on to be commissioned in 1894 to design the new Catholic cathedral in Byzantine style in Westminster.
In 1863, Bentley designed the sumptuous high altar for which Westlake again did the painting. It was constructed of inlaid marble, glass mosaic and mastic inlaid in alabaster. The frontal of the altar displays a painting of the dead Christ. Paintings of Abraham, Melchisedech, Noah and Abraham decorate the reredos. Relics of St Felix are embedded in the tile pavement.
Bentley was also responsible for the Baptistry (1861), the Shrine of Our Lady (1870), the decoration of the sanctuary (1872-3) and the brass altar rails (1876). Much of the stained glass – for example the windows depicting St Charles Borromeo, St John the Evangelist, St Mary Magdalene, St Augustine of Hippo and St Agnes – was designed by Bentley in collaboration with Westlake. The latter painted the Stations of the Cross on slate between 1865 and 1870.
Father Rawes left St Francis in 1880. His successors continued the battle against poverty, which had been exacerbated by drink, in the area. From 1866 until 1983 the Little Sisters of the Assumption were a presence in the parish. The church was spared serious damage during the Second World War, although hit by an incendiary bomb in 1941.
In 1981, the Oblates of St Charles departed from the parish and Father Oliver McTernan became the church’s first diocesan parish priest. He became known as a broadcaster. He was also profoundly hostile (“in the spirit of Vatican II”) towards those Anglo-Catholics seeking to become Catholics in the early to mid-Nineties, fearing, possibly correctly, their theological and liturgical conservativeness. He departed from the parish in 2000 and went to Harvard where he resigned his priestly orders and subsequently married.
Between 1982 and 1984, the church underwent a number of major regrettable alterations at the hands of Father McTernan in consultation with the architects Williams & Winkley. The brass altar rails of 1876 were removed, a wooden forward altar was installed as was blue carpeting, and numerous items, including statues and paintings, removed either to be sold or discarded. The worst loss was that of the magnificent, richly jewelled silver gilt “Byzantine” monstrance designed by Bentley, now to be found in the City of Birmingham Art Gallery.
In 2012, Father Gerard Skinner was appointed Parish Priest following on from his previous role as Sub-Administrator of Westminster Cathedral. In 2019-20, in consultation with the architect Anthony Delarue, he embarked on a major programme of beautification, repainting both the Sanctuary and the Lady Chapel with Westlake’s original blue scheme replacing the rather tired ochre colour. The three altars were also cleaned. A few years earlier, a 19th-century statue of St Francis of Belgian origin was bought and a splendidly painted and carved organ, originally presented at the 1851 Great Exhibition, installed. A new window has been designed to depict St John Henry Newman and will be installed shortly. The gloriously restored church now gleams, a breath-taking oasis tranquillity in busy Notting Dale.
Within the courtyard approaching the church can be found a beautifully carved memorial slate plaque of 2018 recording the names of those parishioners who died in the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017. There is also a memorial statue of Our Lady by Graham Heeley.
The history of St Francis of Assisi Church is attractively set out in a 2020 guide by Peter Howell and Father Gerard Skinner, available from the church.
St John, Brentford is situated under the Chiswick A4 flyover. The church is a brick building of some charm, with a squat tower and octagonal spirelet, and a cast iron north arcade, built in 1866 by an obscure architect called Jackman for the needs of Irish railway workers. In 1879 a Father Redman took care of the mission and appointed Bentley four years later to improve the church. He designed the western screen, a sumptuous high altar, throne and reredos and a window showing St John the Evangelist administering the sacrament to the Blessed Virgin Mary at her coronation in heaven.
In 1976, in an act of almost indescribable vandalism, the Bentley high altar with its accoutrements, was thrown out of the church into a skip. The priest and parishioners in their ignorance believed the building was by Bentley, not the altar. Fortuitously the architectural historian Peter Howell paid a visit at the time and with the permission of the priest was able to rescue the surviving remnants of the high altar, namely the frontal, half the reredos and two gilded angels. For more than 40 years these lived in his flat in Oxford.
A few years ago, the parish priest Father Gerard Quinn appointed Anthony Delarue as architect to restore the 19th-century appearance of the church. Stunning figures of the Evangelists were painted on the sanctuary walls by the late Kevin Howell. I was able to tell Anthony Delarue that the remnants of the high altar were in the Oxford flat. Peter Howell generously allowed the remains of the altar to return. It has now been gloriously and beautifully reconstructed. The decoration has been restored in its original colours with the appropriate gilding. The altar has been set forward from the reddish reredos. The crucifix and the pelican on the top of the tabernacle have been repaired, and the sanctuary lamp has been repaired. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.
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