In 1861 Cardinal Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, sent Fr J C Keens to set up a mission in Little Albany Street as a part of the parish of St Patrick’s, Soho. He found that there were about 2,000 families living in the area, many of them lapsed.
So it was established as an independent parish. Fr Keens set about finding a site for a Church and Presbytery and soon, just after a Christmas, an anonymous benefactor leased a site in Little Howland Street (now Ogle Street) from the Duke of Portland.
The site was 90 feet by 60 feet. Possession was taken of the site on February 2nd, 1862, and the foundation stone was lied on August 22nd that same year by Provost (later Cardinal) Manning.
The church was solemnly opened on Wednesday, 20th May, 1863, by Cardinal Wiseman. It had been in use since the previous February, but in being Lent, the celebrations were postponed until after Easter.
The lease on the church site ran out in 1905 and as the area had become commercialised by that time the price of the freehold was formidable. A proposal to demolish the church and built a factory luckily did not come to anything.
After 16 years the problem was solved by the generosity of Madame Meschini and her son Arturo who, in June 1921, bought the freehold and presented the land to the diocese of Westminster.
Exterior of the church So on October 4th, 1921, the church was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Joseph Butt.
Fr Keens employed T J Wilson and S J Nicholl as architects of the new church.
It was built in a Gothic Early English traditional style. Kentish rag stone was used to cover the eastern and southern sides of the church.
The grey stonework became very dark in the London air, and in recent years it was cleaned about 1967 and, more recently, in 1979.
In this well-proportioned and beautifully designed church the first thing to attract the eye is the sanctuary. The High Altar, Reredos, Communion Rail and Chancel Stalls were all designed by J F Bentley who later was the architect of Westminster Cathedral.
The High AltarThe High Altar, in marble and alabaster, was completed in 1873.
The Reredos is composed of ten panels depicting the Crucifixion, with St Mary Magdalen, the Virgin and Child Jesus, SS Joseph, Peter, Agustine, Edward, John, Francis and Charles Borromeo. They were painted in1872 by N H J Westlake on violet brown coloured slates, probably from the Delabole quarry in Cornwall.
The paintings have been retouched and varnished over the years and have been magnificently restored by Miss Pauline Plummer recently (1979-1980).
The Lady Chapel. The altar frontal was also designed by Bentley and completed in 1879.
The Sacred Heart Chapel. The altar was probably designed by Clutton or J F Bentley. The reredos comprising five canopied niches was completed by A B Wall of Cheltenham in 1902 from designs by S J Nicoll. In the centre a figure of Christ carved by Theodore Phyffers.
The other niches contain angles holding, respectively, a sword and sponge, a crown of thorns, the nails and the cross. The chapel was restored and altar rails added in 1922 by the Meschinis in memory of Carlo Meschini who had died in 1907.
The Stained Glass windows, four in number, depict St Thomas and St Cecilia (erected in memory of Thomas Cooke who died on October 3rd, 1898); St Margaret and St Patrick (erected for MM and PM respectively).
From the time Cardinal Wiseman wrote a letter n January 7th, 1862, appealing for subscriptions to build the present church, there has never been a lack of generous benefactors. The anonymous donor, now identified, who obtained the lease of the site in 1862 gave £500.
Many smaller donations were given. Although only £21 1s. 8d. were laid on the Foundation Stone in August, 1862, given by poor parishioners, Fr Keens had faith that much more would come in to pay off the £4,600 needed to complete the building of the church.
Sir George Mivart paid for the Sacred Heart Chapel. Madame Meschini and her son, Arturo, contributed greatly towards the church and paid for the freehold in 1921.
During the war a section of the church was damaged and later, Fr Wright, due to many donors, made extensive repairs and re-decorated the church inside and out between 1957-1963 in preparation to celebrate the centenary of the building of the church.
Recently from 1978 to 1980 the church has again been repaired and re-decorated inside and out. The cost of this, together with the new benches, have all been met by the generosity of many benefactors.
Renewing the signs in the Parish
The second Vatican Council has asked that the signs within the Liturgy should be rediscovered and renewed: especially the Eucharistic Table as sign of the heavenly banquet to which all mankind is called; the Baptismal Font as sign of rebirth, in which we receive new life through waters flowing from the Church; and the Assembly, as the sign of a priestly people, the people of God, gathered together to praise him for his mercy and his love.
And so in this church we have placed a large Eucharistic Table, we have built a new sunken baptistery, and around these we gather as the assembly of the People of God.
The Vatican Council has asked that the sacrament of baptism be administrated ideally by immersion, so that the parallel between Christ’s entry into death (submersion into the waters) and resurrection (being raised out of the waters) can be more clearly seen.
That the water ideally be flowing water so that the font is what its name implies, a ‘fountain’; and that, again ideally, the Font and Eucharistic Table be positioned so it may be seen how baptism leads to the Eucharist.
Baptism is the entry into eternal life, into the Church -the Kingdom of God. In the waters of baptism, our fallen human nature is buried, and a new creature, with the same nature as Jesus Christ, rises from the waters. Writing to baptised Christians in the early church, St Paul says:
“When we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we were baptised in his death, in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s Glory, we too might live a new life”. (Rom 6:3f)
And preaching to some newly baptised Christians in the 4th century, St Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, said: “Then you were conducted by hand to the holy pool of sacred baptism, just as Christ was conveyed from the cross to the sepulchre close at hand You were submerged three times in the water, and emerged.
By this symbolic gesture you were secretly re-enacting the burial of Christ three days in the tomb In one and the same action, you died and you were born: the water of salvation became both tomb and mother for you”