Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Sandwiched between houses on a rather non-descript street in an English seaside town, the dark-stoned Gothic church and shrine of St. Augustine in Ramsgate is easy to miss.
But its low-key, understated exterior belies an architectural jewel and pilgrimage site with enormous historical and cultural significance not only to the United States but to the Anglo-Saxon world as a whole.
Originally designed by the world-renowned 19th-century Catholic architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the church contains England’s shrine to St. Augustine of Canterbury, the Benedictine monk who landed in Ramsgate in A.D. 597 on a mission from Pope St. Gregory the Great to evangelize the English.
Both the church and shrine that contains a bone relic of the sixth-century saint have been the focus of a five-year, £1.2 million ($1.6 million) renovation, bringing back to life the saint's significant role in Western Christendom as well as an interior of vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and arches that point to heaven.
But it was nearly not to be. The church had become too much of an undertaking for a dwindling number of Benedictine monks who had been looking after the church for many years, and by 2011 when the last of the Benedictines left, the historical site was “in danger of being lost” and facing “disaster,” recalled Father Marcus Holden, the parish rector.
“The whole community then got behind this project,” he explained, including celebrities such as the English impresario of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who helped fund the restoration of the church’s rood screen. “It’s one of those things that brought everyone together,” Father Holden told the Register June 16. The bulk of the funding came from the government’s Heritage Lottery Fund.
The first stage of the renovations — the official reopening of the shrine — took place in 2012, 474 years since King Henry VIII wiped out the previous sanctuary dedicated to England’s first missionary.
The following years were spent restoring the church to its former glory, including a renovated east cloister, and a visitor center catering for pilgrims and school groups. “It’s a wonderful place of pilgrimage, a gem of architectural historical importance” that “we can now show off,” said Father Holden, who has quietly led the project since becoming parish rector in 2010.
The renovation of the church also honors Pugin as much as Augustine. Nicknamed ‘God's architect,’ the Victorian designer was most famous for championing the Gothic Revival style and, under chief architect Sir Charles Barry, designing the Palace of Westminster in London.
St. Augustine’s church was his most personal design, a place where he tried to put into practice the “true principles” of medieval-style Gothic architecture of the 12th–16th centuries, characterized by its pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses.
Raised a Scottish Presbyterian, Pugin was received into the Catholic Church at the age of 22. He died in 1852 aged just 40, before construction of St. Augustine’s was completed. He lived in the neighboring house, The Grange (also recently restored by a separate trust), and chose to be buried in the church.
In view of its rich heritage, Father Holden sees the refurbishment project as a crucial opportunity for evangelization, to recall the “coming of Christianity” to the Anglo-Saxon world and “Pugin’s own great, spiritual vision in his architecture.” These two key elements, he said, “are moments to talk about faith and God.”
In view of the faith for Anglo-Saxon lands beginning here, could the refurbishment also perhaps be a small sign of the beginnings of secular England reconverting to the Catholic faith? Recalling St. Augustine’s example and mission (he and his fellow missionaries were aware of the immensity of his task and halfway on their journey almost turned back), Father Holden said it “is a bit like a mustard seed,” adding that many Catholics are trying to keep a Christian vision for the country alive. The shrine, he pointed out, is also unusual for attracting many non-Catholic and even non-Christian visitors who are drawn by its historical architectural interest.
Father Holden also highlighted the pilgrimage site’s “wonderful connection between Britain and America” which, he said, “goes right back to the foundation of the English Church.”
St. Augustine’s arrival in Ramsgate “is significant for all Anglo-Saxon culture because it was from Britain that Christianity went to parts of North America,” Father Holden explained. “It was Augustine who set the framework of the Catholic Church for England, and also gave us the first legal tradition, the Christian laws that we have.”
The first Archbishop of Canterbury, he continued, also helped to develop the English language in written form, “our musical tradition” through Gregorian chant, and English sacred art. “It started here,” he said.
For his part, Pugin helped influence architecture worldwide, not least in the United States. Although one style of U.S. architecture is classical or neo classical, as seen in many of the historic buildings in Washington D.C., Father Holden noted “another strain which you see everywhere” and is “this Gothic tradition” seen for example in “New York and St Patrick’s cathedral and other great buildings.”
“It comes from here, this Gothic revival,” he said, adding that it was a “true kind of Christian architecture” that was then taken up by a “whole series of architects afterwards.”
“So, there’s a beautiful connection here in several ways,” Father Holden said, and noted that many American pilgrims visit Ramsgate wanting to trace the routes of the English Saints. Cardinal Raymond Burke has twice visited the shrine in recent years, and pilgrims often combine it with a visit to Canterbury, the place of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey, and the resting place of St. Thomas More’s head.
“But Augustine is the foundational one,” said Father Holden. “So we hope to welcome many more pilgrims in the years ahead.”