Today’s Catholic visitor to London has many options for where to pray. Westminster Cathedral is the Byzantine-style mother church of the archdiocese. Brompton Oratory, so associated with Blessed John Henry Newman’s renewal of 19th-century English Catholicism, is frequently visited. The Jesuit “Farm Street” Church of the Immaculate Conception is a pearl.
But a special favorite of mine, in Bob Cratchitt’s Camden Town, is the beautiful jewel of a church that is perhaps not on the usual beaten path (although it is close to tourist attractions like Camden Lock): the Dominican Priory of Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Dominic’s Church.
I say “today’s visitor” to the British capital because, until Catholic Emancipation in the 19th century, English Catholics labored under various civil disabilities and had few churches. (In the heyday of the Reformation, there were none, the Catholic churches having been expropriated by the state Church of England.) With emancipation and the relatively concurrent influx of Irish immigrant labor, the Catholic Church in England began to grow again.
Dominicans had been in London since 1223, their priority being Blackfriars, which survives to this day in the name of the local London Tube (subway) stop. In its day, Blackfriars played a key role not just in English Dominican, but English Catholic, life (e.g., the 1529 divorce trial of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon took place there), but, with the suppression of the order in the 16th century, London Dominican life would not experience its renaissance until the 19th century.
The Dominicans came to the Haverstock Hill area of Camden town around 1861, with the priory functioning in that decade, and the church opened in 1883. At the time, the archbishop of Westminster hoped to have a church atop every hill in London. St. Dominic’s is one of London’s larger churches and a neo-Gothic masterpiece, not very far from Hampstead Heath. (Hampstead itself has a variety of beautiful churches, including St. Mary’s — the church of Charles De Gaulle — but that’s another story.)
Time has taken a bit of a toll on both St. Dominic’s and its neighborhood, but the priory church offers a beautiful place to pray with a living and dynamic Dominican community of priests.
The friars gather for Morning Prayer and Mass and again for Evening Prayer and Mass. There is a Saturday evening vigil Mass as well as Sunday Masses. Confessions are also frequently heard.
The Dominican community and parish is very active, both locally (numerous parish activities as well as a parish school) and with English academe.
The friars from St. Dominic’s, for example, offer Advent reflections in Westminster Cathedral.
I first found the church, quite by accident, when I lived in London more than 16 years ago. It was tucked off on a corner where my bus to the British Library turned, and the bus stop was marked “St. Dominic’s Priory.”
Although the Church of England likes Gothic appearances, I knew that kind of name could only be a Catholic church, and so, one December Saturday, I got off and visited.
I was struck both by the peacefulness and incredible beauty of the church. The main nave and numerous side altars are dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary.
It took me until October 2015 to get back, but I still sense a vital community, committed to prayer and the liturgy in a beautiful setting. It’s particularly timely now — as the parish is marking its 150th anniversary this year (1867-2017) with a special Mass Oct. 7 (the feast of the Holy Rosary, since it is London’s Rosary Shrine).
The international Dominican community recently marked its 800th anniversary. I have my favorite Dominican communities: St. Vincent Ferrer on New York’s Upper East Side and the Dominican House of Studies in Washington.
But Catholic travelers passing through London should not pass up the chance to visit this beautiful oasis of prayer: Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Dominic, Haverstock Hill.
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
St. Dominic’s Priory can be reached easily on London Bus lines 24 or 46, or via a 15-minute walk from the Belsize Park or Chalk Farm Tube stations. The Church is on Southampton Road, NW5.