On Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the parish room at the Church of the Most Precious Blood at London Bridge, working on a children’s project, while two fellow members of “LOGS,” our parish-based ladies’ group, were busy with the flower arrangements in the church for Pentecost.
We chatted briefly over cups of tea with Father Christopher Pearson, the parish priest, before separating again to go about our various duties. And then I made my way home through the warm, rather oppressive, evening.
Late that night, I was woken by the buzzing of my mobile phone. My sister, texting from New Zealand, was asking if I was all right. London Bridge was the center of a frenzied attack by an Islamic terrorist group — people lay dead and dying in the streets.
Today, news is instantly communicated worldwide, and by morning, we had details of the numbers of dead and wounded and a basic outline of the events, despite the inevitable confusion. And, among much else, Father Chris had texted and emailed parishioners to announce that a police cordon meant that the 8:30am Mass had to be canceled, but he had hopes for the 11am sung Mass.
When I arrived, he was busy dispensing tea to relays of tired policemen. The two main Tube stations — London Bridge and Borough — were closed, streets were sealed off, and there was a general air of order restored after the night’s ghastly events, the aftermath still being tackled.
The police cordon was lifted so that people could get to the 11am Mass, though many couldn’t make it because of the transport difficulties, but the church was still fairly full. We have a new, and rather good, children’s choir, and they sang beautifully. The parish is part of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — Anglicans who came into full communion with the Catholic Church a few years ago — and the children’s choir, plus a popular Sunday school, are among a number of thriving initiatives. There are many young families.
We had, of course, special “Bidding Prayers” at Mass and a minute’s silence for the victims of the night’s horror.
This corner of London, south of the river, is special for me: It has my cafés and pubs, the shop where I buy my newspapers and the supermarket where we are always hurrying for extra tea, milk, wine and snacks — whatever — for church events.
Much of my social life happens here. My father’s office — and his father’s before him — was just off Southwark Street, with a fine view of St. Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames.
A bridge has crossed the Thames at this point since Roman times. The song London Bridge Is Falling Down relates to a Viking battle at the end of the 10th century, when the Saxons tore down the bridge to stop the invading Vikings from gaining the city. It was on Sept. 8, and the Saxons attributed their success in the battle to Our Lady, hence the reference to the “fair lady” in the last line of the song.
Oddly enough, I was just relating that story a few days ago to a group, including some visiting Americans, standing on the bridge and looking out across to London’s skyscrapers.
The pubs and restaurants that TV viewers across the world saw in the scenes of carnage on Saturday night are part of a vibrant social scene: On summer nights, the streets around the pubs are crowded with people enjoying a drink or settling down for a meal at the outdoor tables at the many restaurants.
This is The Borough, across the Thames from The City, the square mile around St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Borough was known for centuries as a rather lawless area — outside the city’s boundaries, a haunt of crime and, also, incidentally, known for its special character, a place where Catholics met and had Mass, away from the prying eyes of the authorities in the days when the Catholic faith was outlawed.
Today it’s a lively, rapidly changing area. Old pubs jostle with new cafés, wine bars and restaurants. New generations of immigrants have arrived — from Africa and the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to Poles and Filipinos more recently.
The Borough Market now sells all sorts of specialist luxury foods. There are coffee shops galore. The old industries — brewing, as this was where the hops were brought from the Kent hop fields, and printing, because of the water from the Thames — are no more. But people live here who work in shops, in catering, in hospitals — Guy’s and St. Thomas’ are nearby — and in all the myriad things that make up London’s life.
It was here that the Islamic terrorists — with shouts of “This is for Allah!” — plunged into crowds, on the corner where London Bridge meets the Borough High Street. Their van crashed into several people, and the terrorists then rushed out to stab others in the face. More than 40 people were rushed to hospitals.
At the time of writing, seven people are confirmed dead, including a Canadian woman and a French woman. Some 20 people are still in the hospital, some with severe injuries.
The police had arrived swiftly, as did medical services. And even as panic and terror took hold, there was practical action, help and common sense. As the police sealed off the area, local hotels opened their doors to all who needed help. A family at church later told me how they and a crowd of other people had been given sandwiches and comfort — “and everything, even coloring books for the children” — as they waited for the all-clear so that they could get home.
London is centuries old, no stranger to violence, and a great city that will survive this latest chapter with its spirit intact. At Precious Blood parish, we aren’t about to abandon our cheery gatherings at a local pub after Mass or our big street processions honoring Mary in May and the Blessed Sacrament for Corpus Christi (just coming up) or our celebration barbeques for special events, or our carol singing at the local railway station at Christmas ... or any of the other activities that are part of normal London parish life.
“Look — this area had eight months of the Blitz in World War II,” one parishioner at Precious Blood commented after Mass. “And there were the IRA bomb threats, too. This latest horror isn’t going to destroy London.” Which is certainly true, even while we mourn for the victims of this weekend’s attacks. And there has been an outpouring of kindness, goodwill, mutual help and neighborliness.
Father Chris praised the “courage, skill and professionalism of the police and the emergency services” and said that they united swiftly to establish order and reduce panic. “When I stood at my window for a final look before going to bed sometime after midnight, there was a sense of security,” he told me. “I felt safe. They really deserve our gratitude and thanks for that.”
Pray for London.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.