Cardinal Newman's Project

Had my London guidebook failed to spotlight this historic site, I would have put it on my list of things to see anyway.

After all, Brompton Oratory is well known as one of relatively few Catholic churches in England's capital — and as one of the most magnificent places of prayer in the entire United Kingdom.

So first thing Sunday morning I hopped on the near-empty Tube, jumped off at the second station and began walking through unusually sunny streets. My plan was to get to the church well before Mass.

My extra-early departure proved fortunate, for I headed in the wrong direction once I scaled the stairs from the station. Map in hand, I quickly realized my mistake and restarted. I didn't have to walk far before recognizing the Victoria and Albert Museum. At that point I had to chuckle: The oratory is directly adjacent. I'd passed the building several times during my stay without ever pausing to see what it contained.

It wasn't until I got home that I discovered that I (and my guidebook) had been referring to the famous site by one of its nicknames. Casually called the ORatory around town (pronounced “ora-tree” here), it's more formally referred to as the Brompton Oratory or the London Oratory outside the city. Yet both of those are shorthand as well: Its true name is the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Built between 1880 and 1884, the church — the second-largest Catholic church in the city — is a virtual upstart by London standards. It is home to a community of priests called the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, or Oratorians, an order imported to England by Oratorian (and later Cardinal) John Henry Newman in the 1840s. The London Oratory was founded not many years after in what the parish Web site calls “converted premises” (no pun intended, I'm sure) that might have been a whiskey store or dance hall.

Newman's School

Like so many parishes in my home diocese, parishioners of the oratory worshipped in a “temporary” church for a number of years — but their ultimate spiritual home was worth the wait.

In 1874 the congregation launched an appeal to raise the funds to build what was to become a major London landmark. Six years later, the foundation stone was laid. The neo-baroque building was consecrated on April 16, 1884. The architectural style is Italianate, a clever reference to St. Philip, who is sometimes called “the second apostle” of Rome, following the Eternal City's first apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul.

Construction cost about $173,000 and continued even after Cardinal Edward Manning officially opened the church. The façade at the south end was added in 1893, and the outer dome was completed about three years after that. The last major external work was the erection of the memorial to Cardinal Newman in 1896, six years after his death. It's interesting to note that these followers of Cardinal Newman, who is known to so many young people because of the Newman Centers at their colleges, established the Oratory School in 1852; it is still going strong.

To this Southern Californian's eyes, the church was nothing short of spectacular. The walls are lined with altars and chapels: the Calvary Altar, St. Wilfrid's Chapel, Blessed Sebastian's Altar, the Seven Dolours Chapel. Parishioners drifted to particular altars for prayers before Mass, but I visited each of them. At each, I tried not to feel overwhelmed by the elaborate altars and elegant statues, the marble pillars and sparkling chandeliers, the bas-relief Stations of the Cross and the light pouring in from the dome before the altar.

Each chapel is somewhat cavernous, with rows of chairs standing before it, ready to hold petitioners or worshippers at Mass. Behind the altar hung, in most of the chapels, a portrait of the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated. Many of these were commissioned by priests of the oratory. St. Joseph's Chapel and the Lady Chapel are the exceptions. Behind the one altar stands a sculpture of St. Joseph and behind the other a statue of Our Lady of Victories that dates back to an earlier oratory on a different London street.

The Lady Chapel is also unique because it originally belonged to a different church. It was part of the Chapel of the Rosary in a Dominican church in Brescia, Italy. When that church was demolished and its contents put up for sale, one of the oratory fathers discovered the chapel and had it transported to England. The oratory has put its mark on the chapel, so to speak, by adding sculptures of St. Pius V, a contemporary of St. Philip, and St. Philip himself.

Mind on the Mass

It would take a crowd of considerable proportions to fill a church this size; I noticed many empty seats around mine. Yet quite a few worshippers attended this 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. We prayed together the Our Father and the creed, though my pronunciation was different than the others’ and some of the names of individuals for whom we prayed were unfamiliar to me.

I often find it difficult to focus on the liturgy in a church so spectacular. I tend to be distracted by the beauty of the decorations and design. But in Brompton Oratory, I managed to keep my mind on the Mass. Once it began, I didn't so much as glance at the intricate carvings of the pulpit, near which I sat.

The Mass ended all too quickly, and we scattered in different directions — I, like many of the others, stopping off at a chapel before leaving the dim church and plunging into the bright sunlight again.

Outside I was surprised to see an older woman keeping watch over a table filled with books, holy medals and small knickknacks, her tiny dog resting patiently near the cash box. She smiled as I looked the things over, hastening to tell me who had blessed which medal.

I left a pound or two poorer but a medal and a book richer, thinking back on the quick hour I'd spent in Brompton Oratory — a church with three names, a rich history and a special place in my memories of London.

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.