London’s ‘Other’ Grand Catholic Edifice
When London Catholics talk about “the cathedral” they mean only one — Westminster Cathedral, standing at the top of Victoria Street, which leads down to the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and one of the most famous cityscapes in the world.
But there is another cathedral in town: St. George’s in Southwark, which, as its name implies, is on the south bank of the Thames. This historic sanctuary serves the diocese that covers the whole of south London and its suburbs, including the county of Kent, stretching right down to the sea.
St. George’s Cathedral is a neo-Gothic building. It exudes an air of 19th-century splendor. And yet, in fact, it was reduced to ruins by a bomb in World War II and was rebuilt virtually from scratch in the 1950s.
What you see now is not A.W. Pugin’s original building, but a careful remake, lovingly done. It’s a source of pride to South Londoners, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, as it arose from the ashes and rubble of the postwar years.
This is a corner of London with many Catholic associations. Chaucer’s pilgrims set out from the nearby Tabard Inn. St. John Fisher, the martyred bishop of Rochester — who was beheaded by Henry VIII — had a house nearby.
And, in the penal years that followed, many Catholics were imprisoned in the Clink nearby, a nasty set of dungeons standing starkly by the river.
It was on St. George’s Fields, here on the southern bank of the Thames, that the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots Started on June 7, 1780. Angered by proposals to allow Catholics some freedom of religious worship, rioters led by Lord George Gordon set out on a rampage. They destroyed many Catholic homes and chapels.
There is a tradition that the riot started exactly where the high altar of today’s cathedral stands. In any event, the riots did not prevent the Catholic Relief Act and subsequent laws from being implemented.
Finally, in 1839 — by which time Queen Victoria was on the throne and a new era was beginning for the whole of Britain — land on St. George’s Fields was bought by Catholics.
Pugin, the great architect of the Gothic revival, was commissioned to design a church.
At its opening in July of 1848, Pope Pius IX sent a gift of a chalice.
John Paul Was Here
Disaster came in 1941 when the cathedral caught fire during a massive air-raid on London. Blazing overnight despite the strenuous efforts of exhausted firemen — who also had to attend to innumerable other fires across the southern suburbs — St. George’s was destroyed.
Its rebuilding more than 10 years later was partly funded through the War Damages Commission, but there were also generous donations from the United States and from Ireland.
The new building was solemnly re-opened in July 1958 and a Lady Chapel was added in 1963.
One of the greatest days in the cathedral’s history came in May 1982, when Pope John Paul II visited during his great pilgrimage to Britain. It was here that he administered the Anointing of the Sick to the masses. The entire floor space was given over to beds and wheelchairs; people were brought from across Britain.
While choirs sang and people stood to applaud the Holy Father, he moved quietly up and down the long lines of gravely ill people — caressing faces, blessing, trying to have a heart-to-heart encounter with each person.
Today the cathedral welcomes visitors daily. It is an oasis of calm, as the roar of traffic fades to silence as you walk down its main aisle.
Be sure to look for the Knill Chantry, paid for by a Catholic lord-mayor of London. Visit the beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with its stately wrought-iron gates. And carefully examine the carefully reassembled pieces of the old high altar, rescued from the bombed ruins and now in St. Joseph’s Chapel.
St. George, of course, is the patron saint of England, and he has his own statue in the cathedral.
There is a small chapel dedicated to St. Patrick, a reminder that many Irish people lived here in the cathedral’s early years.
Today the cathedral parish includes large numbers of people whose families originally came from Africa or the Carribean. There is also a substantial enough Latin American population that one of the Sunday Masses is always in Spanish.
The cathedral plays host to a number of major events annually, notably the Chrism Mass at which clergy from across South London and Kent arrive to take part in the blessing of the sacred oils they will use in their ministry throughout the year. Also noteworthy are the national days of various peoples, including Ghanans and Nigerians.
This is a busy, working parish off the usual tourist route. In other words, a perfect place to pray next time you’re in London.
Joanna Bogle writes
Planning Your Visit
For a full schedule of Mass and Confession, along with a virtual tour and much other useful information, visit southwark-rc-cathedral.org.uk/cathedral on the Internet.
St. George’s Cathedral is near the Waterloo railway station and also Lambeth North Underground. It is well signposted at both stations. It stands opposite the Imperial War Museum, which is itself well worth a visit while you’re in the neighborhood.
- January 15-21, 2006