Mary of Abingdon Road

At the end of an afternoon crammed with breakneck sightseeing, the silence of Our Lady of Victories Church beckoned like a harbor during a hurricane.

Scurrying along London's Kensington High Street an evening or two before, I'd caught a glimpse of the simple — I may have even described it as austere — brick exterior of this church, just a few blocks from my hotel. It was tucked in the end of what I would normally have called an alley, but a street sign proved me wrong: Our Lady of Victories is at the end of Abingdon Road.

As soon as I entered the road, though, I found that my first impression had been mistaken. Our Lady of Victories isn't austere, but it is simple and homey.

Tucked in an alcove across from the church, safe from the curious eyes of passers-by, is a little shrine to Our Lady, and the brick wall standing perpendicular to it is brightened with colorful tiles of the Blessed Mother.

I had expected Our Lady of Victories to be cool and contemporary, but already I felt I had misjudged it utterly.

That Saturday afternoon, long before Mass was scheduled to begin, I found myself alone in the church except for a priest who scurried past me, smiling. I was struck by the warm scarlet walls and simple Lenten altar dressings. A series of Gothic arches leapfrogged to the front of the church, the archways pierced by light streaming through clean, contemporary stained-glass windows depicting Bible scenes. On low tables set behind the rear pews lay neat stacks of parish bulletins, pro-life publications and diocesan newspapers.

On the one hand, the church is indeed modern. I spotted signs warning visitors to turn off cell phones, for example, and noted that the sanctuary is protected from intruders by an electric beam. Yet it is also traditional. Carved wooden Stations of the Cross hang along the walls, and there are several places where petitioners can light candles. As I sat there taking it all in, a family entered the church. The parents led the two children in prayer as they lit a candle.

Mark of the Martyrs

The church is also far older than its simple exterior had led me to expect. Our Lady of Victories dates its parish history back to 1794, when a French abbé set up a chapel and school within the current parish boundaries. Mass was held in Kensington in various locations until Our Lady of Victories opened its doors on the Feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, July 2, 1869. That church was gutted by two bombs during World War II; this newer church, built according to the original ground plan, opened officially in 1959.

The church has three chapels, but when I first entered, I only spotted the two that flanked the sanctuary. Once I rose to visit the Lady Chapel, to the right of the altar, I discovered the third chapel in the back of the church.

Inside, a tiny altar was hung with red draperies, and murals of Christ and the angels (originally painted to celebrate the parish's bicentennial) decorated the upper walls and ceilings. From the entry-way you can see the statues of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher; both were martyrs for the faith, refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church when Henry sought an annulment from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

The chapel calls visitors' attention to the 40 English martyrs canonized by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 25, 1970, and the 85 martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II on Nov. 22, 1987.

A Catholic visitor cannot be long in England before realizing — truly feeling, perhaps for the first time — how the Reformation still reverberates in the Church today. Near the statues of the two saints hangs a roughly carved stone head, thought to be a depiction of Jesus. A placard explains that the head was “ploughed up” in an English field. “It could have come from a statue on the Priory Gateway,” the explanation continues, “defaced at the time of dissolution of the monasteries, saved by burial.”

Surprising Zest

Echoes of this trauma have clamored through the centuries; one need only notice that, though there are dozens of churches in London, there are far fewer Catholic houses of worship than Anglican.

If Our Lady of Victories is any indication, however, the smaller population of Catholic churches is surprisingly active and vital, with a primary school and a Mass schedule that includes a sung Latin Sunday liturgy.

While I dawdled in this chapel, gaping at the murals and the statues, parishioners began trickling in. I left the martyrs' chapel and headed toward the Lady Chapel that I had originally intended to visit when I was sidetracked by St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.

Perhaps especially because of the contrast with the more somber martyrs' chapel, the Lady Chapel can be described only as radiant. Decorated in blue, white and green, the small chapel had a bas relief of the Madonna behind the brilliantly-painted altar. Misty with incense, the space was filled with parishioners — and there was still some time until Mass. I'd arrived too late to take part and had to wait to enter the chapel until the parishioners had emptied out and I could squeeze in.

On the other side of the altar is the Sacred Heart Chapel, far simpler than the Lady Chapel. And in the back of the church, across from the martyrs' chapel, is a small shop where volunteers sell medals, books and other religious items.

It's a lesson so many of us think we have learned: Appearances deceive. The simple exterior of Our Lady of Victories encloses a wealth of beauty, history and activity that so many people, hustling past the alley to catch a bus or tube, never suspect.

How lucky I was to discover this hidden treasure in the heart of bustling London.

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.