Mary Old England

The clerk at King's Cross Station told us that the Cambridge town center was a “nice walk” from the train station.

With that, we hopped on the bus waiting outside the station when we disembarked from our hourlong train ride from London. After all, we reasoned, the British sense of a “nice walk” might be altogether too much for our tired American feet.

Had we known that the bus ride would last all of five minutes, we might have decided to risk the walk — but I'm glad we didn't, because on the bus I first caught a glimpse of Our Lady and the English Martyrs Catholic Church.

We meandered through Cambridge, dawdling on the banks of the River Cam, gaping at the spectacular college buildings and poking around a market. Always, though, the thought tapped away at me: I wonder if that church is open.

On the hike back to the train station (only after a day of sightseeing could a five-minute bus ride translate into a walk that arduous), I found out.

Signs directed us to the back of the church, where we found ourselves the only visitors. The stone church soared up above us, pillars and peaked Gothic arches unfurling along the church's 158 feet. Everywhere I looked, there was something to hold my interest: vivid stained-glass windows of Our Lady and the 40 English martyrs, shrines and chapels, the Stations of the Cross carved in stone, the well-used wooden pews in which Cambridge Catholics and visitors from around the world have worshiped together.

As far as English churches are concerned, OLEM — as parishioners refer to it — is a mere stripling. It was built by a Cambridge firm between 1885 and 1890, funded solely by a former ballet dancer at Drury Lane in London and with the Paris Opera, Yolande Marie Louise Lyne-Stephens, the widow of a wealthy banker.

According to parish history, Lyne-Stephens was determined to establish the church on the feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15), while the first rector, Msgr. Christopher Scott, wanted to commemorate the English martyrs who had perished between 1535 and 1681. More than 30 of them had been in residence at Cambridge University.

Blood Witnesses

OLEM is a wonderful marriage of these two commemorations.

(This Oct. 25, by the way, marks the 33rd year since Pope Paul VI canonized the 40 English martyrs in 1970. Meanwhile, Oct. 19 is the feast of one of them in particular: St. Philip Howard.)

Over the west door stands the figure of Our Lady of the Assumption, while the English martyrs are depicted in the west window in two groups: one headed by St. John Fisher, representing the clergy, and one headed by St. Thomas More, representing the laity.

These two groups of martyrs also march along the side windows, which are not original to the church. The original windows were destroyed when OLEM was hit by a bomb in 1941, but they were subsequently re-created according to the original designs — which, in some cases, depict the tortures the martyrs suffered before their deaths.

The north-aisle windows are dedicated to the laity, featuring likenesses of St. Thomas More and others, while the south windows depict scenes from the life of St. John Fisher. Both were martyred when they refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church in England (when Henry sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn).

At the west end of the south aisle, not far from the altar, is the Chapel of Souls. Above the chapel altar is a massive sculpture depicting the solace given to souls in Purgatory by Our Lady, who crowns the sculpture, and the angel who comforted Christ in Gethsemane.

In the church proper there are two altars — a modern altar now used in Mass and high altar with relics of St. Felix and St. Constantia, martyrs. The baldacchi-no sheltering the high altar is an intricately carved Gothic arch, atop which angels — five on each side — kneel in adoration before the risen Christ, who stands on the peak. This baldacchino is similar to the one covering the tomb of Robert the Wise, a 14th-century king of Sicily and Naples.

We had little time to spend in the church, since we had a train to catch. My memory is of cool gray stone and warm wood, illuminated by watery sunlight streaming through the colorful windows, and of intricate chapels and lovingly carved statues.

Back at home, I lingered over the parish bulletin and the other fliers I'd hastily collected from the rear of the church and regretted that I didn't have a chance to know this parish better. It's a truly English church with large enough numbers of Italian and Polish parishioners to require Masses said in those languages, a parish where all congregants at the first Friday early morning Mass are invited to breakfast at the rectory.

It is a parish, too, that carries out its evangelical and catechetical mission realistically. A notice in the bulletin reminds parishioners to keep a close eye on their belongings, and a sign in the church informs readers that, due to an unfortunate recent event, Euch-aristic adoration would be held only if more than one person participated.

I left OLEM reluctantly. Even my backward glances were rewarded by a herd of gargoyles I hadn't noticed earlier. With a smile, I shouldered my bag and hiked the rest of the way to the train station — knowing that, though I would have preferred to linger, I had at least dipped a little deeper into the enlightening history of our Catholic faith.

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.