Catholic churches to see before you die

St John Fisher church, North Harrow

I once sat next to a couple of men at some business function which I was attending as a “plus 1” The conversation turned to bucket lists and although relatively young men, they were comparing the things on their lists – exotic locations that they wanted to visit, exciting and risky activities that they would like to try etc.  I was somewhat at a conversational disadvantage because I  do not have a bucket list.  Admittedly, this was in in my Pre Ringing life and perhaps, these days, there are some notable towers I would quite like to ring at before I die, but it would have been a meaningless contribution to the conversation if I had listed 10 desirable rings of bells  that I  wanted a crack at. I admitted my lack of list and I am sure they thought me rather strange – no ambitions, no desire for “more” experiences?

There is a new book by Elena Curti  detailing 50 Catholic churches that one should try and see before one dies. That might have been a conversational stopper if I had listed the churches I wanted to visit, but I can see the attraction.  Obviously, churches built in England before the reformation were Catholic churches, because that was the mainstream Christian religion.  Later, the building of Catholic churches was banned and with the 1559 Act of Uniformity, all Catholic services were forbidden. and it was only with the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act that there became a need for places where  catholics could gather together to celebrate their mass. Hence, many Catholic churches date from the mid 19th century onwards, and many were built in the early to mid 20th.  As  such they are different to what many English people’s visual picture of a church is. If you are used to a medieval nave , with side aisles, chapels, pointy windows, stone floors set with brasses and all the rest of it, then the inside of a more modern catholic place of worship might feel unfamiliar. My own childhood church, which we attended without fail every week from the late 1950s, was built in an emerging London suburb in 1939.  It was designed by Thomas Scott in the Romanesque style –  an interior lined with handmade yellow London stock bricks, herringbone tiled pitch pine floor and simple, uncarved matching pews. I can’t begin to calculate how many hours of my childhood were spent in this visually simple and modest space,  counting floor tiles, window panes, bricks and light bulbs to pass the time, and I now realise that its unadorned charm was a major influence on my aesthetic education and my eventual adult taste.  At the time, I thought it the dreariest space imaginable – nothing to distract the eye or set the imagination on fire – no glorious stained glass or rich hangings  except a few purple shrouds at Easter to hide the odd statue.  No brasses or tablets on the walls, just the most pared down Stations of the Cross to wonder about.  I look at photos of it now and wonder how I could have ever felt slightly ashamed of my parish church – if asked I would have described it then as being not up to much –  a functional, even boring space, which just shows how stupidly ignorant a child can be.

Many, many English catholic churches are like that.  Simple, dignified spaces – not all bells and smells and scary paintings of martyred saints as their continental equivalent are.  These were built at a time to meet the needs of an increasing, but not wealthy, congregation – many of them Irish immigrants, and they were functional buildings but also, in their own way, beautiful.

I do hope that Ms Curti’s book includes an example of such a place.  They deserve more recognition – even if they do mostly lack a tower and therefore some bells.

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