Fr Alexander Sherbrooke tells the story of how St Patrick’s discovered its mission in London today and how this is inspired by the loving example and radical witness of the saints.
Our Church was consecrated on 29th September 1792 and was perhaps the first public parish in London after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century. Compared to the 2000 years of Christian history, these 230 years of St Patrick’s is a relatively small amount of time but since 1792 our church has been playing its part in building the kingdom of God in London.
In recent times what has marked the parish is the diaspora of residents who have moved from the city centre. There are now very few people who live within the parish boundaries which of course creates challenges but also provides opportunities for new missionary endeavours. The new millennium has witnessed three very particular initiatives, all of which have their roots in the years past where priests and people sought to serve the people of the West End.
First, there has been the desire for St Patrick’s to be graced by Eucharistic Adoration throughout the day and night.
Second, there is the continuing imperative to go to Christ in the poor, abandoned and destitute by way of providing hospitality, accommodation, and food.
Third, there is the overriding missionary call to bring the love of Jesus to a world that has forgotten to listen.
As this new chapter unfolded we spent many hours adoring the Blessed Sacrament on our knees. This wasn’t some kind of self-mortification but a deep desire to know and hear what the Lord was asking of us. A large but bankrupt building needed either to be sold or to re-find its vocation.
Every time Catholics gather for Holy Mass we believe that the bread and wine through the hands of the priest become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ which we also know as the Blessed Sacrament. The real presence is reserved in what is known as the Tabernacle which means that every time we come into Church and we see the red sanctuary lamp lit up high, we know that Jesus Christ is truly present.
It is often the case that the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the Tabernacle and placed upon the altar for Eucharistic Adoration. It is a practice that is both ancient and ever-new and it grounds us in our relationship with God and with each other. What is happening in that time of silence and prayer is that Christ is reaching out to us in love and mercy and we are invited to respond in faith by giving ourselves to Him.
In 2020 we unveiled six fine stained glass windows which chart the history, spirituality, and mission of the parish. Each of these saints inspire a different part of our work at St Patrick’s.
St Therese of Lisieux
So much of modern life witnesses discussion about love, of how we can find it and how hunger for it can be satisfied in our lives. Inevitably this produces false loves which can lead to the unhappiness and brokenness of many of our brothers and sisters. St Therese of Lisieux, who died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 24, entered her convent at the age of 15. She is perhaps the best known and most loved of all modern saints and speaks to us of the very simple equation of love.
She understood in her unique and individual way what it means to receive the love of God and to reach out to our brothers and sisters with that same love. She never left the convent after she entered but we hold her up as the patroness of the missions. This means that wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached in our world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, St Therese is there informing and speaking to us of God’s love and she continues to do so here in Soho.
St Francis of Assisi
‘Il Poverello’ meaning ‘the little poor one’ was the name given to Francis of Assisi. He now stands high in St Patrick's church and was chosen because of the many generations of Italians who have lived in Soho, run restaurants, ‘duck and dived’, come to Mass and brought wonderful foods to this neighbourhood. St Francis of Assisi was a radical Christian because he saw the presence of God in all situations and people. He saw how the birds, the bees, the flowers of nature, warring peoples and corrupt Churchmen could all find their way to being embraced and loved by God. His radical embrace of poverty meant that he had nothing except his love of Christ and desire to show Christ to the people of his time.
The beauty and simplicity of poverty is not an easy concept but its tragic narrative marks Soho and the West End. It has done so for many years, from Hogarth’s Gin Lane, the tales of Charles Dickens who used the streets of Soho as his material for his tales of inner-city poverty, to the mass ranks of soldiers demobbed after the trenches of the First War who gathered in Trafalgar Square. For all, what marks them is that they have a radical closeness to Christ. We may think of this part of London as being paved with streets of gold and, while that is true, poverty waltzes in a tragic embrace with glamour on these streets.
St Teresa of Calcutta
At present, the parish feeds the poor, vulnerable, and homeless six days out of seven and at the height of the pandemic in April and May 2020 we were reaching out to perhaps 350 people every day. This apostolic work is something that is not new, indeed it has marked the parish from its foundation in 1792 but has perhaps in recent years taken on a different guise.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta could be considered a modern-day Francis and continues to inspire from Heaven those who would like to make the world a better place. The thirst for love in the human soul is most marked in those who are discarded and despised. She has inspired many to bring love and to meet love in the poorest of the poor and is a regular participant in our work with those suffering from addiction, the homeless, and those simply burdened by the terrible weight of loneliness.
Venerable Mother Magdalene Taylor
Venerable Mother Magdalene Taylor was a remarkable woman for her time. As a daughter of an Anglican parson, she went to nurse in the Crimea as a companion of Florence Nightingale. Interestingly another resident of the Square was Anne Seacole who had also been a great pioneer during that war.
Mother Magdalene became a Catholic as she nursed the dying soldiers and started to gather around her companions to share in the work of reaching out to the poor and destitute. Unsurprisingly, when she returned to London, Soho, its slums and poor was a place where she started her work. We see her in the window talking to a young girl caught up in the world of prostitution.
St Damian of Molokai
St Damian of Molokai went from Belgium to the leper colony of Molokai close to Hawaii in the Pacific in the middle of the 19th Century. It was a colony of total chaos, crime, prostitution, disorder, and self-loathing. Damian was able to harness the action of the Holy Spirit to change that place into one of order, respect, family life and most important – dignity in death. He also died of leprosy but had shifted the attitudes of so many contemporaries to accepting leprosy, not as a cause of civil division and hatred but a force of nature that needed to be confronted by prayer, good medicine, and human respect.
Damian stands high in the church of St Patrick’s as he continues to influence and form us in how we should value and nurture human life and particularly to reach out to Christ those who are most broken, sick, and disfigured by the unpredictable forces of nature, not least many of the viruses of modern times.
In 2010 the parish completed a £4 million work of restoration in which we were able to improve, beautify, and modernise the Church and create a parish centre for our outreach to the poor. The world is ugly in many ways because of what we do to each other, therefore, how important that beauty and, in particular that which comes from the heart of God, is able to shine out. The restoration that was made possible by many benefactors and charities once again returns St Patrick’s as a place of beauty, prayer, and solitude in this often busy and chaotic neighbourhood.
It wasn’t to be the last restoration for on the 12th December 2020 we opened the church after a second restoration of 12 months of repair, painting, and improvements, occasioned by the damage caused by the Crossrail excavation that happened immediately underneath our building. On that day we gathered many young people to celebrate the reopening as we wanted to give a real sign of hope and faith to those who had been left often isolated, alone, but confident of their faith during the long days of lockdown.
Today, as you wander into St Patrick’s lit, open, and beautiful space, it lends itself for all as a powerhouse of prayer, conversion, and repentance. How many have crossed the threshold and found silence and solace amongst the noisy and chaotic streets of the West End of London? In these works of restoration and the new stained glass windows, there is another chapter of how God has protected this Church.