By Gabrielle Morgan
After years of yearning to see England, I had at last arrived in London. My great grandparents had emigrated from England to Australia in the l850’s, so I felt a strong connection and was eager to investigate the marvels of that immense city.
I set out on foot from Earl’s Court, where I was staying, and headed for the famed Harrods Department Store in Kensington. A gleaming Rolls Royce graced one of the windows close to the Royal Patronage emblem on the side of the building, undoubtedly setting a tone of affluence and distinction. I was excited to see the interior of such a renowned and exclusive store.
I wasn’t disappointed. I roamed around various departments and was tempted by the outstanding selection of goods displayed for the much wealthier than I. The décor was created to captivate the emotions and indeed lure to buy. Not to be outdone by the status of my surrounds, I ordered coffee from the gourmet food hall before I set out to walk down the Brompton Road.
It was the middle of the afternoon and I was tired but determined to keep going and not miss any aspect of London life. As I walked along, I noticed a large, impressive, church building with an Italianate facade complete with columns and high dome at the rear. A sign informed me it was the ‘London Oratory, Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, built in 1880 – 1884’.
I went into the church and immediately became aware of a tangible reverence, the stillness only interrupted by the people who quietly walked through, all intent on seeking prayerful solace.
A Mass was in progress in front of the High Altar. I joined the congregation and from my seat in a pew marvelled at all I could see. Candles flickered in shining gold candelabra illuminating the richness of the religious masterpiece above them. The priest wore a green chasuble, regulated by the feast of the day, as he solemnly celebrated the Liturgy in its original Latin form. There was an enormous chapel to the right of the High Altar decorated with huge vases of fresh English flowers. The sculptured Madonna and Child traditionally vested in Cope and Crown indicated it was The Lady Chapel. To the left of where I was sitting was the St. Philip Altar in front of which lay a wax effigy of St. Philip of Neri dressed in his Eucharistic vestments.
The sweet smell of incense permeated the air as I followed behind a queue of people moving slowly down the red and ochre carpet to receive the body of Christ in communion. The choir sang a Gregorian chant, and I had reached a somewhat symbiotic state of bliss. I was no longer in the secular world of Harrods, but dwelt in the spirit of the sublime.
After the Mass, I walked around the church investigating the other magnificent altars dedicated to the Saints of the Church. The simplest being the Calvary Altar, where above a lone prayer table hung a superbly carved wooden crucifix. The St.Wilfred Chapel contained the altar of the English martyrs and the only known religious painting by Rex Whistler. I noted the large marble altar in the Lady Chapel had originally been in the Dominican Church in Brescia, Italy and the St. Patrick’s Chapel was decorated with Wood panels painted in 1517-70 by the Flemish painter Frans Floris.
I went on to ponder the wonder of the Chapels of St. Mary Magdalene, St. Joseph, The Sacred Heart, Blessed Sebastian Valfre and the Seven Dolours Chapel with a black and white study of Our Lady of Sorrows. The paintings and statuary in these chapels were breathtaking and small lighted candles indicated the devoted who had prayed before them.
By the time I left the Oratory I was overwhelmed with the impact the visit had made upon me and before I left London I was to be drawn back to experience these emotions three more times.
I wondered at myself devoting so much of my valuable time revisiting the same place when I could have explored so much more of London. Somehow the atmosphere in that Church answered all my needs. I was lifted out of the secular into the divine. Harrods with its enticing array of goods was merely a mirage compared to the wealth of inspiration I found at the Oratory.
I later discovered The Oratory is the second largest Catholic Church in London and is home to the priests of “The Congregation of The Oratory of St. Philip Neri,” or as they are often referred to as, the “Oratarians.”
The Church is dedicated to the memory of St. Philip Neri, a zealous priest, ordained in Rome in 1551. Philip believed that music had the power to uplift the spirit to the divine and to that end he gathered together a small group of laymen for worship introducing them to the love of melody and song. The Italians used the word ‘Oratory” to describe these gatherings. The numbers grew to such an extent that Pope Gregory XIII gave him and his followers the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella which later became Chiesa Nuova. Then Philip formed “The Congregation of the Oratory” with a group of priests and brothers. The Oratory became one of Rome’s famous centres for sacred music. Some of the greatest musicians of the time gained inspiration and musical opportunities from the Roman Oratory. And to this day the “Oratarians” continue the tradition of St. Philip of Neri with serious devotion to worship and song.
There could be nothing finer than hearing Palestrina, Mozart and Bach echo through your heart within the walls of the London Oratory. Glory Be to God!
(c) Gabrielle Morgan