22 January 2020
Saint Mary Moorfields is
the only Roman Catholic
church in the City of London
When I was in London earlier this week, I was staying in Paul Street, near Liverpool Street Station, and for the first time ever visited Saint Mary Moorfields Church in Eldon Street, between Moorgate and Liverpool Street station.
This is the only Roman Catholic church in the City of London. Saint Etheldreda in Ely Place is actually in the Borough of Camden, and the Church of the English Martyrs near Tower Hill station is in the Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Indeed, until 1994, this church was within the Borough of Hackney, so that there was no Roman Catholic church in the City for more than 300 years.
Saint Mary Moorfields at 4-5 Eldon Street is squeezed between two shopfronts in Eldon Street near Moorgate. The dedication of Saint Mary Moorfields is an odd one, for Moorfields is some way to the north of here. The reason is interesting and an accident of history.
The present church traces its continuity back to the first post-Reformation Roman Catholic chapel in the City, established in Lime Street in 1686, during in the reign of James II. However, this chapel was suspended in 1689, following the Williamite Revolution in 1688.
The Lime Street chapel was suppressed, and later re-established in Grub Street, now Milton Street, near Moorfields. There may have been many secretive, illegal Catholic chapels scattered throughout the City during the Penal years, and Roman Catholics could also attend the chapels of Catholic embassies such as Spain and Portugal.
The Gordon Riots of 1780 resulted in the destruction of a chapel in White Street. But following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791, the White Street chapel was rebuilt. In 1817, the Revd Joseph Hunt built a church on the east side of Finsbury Circus. This church was designed by John Newman in the neo-classical style and opened in 1820 as Saint Mary Moorfields.
When the Roman Catholic hierarchy was re-established in England and Wales in 1850, this earlier Saint Mary Moorfields was chosen by Cardinal Wiseman as the Pro-Cathedral of London and as his episcopal seat. Cardinal Wiseman’s Requiem Mass was celebrated in Saint Mary’s, and Cardinal Henry Manning was ordained bishop there too.
Saint Mary’s remained the Pro-Cathedral for London until 1869, when the title of Pro-Cathedral was transferred to the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington.
By then, however, plans were well-advanced to build a new cathedral more suited to the triumphalism of the day. The Roman Catholic Church acquired a huge site off Victoria Street in west London in 1884, and building work at Westminster Cathedral began in 1895.
Meanwhile, increasing land values and the construction of the new Underground railway led to the sale and of the site of Saint Mary Moorfields and the church was demolished.
The replacement church for the Moorfields parishioners was designed by the architect George Sherrin (1843-1909), who was based in London and Ingatestone, Essex. Sherrin also designed the dome of the Brompton Oratory, some London Underground Stations, and the Old Spitalfields Market, one of the finest surviving Victorian market halls in London.
The new church retained the dedication of the original church at Finsbury Square. The new site on Eldon Street, about halfway between Liverpool Street and Moorgate stations, was an already established commercial one. Sherrin rebuilt the entire row on Eldon Street between 1899 and 1903, squeezing a narrow entrance to the church between two shops.
Despite this, the church has a grand, classical entrance, with large reliefs above the main entrance depicting four significant events in the story of the Blessed Virgin: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Deposition and the Assumption. Above these reliefs is a statue of the Virgin and the Christ Child, crowned by cherubs.
The church was completed at the end of 1902, and opened on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1903.
As the visitor steps down into the long, almost windowless church, the only daylight comes from rooflights in the long, domed ceiling. Because of the limitations of the site, Sheerin aligned the church is aligned on a north/south axis rather the traditional east/west axis.
To the left, a ‘north aisle’ runs to along the geographical west side of the church. Arcades, which are blank on the liturgical south (right-hand) side, and the ceiling lead the eye towards the vertical columns of the apse, creating a sense of height and depth. The gravitas is enhanced by a large crucifix. The six marble columns are the work of GR Comelli, who also designed the altar, originally intended as Cardinal Wiseman’s sarcophagus.
The wide font, decorated with cherubs, was brought from the old church, and it was given a font cover typical of the 17th century City of London style, but in many ways the new church was really a condensation of the old.
Despite the date of 1903, the interior of Saint Mary Moorfields is really a design of 80 years earlier, and that itself was a Georgian reimagining of the Italian 15th century. The tympanum above the shrine to Saint Thomas More at the south end of the aisle depicts his execution in 1920s mosaic style.
At the other end of the aisle, the altar is surmounted by stained glass, though this is not actually a window, depicting the Assumption, flanked by Saint Thomas Becket and Saint Thomas More. This may have been installed when Thomas More was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1935, although they appear to be the work of a decade or so earlier.
The earliest known pipe organ associated with the parish dates from the late 18th century and may have been come from the White Street chapel after the Gordon Riots chapel in White Street. The next pipe organ was installed ca 1830 by the organ-builders Bevington and Son, and was rebuilt by William Hill & Sons ca 1871-1873.
The present pipe organ in the gallery at the liturgical west end was made by the organ building firm of Corps. The organ was bought second-hand, but its original location is unknown.
The church is open from 6.45 am to 6.45 pm each weekday. The parish priest, Father Chris Vipers, is also Priest-in-Charge of the neighbouring parish of Saint Joseph, Bunhill Row.