20 February 2022

Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die:
a book review in the ‘Irish Theological Quarterly’

Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die. By Elena Curti. Leominster: Gracewing, 2000. Pp 280. Price £14.99 (pbk). ISBN 978-0-85244-962-2.

Reviewed by: Patrick Comerford, Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe

For much of this year, I have been blogging a daily prayer diary, focussing each morning on a cathedral, church or place of worship, linked each week with a common theme, such as Pugin or Wren churches, Spanish cathedrals, Dublin synagogues, Greek monasteries, Benedictine abbeys or Carmelite friaries.

Each theme has allowed me to draw on rich stream of spirituality week after week. But, inevitably, someone asks why their favourite place was not included in a selection of seven in any one week. It is an envious task to list your favourite restaurants, holiday destinations, movies or books, and omissions are seldom forgiven by those who would have made a very different choice.

But, on a positive note, there are those who come back, saying they had never thought of a visit to a church or cathedral, and promising to visit it when the next opportunity arises.

Elena Curti has set herself an impossible and thankless task with this book. She has limited her scope, confining herself not only to Catholic churches but also to Catholic churches in England and Wales, which is not indicated in the title, but it is confirmed on the back cover.

Elena Curti is an Italian-born English writer and journalist. She has been a Deputy Editor of The Tablet and now specialises in writing about Catholic heritage and conservation.

It is easy to ask why she chose England and Wales, and not just England, or all these islands. But perhaps this is because England and Wales have one hierarchy separate from Scotland and, of course, from Ireland, and she has worked closely during this project with the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Limiting herself to churches, Elena Curti has ruled out some of the great Catholic cathedrals of England, including Westminster Cathedral, Saint George’s Cathedral, Southwark, Saint Chad’s Cathedral by Pugin in Birmingham, and – love it or hate it – the Cathedral of Christ the King or ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ in Liverpool.

But here is a very personal, if not eclectic, choice of 50 churches. They include Gothic Revival, neo-Classical, Byzantine, Arts and Crafts and Modernist buildings, mostly built after Catholic Emancipation, but a few built before the Reformation.

Everyone is going to find some of their favourite churches are missing, everyone is going to question some of the choices, and every reader is going to find churches that must be added to the ‘must-see’ list.

My favourite church is included in her shortlist: Saint Giles in Cheadle was commissioned by John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, whose marriage to Maria Theresa Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford, brought about Pugin’s introduction to Ireland. Pugin called this ‘perfect Cheadle, my consolation in all afflictions.’

There is a short selection of other Pugin works, including Saint Augustine’s, Ramsgate, and Saint Cuthbert’s Chapel at Ushaw College, Durham, but not, for example, his chapel at Saint Mary’s College, Oscott; (a personal favourite) Holy Cross Church, Lichfield, which influenced his designs for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford; or Saint Mary, Uttoxeter, which is relegated to a footnote in her account of Cheadle.

Her pre-Reformation churches include Saint Ethelreda, a late 13th century church at Ely Place in Holborn, which was acquired for the Rosminians in 1873, and the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham.

There are the peculiar stories of how Lord Arundell built All Saints’ Chapel in 1776 as part of his private chapel at Wardour Castle; of the ‘Hidden Chapel’ in a roof at Bar Convent in York; of Saint David’s, Pantasaph, an Anglican Church until the Earl of Denbigh decided to become a Catholic, causing a celebrated court case; and of Saint John and Saint Mary, built a year apart and within 200 yards of each other in Wigan.

Perhaps Saint John the Baptist in Brighton was selected because of its curious links with Mrs FitzHerbert, who entered a clandestine marriage with George IV when he was Prince of Wales.

There are ugly churches too, including Saint Monica’s, Bootle, which looks more like a power station; and Saint Francis Xavier, Hereford, dismissed by Pugin as ‘the new Catholic concert room.’

There are churches that every reader will be familiar with, including Farm Street Church in London, Brompton Oratory, or know the names of, such as Buckfast Abbey, Ampleforth, Downside, or Saint James, Spanish Place.

And there are churches to add ‘must-visit’ lists. Mine now includes Saint John the Baptist, Rochdale, with its mosaics of ‘powerful emotional intensity,’ and the Sacred Heart and Saint Catherine in Droitwich, modelled on the basilicas of Ravenna.

There are more than 50 churches, when one counts in the footnotes and addenda, and there are useful notes on architects, artists and architectural vocabulary. But, because the churches are listed alphabetically by town, rather than being held together by architect, style or region, this may not succeed in being a useful guide. But it is certainly going to inspire readers to draw up their own ‘must-visit’ lists, or to return again with a fresh approach to churches they are already familiar with.

This book review is published in The Irish Theological Quarterly (Maynooth), Vol 87 No 1 (February 2022), pp 78-80.

Praying with the saints in Ordinary Time: 20 February 2022

The Carmelite chapel at Gort Muire, Ballinteer, Co Dublin, was designed by the architects Robinson, Keeffe and Devane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday before Lent and World Day of Social Justice (20 February 2022). Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

The Church Calendar is now in Ordinary Time until Ash Wednesday, 2 March 2022. During this month in Ordinary Time, I hope to continue this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections drawing on the writings of a great saint or spiritual writer;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

At present, I am exploring the writings of the great Carmelite mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), so my quotations over these few days are from her writings:

‘Be happy when you are blamed and accused wrongly, for then you have a chance to see all the bitter, hostile or self-pitying responses that your sinful soul wants to spew out – as if these puny things could in any way defend you! Watch and see if any of these poisons come out of you when your spirit is pricked by an accusation. Only then can you see yourself as you are, and confess thy sin that is within you and forsake yourself again into the Lord’s care.’

Luke 8: 22-35 (NRSVA):

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’ – 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 February 2022, (Second Sunday before Lent, World Day of Social Justice) invites us to pray:

Creator God, you fill us with the breath of life. May we use our lives for your purpose, loving others and loving you.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org