20 May 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
93, Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine

Inside the Chapel of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse in the East End of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, we are in an ‘in-between week’, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. My photographs this week are from places I associate with the life of USPG. Earlier in this series, I introduced the Chapel in the USPG offices in Southwark and its stained glass windows (20 March 2021).

This morning (20 May 2021), my photographs are from the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine’s in Limehouse, in the East End of London. I have stayed during residential meetings of trustees of USPG in November 2016 and in January 2018, and we had planned to meet there once again at the end of last year until the pandemic lockdown prevented this.

Saint Katharine’s stands at the East End crossroads connecting Stepney, Shadwell and Limehouse, close to the site of the old docks. It is just a few steps from Cable Street, the scene of a famous street battle 85 years ago between Oswald Moseley’s fascists and the East End communities who protected the local Jewish people against racist taunts and assaults on 4 October 1936.

The Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine’s dates back to 1147, when it was founded by Queen Matilda. Since then, this has been a centre for worship, hospitality and service for many centuries.

Originally known as Saint Katharine’s By The Tower, it has been a mediaeval church, hospital and centre of Saint Katharine’s precinct, a liberty housing over 2,000 people. It once had its own courts, prisons, factories and breweries and prisons.

Saint Katharine’s by the Tower – its full name was the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of Saint Katharine by the Tower – was a mediaeval church and hospital next to the Tower of London. The church was a royal peculiar and the precinct around it was an extra-parochial area, eventually becoming a civil parish that was dissolved in 1895.

Saint Katharine’s was founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda, the wife of King Stephen, in memory of two of her children, Baldwin and Matilda, who died in infancy and were buried in the Priory Church of Holy Trinity at Aldgate.

The endowment was increased by two Queens of England, Eleanor of Castile, who gave a gift of manors, and Philippa of Hainault. After a dispute over its control, Queen Eleanor granted a new charter in 1273, reserving the patronage of the Foundation to the Queens of England.

This was a religious community and mediaeval hospital for poor infirm people next to the Tower of London. The foundation included a Master, six ‘poor clerks’ or priests, three brethren, three sisters and a beadswoman. Unusually for that time, the brothers and sisters had equal rights.

Its status as a Liberty and the fact it was personally owned and protected by the Queen Mother, saved Saint Katharine’s at the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation.

Commercial pressure for larger docks up-river led to Saint Katharine’s, with its 14th and 15th century buildings and some 3,000 inhabitants, being demolished in 1825 to provide a dock close to the heart of the City. The land was excavated and flooded to form a new dock. This was the smallest of London’s docks and was named Saint Katharine Docks.

The institution now called the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine’s moved to Regent’s Park, where it took the form of almshouses, and continued for 125 years.

After World War II, Saint Katharine’s moved back to its spiritual home in the East End in 1948, and moved onto the site in Limehouse of Saint James’s Church, Ratcliff, which had been destroyed in the Blitz.

The foundation was housed in the Georgian vicarage and over time a new complex has grown up around it, carefully built to preserve the sense of an oasis in the city.

In Limehouse, Saint Katharine’s became a retreat house with Father St John Groser, the revolutionary Anglo-Catholic slum priest, as Master. A decade earlier, he had played a significant role in the defence of Cable Street in 1936. He was joined by members of the Community of the Resurrection from Mirfield in providing worship and service in the area, and the foundation remained under the care of the Community of the Resurrection for 45 years until 1993.

The chapel was built in 1951 on the site of the bombed parish church of Saint James’s, Ratcliffe. But the 1950s were a period of austerity, and the chapel was dark with small windows and a central altar that limited its capacity and its flexibility for worship.

In 2004, Saint Katharine’s modernised and expanded its facilities to include a retreat and conference centre, so making available its hospitality more widely within the Church of England and to other churches, charities, voluntary and public sector bodies and to associated individuals.

The chapel was refurbished in 2004 by the architect Jonathan Dinewell. He transformed the chapel successfully with larger windows, relocating the choir stalls, moving the altar to the east under a Saint Katharine’s wheel rose window, and introducing some of the foundation’s historic monuments into the chapel. His restoration led to a much lighter and brighter interior, with its large windows and enhanced sense of peace.

At each side of the doors leading into the chapel are statues of Queen Philippa (left) and King Edward III (right). The glazed entry doors came from Andrew Pynter’s chapel built in 1828 when Saint Katharine’s moved to Regent’s Park.

Above the door are carved 17th century panels with putti, the side ones making music and singing.

The Altar in Welsh slate was designed by Keith Murray and carved with inscriptions from Roman catacombs by Ralph Bayer. The inscription on the altar facing into the chapel reads: ‘Behold I lay in Sion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious / and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded’ (I Peter 2: 6).

The reredos above the altar is a remarkable relief of the Adoration of the Magi, which was moved out of the Cloister in 2004 and restored. The imagery is similar to a painting from the 1470s by Benevenuto di Giovanni in the National Gallery in London. Above the reredos, an east window was installed in 2004 depicting the wheel on which Saint Katharine was tortured before her martyrdom.

In front of the Altar, in the centre of the floor of the chapel, a Compass Rose was laid in 2004 with a circle of granite brought back from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the slopes of Mount Sinai, the world’s oldest Christian monastery (see 3 April 2021).

The eight arms of the compass denote the seven days of creation and the day of the Resurrection, and point to the corners of the earth, calling us to ‘Go, proclaim the Gospel to all nations.’ The ring encircling the compass is inscribed with words of Saint Augustine of Hippo: ‘We do not come to God by navigation but by love.’

The richly carved choir stalls came from the mediaeval Church of Saint Katharine by the Tower. They are outstanding examples of 14th century wood-carving but, alas, are only a fragment of the 24 stalls that survived until the 18th century. All these stalls have misericords with delightfully lively figures.

The oak panels around the chapel are decorated with the coats of arms of some of the Masters of Saint Katharines’s from the 15th to the 19th century. The hexagonal pulpit has marquetry panels of domes and spired churches. It was once believed that this pulpit was a gift of former master Sir Julius Caesar, but recent studies suggest that it is an 18th century work based on earlier designs.

High on the west wall of the chapel hangs a crucifix carved by Michael Groser, son of the first post-war Master, Father St John Groser.

The entrance to the chapel with statues of Queen Philippa, left, and King Edward III, right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 20-26 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The Altar in the chapel designed by Keith Murray with the reredos above (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 May 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for innovative ways in which to share the Gospel during a pandemic. May we use this crisis as an opportunity to spread the Word.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Master’s stall among the choir stalls in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

A carved relief of Saint Katharine on the north wall of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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