25 October 2023

‘Look for Jesus in the ragged,
… in the oppressed and …
wash their feet’: a notice on
Stony Stratford church door

‘Whosoever thou art that enterest this Chapel’ … the greeting at the church door in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

There is no choir practice in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford because of the half-term break. But there are two challenging notices on the church door that catch my full attention each time I go in or out of the church.

The notice greeting all who push open the door to enter the church tells parishioners and visitors alike: ‘Whosoever thou art that enterest this Chapel know that the Lord Jesus is here present in his Holy Sacrament, kneel then and adore him and pray for thyself, for those who minister and worship here – , nor forget the Souls of the faithful departed.’

The notice that greets everyone who leaves the church and who cares to read it, says: ‘You have adored Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament. Come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets … and find the same Jesus in the people (you meet). after Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar, Second Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923.’

It is good to reminded constantly that the parish church has a vital role in empowering parishioners and visitors alike for Christian service and discipleship in the world outside. There must be a direct connect between liturgy and service of the people.

But the original words of Bishop Frank Weston (1871-1924) in his concluding address at the Anglo-Catholic Congress 100 years ago are more compelling and more demanding than anything that fit into a small notice on a church door.

Bishop Frank Weston’s words on the door out of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Many years ago [30 June 2011], I was the speaker at a conference organised by Affirming Catholicism on the theme: ‘Thy Kingdom Come! Prayer and Mission in the building of The Kingdom.’ The one-day conference was held in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Church House, and I stayed in the Clergy House beside the church, gently conscious of the chimes of Big Ben throughout that night.

Saint Matthew’s was built as a memorial to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott’s son, John Oldrid Scott. The church is in one of the poorer districts of the Borough of Westminster, surrounded by social housing funded by the Peabody Trust, and from its earliest days the church has been closely associated with the recovery of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England.

In the mid-19th century, the people in the area around Great Peter Street lived in abject conditions, and Charles Dickens once described the area notoriously as the ‘Devil’s Acre.’ It is said a house in Old Pye Street was used to teach and train pickpockets, and In 1855 a lodging house in the area was said to have been home to 120 people. It is most likely that this is the area that inspired Dickens as he wrote about Fagin and Oliver Twist.

One description of the area noted: ‘It is in these narrow streets, and in these close and insalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.’

The Church responded to these squalid problems by building four new churches in this part of Westminster, and in 1844 the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey gave £1,000 towards building Saint Matthew’s, Westminster. The foundation stone was laid on 8 November 1849, and the church was consecrated on 30 June 1851.

The Clergy House and Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster ... an integral part of mission in this inner-city area for more than 170 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first vicar of Saint Matthew’s, the Revd Richard Malone, faced a major challenge in his missionary work. It is indicative of his work that the first person he baptised was not a child, but William Brown, a mature 27-year-old and the adult son of a harness maker.

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh – who has been one of my inspirations in ministry and mission since I first encountered his story in 1971 when he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg – was a curate in Saint Matthew’s for a short period 50 years ago, from 1973 to 1974, after he was forced into exile from South Africa.

Another former curate there, from 1896 to 1898, was Frank Weston, whose quote faces me each time as I open the door to leave Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford. Frank Weston was of the foremost leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement and a model ‘slum priest’. He taught daily in the Church School and in Catechism classes on Sunday afternoons. In March 1898, he wrote: ‘I have in tow about twenty young ruffians, mostly immoral little pagans, only four communicants.’

Despite the poor social conditions in the parish, according to his biographer, Frank Weston reported that this was ‘a parish where all was at peace and everything went on as if by clockwork. The services in the church and meals in the Clergy House could alike be depended on, but the first were elaborate and the others were not!’

After two years at Saint Matthew’s, Frank Weston was called to missionary work in Africa. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908. His combination of incarnational and sacramental theology with radical social concerns formed the keynote of his concluding address to the second Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923. He believed that the sacramental focus gave a reality to Christ’s presence and power that nothing else could. ‘The one thing England needs to learn is that Christ is in and amid matter, God in flesh, God in sacrament.’

And so he concluded: ‘But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in His Blessed Sacrament, then, when you come out from before your tabernacles, you must walk with Christ, mystically present in you through the streets of this country, and find the same Christ in the peoples of your cities and villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum … It is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.’

And he concluded: ‘You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.’

My friend and colleague, the Revd Canon Professor Mark Chapman, is Vice-Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon and Professor of the History of Modern Theology in the University of Oxford. He was speaking at the same conference and told me these words were written by Bishop Frank Weston as he stayed once again in Saint Matthew’s as he prepared for that conference in 1923. He died a year later, on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 1924.

They were appropriate words to recall as I spoke at that Affirming Catholicism conference in Saint Matthew’s on: ‘Prayer, mission and building the kingdom: the work of USPG.’ And they are appropriate words to be reminded of each time I go in and out of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford.

The memorial in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, to the former curate, Bishop Frank Weston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (150) 25 October 2023

Santa Lucia alla Badia, a baroque-style church near the Cathedral of Syracuse, is said to stand on the site where Saint Lucy was martyred (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XX, 22 October 2023). The Church Calendar today (25 October 2023) remembers Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian (ca 287), Martyrs at Rome.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

My reflections on the Week of Prayer for World Peace concluded on Sunday, and my reflections each morning for the rest of this week are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Sicily;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Santa Lucia alla Badia and the Cathedral of Syracuse (left) on the Piazza Duomo on the island of Ortigia in the historic centre of Syracuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Santa Lucia alla Badia, Syracuse:

Santa Lucia alla Badia is a baroque-style church on the south corner of the Piazza Duomo, close the Cathedral of Syracuse, on the island of Ortigia in the historic centre of the city in Sicily. The church and former convent next door are now the venue for exhibitions and functions.

Saint Lucy was a third century martyr from Syracuse whose feast day is celebrated on 13 December. She is known as the protector of eyes. The church is said to stand on the site where Saint Lucy was martyred.

The church and the Benedictine convent have been on the site since at least by the mid-15th century, under the patronage or Queen Isabella of Spain. There is no documentation on the church and convent before her reign, and she may have only refurbished them.

From the mid-15th century the church and convent played an important place in the life of the city, because of its position in Ortigia and because of its connection with Saint Lucy, the patron saint of Syracuse.

Caravaggio’s painting the ‘Burial of Saint Lucy’ was originally painted for the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. It was moved to this church for a time, and is one of the last works by Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), known as Caravaggio.

Caravaggio spent the last three tragic years of his life in Sicily, having fled Malta. During this brief period, he was commissioned to paint the ‘Burial of Santa Lucy,’ and he completed the work in just over a month. It is possible to interpret the work as autobiographical, with the artist trying to bury his tormented pain with the saint’s body.

The church is also associated with a miracle in 1646 attributed to Saint Lucy. During a time of famine, a large crowd gathered to pray to Saint Lucy, when a dove alighted on the bishop’s throne, announcing the arrival of ships with a cargo of food, which the crew exchanged for hospitality.

For centuries, on the first Sunday of every May, the nuns in the convent celebrated the festival of the ‘Quails of Santa Lucia’ (Santa Lucia delle Quaglie), when the nuns released doves and quails from the balcony of the church. A modified ceremony is still re-enacted in the Piazza del Duomo during the Festa di Santa Lucia in December.

The convent and church were destroyed by the earthquake that devastated Sicily in 1693. The original façade may have been part of an east-west orientation of the church, overlooking the narrow Via Picherali. The church was rebuilt between 1695 and 1703 to designs by the architect Luciano Caracciolo. The façade was then moved to face the Piazza Duomo, the venue for many religious celebrations.

The tall façade is entirely made of clear limestone, with a wrought-iron balcony that divides it into two levels. The Baroque doorway is flanked by two spiralling Solomonic columns, and topped by an arched pediment with carved symbols of the martyrdom of Santa Lucy, the patron of Syracuse, including a column, a sword, a palm and a crown. The frieze reads In Honorem Sanctae Luciae Vir. & Mar. Siracusana.

To the sides, above two flanking niches, are the coat of arms of the Spanish monarchy during the rule of Phillip V in 1705, including the symbols of the kingdoms of Leon (lion), Castilla (castle), Aragon (vertical stripes) and Sicily (eagles and stripes).

The cloistered nuns used the elaborate metal balcony on the second floor to watch religious processions and celebrations in the piazza without mingling with the people below.

Inside the church, a single nave leads to an apse with the dome. On the side walls of the nave stand 12 projecting columns with four Baroque altars. The apse is an octagonal space as large as the nave, with the altar settled in the middle.

The decorative stucco work is by Biagio Bianco of Licodia in 1705, and some of it was gilded in the late 18th century. The church was embellished and enriched in work carried out in 1783, including the decoration of the vault with the ‘Triumph of Santa Lucia,’ a fresco by Deodato Guinaccia depicting the miracle of Saint Lucy in 1646.

A reliquary made of silver was completed by Francesco Tuccio in 1726. On the right is an altarpiece by Giuseppe Reati, depicting the ‘Miracle of Saint Francis of Paola’ (1641). Other treasures in the church include two 14th century wooden crucifixes.

The church was damaged structurally during World War II, the original metal balcony was dismantled for military uses, and the metal cross once at the top was removed because of its instability. After the war, the church was rebuilt to replicate the earlier interiors in the late Baroque style. The tile flooring of the nave was damaged by dampness and was replaced in 1970 with quadrangular majolica-painted tiles in the style of the original 18th century flooring.

The convent to the east and south of the church extended down to Piazzetta San Rocco. The cloistered nuns used an oval parlour beside the church to meet family members.

Caravaggio’s painting was moved from the church and was long exhibited in the museum of Palazzo Bellomo and then in the Church of Saint Lucy al Sepolcro before being returned to Santa Lucia alla Badia in 2009. Its subsequent moves have been controversial, and the place it once had behind the altar is now filled by a painting of Saint Lucy by Deodato Guinaccia.

As for the body of Saint Lucy, it was stolen from Syracuse in 1039 and again from Constantinople in 1204, when it was taken to Venice. At first, her body was kept in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, opposite Saint Mark’s Square. Boats carrying pilgrims from Syracuse in 1279 capsized in rough seas, and some pilgrims were drowned. Her relics were then transferred her relics to a church in Cannaregio. This church was named Santa Lucia and was rebuilt by Andrea Palladio in 1580.

When Palladio’s church was demolished to make way for the new railway station, her body was moved to San Geremia in 1861. The train station is still named Santa Lucia. The façade of San Geremia facing the Grand Canal has a large inscription: ‘Saint Lucia, Virgin of Siracusa, rests in peace in this church. You inspire a bright future and peace for Italy and the entire World.’

The Baroque doorway of the church is flanked by two spiralling Solomonic columns and topped by an arched pediment with carved symbols of the martyrdom of Santa Lucy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 39-48 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

41 Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ 42 And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’

The cloistered nuns used the elaborate metal balcony on the second floor to watch religious processions and celebrations in the piazza without mingling with the people below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers: USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Praying for Peace.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, Chaplain of Saint Nicholas.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for peace throughout the world. For an end to all conflicts including the Ukraine.

The Collect:

God, the giver of life,
whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church:
by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ
and make us eager to do your will,
that we may share with the whole creation
the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life,
and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The body of Saint Lucy in a shrine in the Chiesa di Santi Geremia a Lucia in Venice (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

Saint Lucy is depicted on the entrance to the Chiesa di Santi Geremia a Lucia facing Campo San Geremia in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)