Friday, 29 April 2011

Transformation in the heart of Soho

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A historic parish Church in the heart of London is gearing up for a new era of evangelisation - with the adoration of God at the heart of all its activity.

While in London yesterday, I had a tour of the works that are going on at St Patrick’s, Soho Square. Soho is a byword for chic restaurants and bohemian culture; sadly it is also known as a centre of sleaze, prostitution, drug addiction and other ills. Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, the parish priest of St Patrick’s, spoke to me of his parish, probably the oldest public parish in Westminster Diocese, founded in 1792. He suggested that it was not overly dramatic to say that the evil one has to a degree taken over this part of London. His mission is to develop St Patrick’s as a beacon of Catholicism and a centre for the new evangelisation.

Unfortunately, his historic Church has been in a sorry state for some years: Fr Sherbrooke has been working hard to restore it, and to develop new facilities for both the worship of God and the pastoral and charitable outreach of the parish. Down to brass tacks, the cost of the project is £3.5 million. I presumed that he must have had some grants from English Heritage or other public funds. He was quite insistent that there had been no public money involved, just people both rich and poor digging deep to support the mission of the Church and to see it continue. His approach has been successful: he has so far raised £3.25 million of the total.

Fr Sherbrooke was keen to stress that the heart of the new evangelisation is the Sacred Liturgy, especially the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Hence he has taken great trouble to ensure that the Church is restored as a place of beauty fit for the worship of God. One detail that will be of interest to readers is that the altar has been slightly moved and re-sited so that it is now suitable for celebrating Mass ad orientem as well as versus populum. The parish is committed to the “Benedictine reform” of the Liturgy, and, though the usus antiquior has not been a part of parish life to date, there is an openness to the provision of this for groups who request it.

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The parish of Soho Square does not merely “talk the talk” when it comes to the charitable activity that should flow from our worship of God. Underneath the Church, a new hall has been excavated (above), and fitted out with a kitchen that meets industrial specifications so that the Church can enhance its already thriving ministry to the homeless and to drug addicts. The parish has a concrete commitment to reach out to the poorest and most outcast of those who fall in one way or another within its reach. Again, a key principle is that no public grants or funding is sought or received, so that the Church is free to act according to Christian principles.

St Patrick’s is also home to various ethnic communities. Each week, Mass is offered in Spanish for the Latin American chaplaincy, in Portuguese for the Brasilians, and in either Mandarin or Cantonese for the Chinese Catholics who form a part of the local “Chinatown” in Soho

I have been to St Patrick’s on a few occasions to lecture to the School of Evangelisation (SPES) which, each year, gathers young people from around the world to study their faith and to go out on to the streets to bring the gospel to the marginalised as well as to those who happen along this part of London. The transformation of the crypt area will provide SPES with new facilities for their classes. It will also make it possible for other groups to meet at St Patrick’s, both for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and for formation.

The opening festivities will take place from 31 May to 2 June. Cardinal Pell is coming, as is George Weigel. James MacMillan has specially composed a new "St Patrick's Magnificat" for Vespers on 1 June, to be celebrated by Bishop James Conley, Auxiliary in Denver. The parish website has the full programme. Unfortunately I will be away in Lourdes and will miss it all, but I do encourage you to support this model parish in the heart of London. (If you have some money, there is an Appeal page.)

St Patrick pray for us.

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