Dedicated to the glory of God and in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the first St Mary’s Church in East Finchley was built towards the end of the nineteenth century on the corner of the High Road and Chapel Street.
It was demolished by a landmine which exploded nearby on the night of Friday, 15 November, 1940. Since the old site was considered too small for a new church, it was decided to build the new church on the grounds of the old presbytery at 279 High Road. Work started in 1951.
The Foundation Stone was laid by His Eminence, Cardinal Bernard Griffin, on 18 May 1952.
A Visit to St Mary’s
In mediaeval times, the Bishop of London’s village and manor of East End (now East Finchley) stood astride one of England’s great pilgrimage routes. People of all classes of society, “from every shire’s end”, travelled along the High Road, northwards to St Alban’s Abbey, southwards to the shrines of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster and St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Many would pause en route to seek a cure for toothache or “dreaded skin diseases” by drinking the miraculous waters from St Mary’s Well (Muswell).
Not until 1898 did the Roman Catholics of East Finchley have a church of their own. In the nineteenth century they attended Mass in the chapel of the Good Shepherd convent on East End Lane. In 1895 the disused Congregational Chapel on the corner of the High Road and Chapel Street (now Chapel Court) was put up for auction and, on the authority of Cardinal Vaughan, was acquired by Father John Breen, the Good Shepherd chaplain, and a group of East Finchley Catholics. The purchase immediately became the subject of heated litigation, the matter being taken finally to the High Court. Legend has it that the purchasers, all too aware of the prejudices of the time, concealed their real intention by suggesting that the building was to be used for the bottling of soft drinks, and that the vendors, discovering the truth of the matter, promptly sought to have the purchase revoked. Whether the tale be true or false, the High Court found for the purchasers and, three years after it had been acquired, the old chapel was registered as a Roman Catholic church serving a parish which, until 1917, included Muswell Hill and Finchley Church End.
At 11:30 p.m. on the night of November 11, 1940, a German bomber destroyed virtually the entire Market Place area of East Finchley, and with it St Mary’s Church. The previous day had seen the completion of a wooden hut, behind the Church, to serve as a Roman Catholic boys? club. Miraculously, it was preserved intact. Parishioners removed it out of the surrounding rubble, and re-erected it on the presbytery lawn, on the site of the present St Mary’s. It was dedicated as a temporary church on the feast of SS Peter and Paul, June 29, 1941. It was always too small for its congregation and many older parishioners will recall fulfilling their Mass obligation standing outside in all weathers.
In September 1951 planning permission was given, together with a grant of £17,000 from the War Damage Commission, for the building of a permanent structure. The grant was far from generous and restrictions on building and materials were severe. The architects, notably Anne Reeves, who was responsible for the interior design, decided to make a virtue of austerity. The visible fabric of the interior of the new Church was to be of carefully matched English brick, roofed with red Italian tiles. The roof was to be supported by seven frames, each consisting of four tons of reinforced pre-cast concrete. The floor was to be finished with blocks of polished Zimbabwean teak. The result would have been a remarkable achievement. The Church which was dedicated on Sunday, May 10, 1953, was not, however, as Anne Reeves and her associates had intended. The then Rector of St Mary’s, Father W.A. Joyce, disliked the simplicity of the redbrick sanctuary and described it as “utilitarian rather than ornamental.” In order to achieve what he described as “a happy combination of the two”, he decorated the sanctuary in Italian marble to match that of the altar, despite the objections of the architects.
In the course of the re-ordering of St Mary’s in 1986-7, the marble has been removed and the sanctuary restored, so that in admiring the achievement of Richard Hurley, the architect responsible for the new work, we may also see revealed the quite remarkable intentions of the original designers, thirty five years earlier.
The extensive re-ordering of the church in 1986-7, the completion being marked with the dedication of the altar by Cardinal Hume on March 29, 1987, was undertaken in the spirit of the teachings of the second Vatican Council, in particular the document on the liturgy “Sacrosanctum Concilium”. The interior of the 1953 Church, with or without marble, was designed for a liturgical practice which effectively separated priest, assistants, and the Blessed Sacrament from the people. “Sacrosanctum Concilium” emphatically states that the presence of Christ in the Church is demonstrated in the person presiding over the gathering (the priest), by the Word proclaimed, by the eucharistic meal at the altar, but first and foremost in the gathering of the people, i.e. in fulfilment of Christ’s promise to be present “wherever two or three are gathered together in My name”.
The porch has been restored to its traditional, pre-Reformation function, that of the Narthex, the place of welcome and greeting. Since the Church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin it is proper that the visitor should first notice the statue of Our Lady, particularly as it is one of two statues saved from the bombed-out ruins of the original St Mary’s, and a strong symbol of the continuity of the parish through all vicissitudes. Although in the unfashionable Victorian sentimental style, the statue is essentially Christ-centred, representing Our Lady as (in the words of the Russian liturgy) the Holy Birth-Giver, who gives birth to God, and presents God to his people.
Also in the porch may be found a plaque on which are carved the names of the Rectors of St Mary’s since its foundation, made from the marble which decorated the sanctuary of the 1953 Church, the dedication stone commemorating the dedication of the altar by Cardinal Hume, which has been placed over the original foundation stone of St Mary’s, and the memorial book in which are inscribed the names of those who have especially assisted in the re-ordering of the Church by the donation of money or by giving time and skills.
A particular feature of the porch are the squints, the narrow windows giving a view of the interior of the Church. In the Middle Ages, squints were let into the walls of churches to allow those who were prevented from joining the congregation by sickness or ecclesiastical interdict at least to observe the Liturgy. In this case, however, the designer has let them into the inside wall of the porch as part of the general openness of the Church interior.
On entering the nave, this openness of design becomes immediately apparent. In the re-ordering, the cruciform shape of the building, the nave representing the upright of the Cross, the transepts the cross beam, and the sanctuary the place where the Sacred Head rested is revealed.
The nave itself remains witness to the work of the original architects and designers of the 1953 St Mary’s ? the simple benches of English oak, the floor of polished teak, and the Stations of the Cross.
The transepts are the arms of the body of the Church, which may be taken, in the tradition of the Western Church, as symbolising the arms of the Crucified. In the re-ordering of St Mary’s, they are, moreover, representative of arms extended in an offer of love. In the words of Irenaeus, fourth century Bishop of Lyon, “The Glory of God is the human person fully alive”. Contained in the transepts are the symbols of reconciliation without which no human soul is fully alive.
In the north transept, the theme is reconciliation through Baptism, Penance and the Easter message of rebirth, font, confessional, and paschal candle.
The stained-glass windows, designed and made by Mark Angus, who made the great Last Supper window of Durham Cathedral, shed light filtered through blues, greens and pinks ? colours of day and dawning reflected in water, suggesting calm and a tranquillity of spirit. The designs are abstract rather than representative, though the viewer is invited to read pictures in them: of the Spirit springing upwards from the midst of the world, perhaps; of a road through the wilderness, the “highway for our God” mentioned by Isaiah; the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea; of a bird, symbolising the Holy Spirit or the phoenix rising. The viewer may notice also how the artist has used lead not merely to hold in the stained-glass, but as ‘brush strokes’ to give a sense of movement to the design.
The font was designed for the 1953 St Mary’s, but was considered unsuited for use in a separate baptistry. It is now restored to the place and purpose intended by its designers. It is octagonal, the eight sides representing the Christian eight-day week. Sunday, the day of Resurrection, being “Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last”. It is set on two slabs of Ancaster Weatherbed, alluvial stone from Lincolnshire which has been formed and smoothed by its formation under flowing water; a symbol of the effect of the waters of Baptism. The temporary screen behind the font, whose green and blue is intended to complement the colours of the windows, is the work of pupils of Bishop Douglass School.
Adjoining, and running parallel with the North Transept, is the slype (pronounced “slip”). In mediaeval abbey churches, the slype was a covered way allowing direct access to transept and sanctuary from the monastic buildings (usually via the cloister). Here it is a passageway from the sacristy to the sanctuary.
The theme of the south transept is reconciliation through the eucharistic sacrifice. The windows, again designed and made by Mark Angus, are in reds and purple, traditional symbols of blood, sacrifice, mourning ? but also of royal triumph. Again the design is abstract, but viewers do not need to stretch their imaginations to see heads and faces gathered, perhaps at the foot of the cross, perhaps at the Lord’s table, or perhaps like T.S. Eliot’s Women of Canterbury, in his “Murder in the Cathedral”, drawn by some presage of an act Which our eyes are compelled to witness.
Two small chambers are let into the west wall of the transept. The first contains the tabernacle in which the Eucharist is reserved. The traditional signal indicating the presence of the sacrament, the lamp ? a symbol of “the cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night” which led the people of Israel across the desert ? is held in a hanging of forged steel. The chamber is lit from a skylight directly over it, the daylight being directed by wooden slats so that it shines on the burnished copper roof of the tabernacle.
The tabernacle has been worked on all five surfaces in copper and enamel by Benedict Tutty, O.S.B., of Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick. It stands on a pedestal of Bath stone matching the altar, carved by the distinguished sculptor, Angela Godfrey, with emblems representing the tree of life. Viewers will notice that, behind the tabernacle, mortar has been scraped out from between the bricks of the back wall to create a shadow-stippled effect to set off the copper surface of the tabernacle.
The second of the two chambers is the shrine, set apart for private prayer and quiet devotion before the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the second statue saved from the destruction of the Chapel Street church.
The Sanctuary In accordance with the spirit of the second Vatican Council, and the explicitly-stated wishes of the bishops of England and Wales, the sanctuary has been made readily accessible to the people. The architect has reverted to a feature familiar to all visitors to old cathedrals and mediaeval parish churches: the ambulatory, or “walking area” round a raised chancel. In older places of worship, the chancel is railed or screened off from the ambulatory. Here, there is no barrier between ambulatory and chancel.
The chancel itself is raised on a platform of perfectly matched Jacobean brick with rounded coping on the steps. It is set off by a screen against the back wall, designed by Irene Waller of the Kidderminster College of Art, and is intended, in Richard Hurley’s own words, “to provide a full stop at the end of the sentence.”
On the chancel, by the presider’s chair, stands the processional cross, carved from a single piece of ash. In it, Angela Godfrey has attempted to resolve the distinction between the crucifix, the emblem of Good Friday, bearing a representation of the suffering Christ , and the cross; the emblem of the Resurrection, always empty in the Eastern tradition, but in the West usually bearing a representation of Christ in majesty. She has carved a figure upon which viewers are invited to project their own meditative and prayerful reading.
The chair is of oak. The design is by the architect, Richard Hurley. The back, however, is the work of Angela Godfrey, and represents a net into which fish have been gathered and are held; it represents the function of the priest in gathering the people and in holding them by his officiating at the celebration of the Eucharist.
Between the chair and the altar stands the lectern. The juxtaposition of chair, lectern and altar, though unfamiliar to many, is in fact in accordance with the earliest liturgical practice to be found for example, in St Augustine’s Church in Hippo, in Roman North Africa, in the fifth century. The placing of the lectern is intended to suggest that, though the priest may gather the people and officiate at the altar, the people are drawn to participate in the eucharistic meal by the revealed word of God. The lectern hanging, matching the priest’s vestments, is the work of the distinguished Welsh weaver, Cefin Burgess. The design, unique to St Mary’s, was woven at the Macclesfield Mill Museum, on a traditional Jaquard loom, and is inspired by the ‘Opus Anglicanum’ the vestments woven in mediaeval England, which were prized throughout the western Church.
Finally we reached the altar. It was hewn from Bath stone, quarried under the personal supervision of the sculptor, Angela Godfrey. It is carved on all four facets, and took six months to complete. Into it are inserted (by Cardinal Hume, on Sunday, March 29, 1987) relics of St Edward the Confessor (d. 1066), the last authentically consecrated Anglo-Saxon king of England, and the builder of Westminster Abbey, and of Pope St Stephen (d. 257), whose pontificate saw the beginnings of persecution under the Emperor Valerian. The relics were taken from the old altar of St Mary’s.
Before leaving, visitors may choose to pause as they go out, to look back to view the church as a single entity. For it is as the sum of its parts that any church becomes “Aedes Christi”, the House of Christ with priest and people, his chosen family:
Ye that stand in the House of the Lord,
In the courts of the house of God,
Praise the Lord! for it is pleasant.