Situated between Hampstead and Camden, just a 10 minute walk from Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath, St Dominic’s Priory serves a stretch of North West London which includes Gospel Oak, South End Green, Belsize Park, parts of Primrose Hill and Chalk Farm. The Dominican Friars came to the area in 1861 and are still here today with a community of Friars in the Priory, a community of Dominican Sisters nearby in Constantine Road and a group of Lay Dominicans who meet each month at the Priory.
St Dominic’s Priory was opened in 1867 and our Priory Church dates from 1883. The Priory Church is one of the largest Catholic Churches in London, with a design based on the structure of the Rosary Prayer. During the week, both morning and evening, Dominican friars, sisters and lay people sing the office together. Both friars and sisters serve what is a lively and welcoming parish community, with a weekend attendance of about 900 men women and children. Friars and sisters are also engaged in a wide range of apostolates including hospital, university and school chaplaincy, adult education and third level teaching of theology, scripture and philosophy, publishing, post-graduate study, and preaching the Word of God. It is also the residence of the Provincial of the Dominican friars in England and Scotland. At the Priory, we work together to make our Church and Priory a place where the praises of God are sung daily, the sacrifice of the Mass is offered for the needs of the Church and the world, a place where friends and strangers are welcomed, where people return to the Church and above all, where God’s mercy is preached and lived both in and out of season.
With the great influx of Catholic immigrants from the 1840’s on, religious orders were needed to run parishes throughout London. Records for the 1860’s show Catholic Churches springing up all over London, many of them run by religious orders. So it was that in 1861 Cardinal Wiseman invited the Dominican Friars to take over the mission at Kentish Town. At first they lived at 20 Fortess Terrace. But within a year or so they had purchased about three acres along Southampton Road in a district known as Haverstock Hill, and had the Cardinal’s permission to build a Priory and a Church there. It is said that the Cardinal himself chose the site. On the 6th August 1863, the Feast of the Transfiguration, Fr Jandel, the Master of the Dominican Order, blessed the foundation stone. Work must have progressed quickly because by the autumn of 1867 the Priory had been built and a temporary Church had been set up in the Priory, directly above where Blackfriars Hall is now.
The Priory Church wasn’t to be completed until 1883. It was in the intervening period between 1867 and 1878 when building began that the design of the Priory Church was developed. A man called Thomas Walmesley from Tunbridge Wells dreamed of building a Church in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes somewhere in England, “to mark the gratitude of the Catholics of the United Kingdom for the many graces and blessings received through Our Lady of Lourdes”. In 1873 he approached the Dominican Community at Haverstock Hill and they readily agreed. Since the great devotion at Lourdes is the Rosary, the title of the Church would be “Our Lady of the Rosary” and its structure would reflect the structure of the Rosary. Within the Church, there would be fourteen side-chapels each dedicated to a mystery of the Rosary with the final fifteenth mystery, the crowning of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven, commemorated in the stained glass window above the high altar. In a more spacious side-chapel there would be a life-size replica of the grotto at Lourdes. This sanctuary he hoped would become a great centre of pilgrimage and would rival even Walsingham in popularity. He wrote: “all that is needed to make it so is the devotion of the faithful. Prayers can do more than the architect. May our hopes be realised”.
Work began on the Church in 1878 and 5 years later in 1883 the Church was opened, having cost about £40,000, with the title “Our Lady of the Rosary” with fourteen side-chapels, each dedicated to a mystery of the Rosary and with the final mystery depicted in stained glass over the high altar, just as Walmesley had hoped. Only the replica of the Lourdes Grotto was missing. For a while the Church did become a place of pilgrimage. For example, in 1895 a pilgrimage was organised for Rosary Sunday with people coming to our Church, dubbed “Our Lady’s Shrine in London” , from all over the city and beyond.
Walmesley’s dream of a replica of the grotto at Lourdes was not realised until 1914. The Belton family had been the donors for the crucifixion chapel when the church was built. But in 1912 the same family gave £300 for the chapel and it was used to erect a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes in the crucifixion chapel. NHJ Westlake, a prominent artist of the time, was commissioned to decorate the chapel and under his supervision a small replica of the grotto was erected. The work was completed in time for the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, 1914. Walmesley’s dream had at last been realised.
Now that this chapel has been restored we can see the beauty of Westlake’s work which has been hidden beneath layers of dirt and grime. Smoke and wax from candles tell the tale of all the years that this chapel has served as a place of prayer and devotion. Today the smoke and wax have gone but we should remember that they speak of the important place this chapel has held in the hearts of so many people down the years. Could we ever even begin to number the prayers that have been said there: prayers said during times of war and times of peace, prayers for the living and the dead, of petition and of thanksgiving? We hope and pray that the Lourdes chapel and indeed the whole of the Priory Church will long continue to be a place of prayer. This was what it was built for and this was Walmesley’s dream.