In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, right in the middle of one of the busiest and most fashionable streets in Central London, stands the church of Our Lady of Victories, the one time Pro-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
It has historic links dating back centuries. Mass has been said daily in Kensington since long before the Roman Catholic Faith was banished at the time of the Reformation.
Up to the Reformation, the last recorded Catholic parish priest for Kensington was Father Thomas Batemanton in the year 1558.
The resumption of regular Catholic services commenced in 1794 after a break of nearly 250 years, as numerous French aristocrats, priests and nuns fled the terrors of the French Revolution and found a friendly and tolerant welcome in Kensington. the continuity of public Mass has been unbroken in the Parish ever since.
Prior to the re-opening of Catholic churches, Mass in this period was said in Catholic Embassies or in private houses when both priests and occupiers were in constant danger for practising their faith. In 1866 the Carmelites opened the first large Catholic church in the district and three years later the parish church of Our Lady of Victories opened on 2 July 1869, the Feast of the Visitation, and became the Pro-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
The great Cathedral Church of Westminster as we know it today was not built until 1903 so until that time, Kensington’s beautiful church was the foremost Catholic church in England.
Many great occasions took place here. At Queen Victoria’s 50th Jubilee in 1887 High Mass was celebrated in the presence of Cardinal Manning, sung by the Papal Envoy and attended by all the Hierarchy and leading Catholics in England.
The following year, the jubilee of 50 years of priesthood of Pope Leo XIII was the occasion of another glittering assembly in the church, during which the famous “God Bless Our Pope” was sung for the first time in public. This hymn and another, “Sweet Sacrament Divine”, were composed by the curate of Our Lady of Victories, Fr Charles Cox.
On a black September night, 13 September 1940, German bombers struck. Four incendiary bombs landed on the roof of the church and in the short space of two and a half hours it was completely devastated and burned to the ground. The Blessed Sacrament was saved and taken by the priests to the nearby Carmelite Church.
Re-building was not permitted until well after the end of the war, so we were a parish without a church. But under the parish priest of the time, Canon Walton, miracles were worked – the motto was “Survival”.
Daily Mass and all services were maintained without a break, first in the local Odeon cinema, and then in the premises of Cavendish Furnishings – forever after known as “St Cavendish’s” by parishioners! – in the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square, in the hall at the back of the burnt out church and finally in the local Congregational Church, Allan Street, leased to us with great goodwill.
A succession of parish priests – Canon Bagshawe, Mgr Kelleher and Father Drumm – worked hard to raise funds for a new church. In 1952 the architect Adrian Gilbert Scott was commissioned by Canon Bagshawe to design a new church. On 16 April 1959 the rebuilt church of Our Lady of Victories, was once again opened as the Parish Church of Kensington by Cardinal Archbishop William Godfrey amidst great rejoicing.
The Consecration of the Church and High Altar was performed by Bishop Derek Worlock, formerly curate in Kensington and later Archbishop of Liverpool, on the 26 May 1971 in the presence of Cardinal Heenan.
A War Damage Commission grant enabled the creation of a set of stained glass windows by C F Blakeman. In the 1980s Fr (later Mgr) Walter Drumm moved the large Bavarian crucifix above the sanctuary to the western aisle, where it serves as the twelfth Station of the Cross, and installed above the sanctuary a bronzed sculpture of the Risen Christ by Michael Clark, whose father, Lindsay, had sculpted the statue of Our Lady, help of Christians above the entrance arch on the High Street.
Today the process of improving Our Lady of Victories continues. The present parish priest, Monsignor James Curry, is overseeing upgrading of disabled access to the church and the opening up of the extensive community facilities which exist beneath the church.