The building of the Church of Our Lady was funded by two sisters Lousie and Jessie Gallini, from a legacy left them by their father, Sir John Gallini. He had come to England, a refugee from Italy, coming to prominence as a dancing master and a promoter of musical entertainments in London. He was made a member of the Equestrian order of the Golden Spur by Pope Pius IX.
The Gallini sisters’ first wish was to establish a mission in Hanover Square, but this was opposed by Bishop James Yorke Bramston, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, (1832-1836) apparently on the basis that Hanover Square was too close to Spanish Place and that a new church there would unduly impact the level of attendance at Spanish Place. So they chose St Johns Wood, and in 1832 a temporary chapel built to serve the mission was established on land leased from the Eyre Estate. The present church was opened in 1836.
The sisters were also to meet with opposition from Bishop Branston in another regard. They wished the mission to be entrusted to the pastoral care of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Despite appealing to the Duke of Norfolk and to Pope Gregory XVI, the sisters did not have their way. Bishop Branston’s opposition ensured that since its formation the parish has been served by secular clergy.
The first priest appointed to the new mission, transferring to St John’s Wood in 1836 after service in the mission in Bermondsey, South London was Fr James O’Neil. He quickly established schools in the area – this was before the time of free universal schooling for all – making provision for about 300 children, the poorer of whom needed clothes and food as well as their education.
In 1850 the Hierarchy of England and Wales was restored by Pope Pius IX. The Mission in St John’s Wood was now a part of the diocese of Westminster. The last Vicar Apostolic of the London district, Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, was made Archbishop of Westminster. The parish continued to be served by Fr O’Neil, (who was made a Canon in 1852) until his death in 1868.
There have been 14 parish priests at Our Lady’s since the foundation of the mission in 1832. One of them, Fr Philip Cavanagh, served here twice, returning after his first successor retired because of ill health. The longest serving remains the first, Fr James O’Neil, who served for 32 years from 1836 to 1868. The next longest serving parish priest comes a pretty close second – Canon William Wood, appointed in the parish’s centenary year, 1936, and serving for 25 years until his death in 1961.