Walk through Soho from Cambridge Circus, where an enormous stiletto looms above a background of undulating sequins proclaiming Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Follow the little side streets past pubs and bars advertising happy hours, lush brightly coloured cocktails, cheap drinks, past places called Moonlighting and Thirst. In the midst of this apparent spiritual desert lies St Patrick’s Soho Square. Casual passersby will not even notice the discreet portico which leads into one of London’s oldest Catholic parish churches.
For over a year Masses have been celebrated in the former dining room of the presbytery, turned into a chapel surrounded by the dust, noise and rubble of builders. Regulars who remember the dingy grey carpet, the peeling William Morris wallpaper in the apse, the grime-encrusted gilt capitals of the grey-green pilasters and faint odours of urine and mould, will not recognise the light, beautiful and clean church when it opens its doors next week.
It comes as a relief for Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, the parish priest, after a year of living in a building site, battles with Crossrail and an even bigger battle to raise over £3 million from private donors and trusts to restore a building that was falling down around him. He hopes that the church’s new beauty will show the beauty of the Eucharist and attract people to Christ.
A tall, energetic man with a shock of wiry, anthracite grey hair that stands upright, Fr Sherbrooke took over St Patrick’s nine years ago. Like many urban parishes, St Patrick’s had seen an exodus of regular parishioners as the residents of the West End moved out of London into the suburbs in the 1980s. His first move in the parish was to set up regular Eucharistic Adoration.
“In an area where there is tremendous darkness,” Fr Sherbrooke says, “there is a need to let the light of the Lord shine out. I believed that through Eucharistic Adoration God was going to show us how to use the parish and that it was necessary for it to grow.
“When you are confronted with a secular society which is very rich, prosperous and sophisticated you have to confront it with Eucharistic love, the life and simplicity of poverty.”
He says that the parish’s other activities all flow out of the encounter with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Alongside Eucharistic Adoration, Fr Sherbrooke speaks of a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the mercy which flows from the wounds of the Crucifixion. He points out that St Claude de la Colombière, St Margaret Mary Alacoque’s confessor, first promoted the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart in England while he was at the Court of St James. These days an annual Marian procession takes place on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception from Soho Square down to the French Church in Leicester Square, and several hundred people join the Corpus Christi procession which wends its way to the graveyard of St Giles where 10 English martyrs are buried. Young students at St Patrick’s Evangelisation School (the acronym spells SPES, “hope” in Latin) go out and engage in street evangelisation, talking to people about the faith, offering prayers and sometimes miraculous medals. Once a week at Open House the homeless gather at the church to get some supper and companionship. The evening includes scripture readings and extempore prayer. The project is funded entirely by the goodwill of sponsors and what money the church can raise through concerts and cake sales. A Cenacolo prayer group supporting people who suffer from drug addiction meets regularly and perpetual Adoration has been a constant feature in the parish.
The renovated St Patrick’s has a beautiful marble-clad apse, an altar where both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite can be celebrated and a new baptistery chapel which houses a relic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church will also receive relics of St Claude de la Colombière. The subterranean warren underneath the church has also been renovated, with a large community room that will be the new home for Open House, an industrial-sized kitchen, offices, classrooms and a prayer room.
Fr Sherbrooke alludes to Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est when he describes the renovation work that has taken place. He says: “The more we are drawn to the agape of the love of the Lord as we see it displayed in the Crucifixion and the suffering of Christ, the more we are called to share in the works of mercy. So, on the ground floor, in the church, you have Eucharistic Adoration, but underneath it are the rooms in which the corporal works of mercy are going on.”
Quoting Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who is one of his role models, he says: “If I’d been a social worker I’d have given up long ago. We do the work because we meet Jesus in the poorest of the poor.” He believes that the encounters with Christ in the poor and the encounters with Christ in the Eucharist in Mass or at Adoration complement each other.
“When we are with the poor, we touch Jesus. We can learn about Jesus in books, we can hear wonderful sermons and teachings but it is when Jesus comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor that we are closest to Him and that is intimately bound up with Eucharistic life. The poverty that is the Eucharistic bread is Christ. He is not in a whopping great Bentley in a West End club but in bread. He deliberately humbles Himself to come among us in the most poor way possible. That’s why the deeper our Eucharistic communion with Christ through Mass and Adoration, the more we are going to want to go and meet him in our broken brothers and sisters.”
Fr Sherbrooke also believes the contemporary world has much to learn about God from the poor and disadvantaged.
“As I walk around the West End and chat with people, particularly those hanging around the streets, they are all so empty. They are surrounded by all these rich people walking past discussing the future of the world on their mobile phones but they are closest to the God who loves them because God is able to fill their emptiness with his unconditional love,” says Fr Sherbrooke. “If you are running IBM your world is full of strategic planning and appraisals and how to move the next product on, you’ve got no room for God. So in fact the poor are the ones who can teach us what it means to truly know Him and to love Him.”
Making a virtue out of necessity, he wants to use the virtual parish, the fact that he has no stable residential congregation, as a place where people can discover the Church away from home. Most people who work in London spend much of their day in the city centre, where they then socialise after work. Home, Fr Sherbrooke says, can literally just mean returning to your bedroom to recharge batteries before heading out to work again.
To reach out to people who might be discovering the Church by walking into St Patrick’s, Fr Sherbrooke would like to station a priest at the back of the church from Monday to Friday for an hour between three and four every afternoon. The priest would simply be a presence if people wanted to talk or have their Confession heard.
Following Pope Benedict’s focus on beauty, Fr Sherbrooke’s plans for evangelisation include art and music. The Scottish composer James McMillan is composing a choral setting for the Magnificat, which will be sung at St Patrick’s opening Mass and the church’s grey organ is being restored.
Meanwhile, Fr Sherbrooke is still looking to raise the money for six stained-glass windows which have been specially designed for St Patrick’s and have been approved by the diocese and the historic churches commission. They feature saints who “really express love and mercy made present in St Patrick’s” and include St Damien of Molokai, the patron saint for lepers and HIV/Aids sufferers, St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Francis of Assisi. The rose window, which is the central feature, will show the crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St John at the foot of the cross to “give witness to fact that it is the mercy that flows from the cross of Jesus that informs the work that we do”, he explains.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster is coming to celebrate the first Mass in the renovated church and the Australian Cardinal George Pell of Sydney will be celebrating Mass for the Feast of the Ascension two days later. George Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer, will speak about “Benedict XVI and the Future of the West”. Their presence bears witness to St Patrick’s importance in the project of the new evangelisation; a quiet beacon radiating hope through the dark alleys of Soho.