DWART-7ED BY THE high-rise structures of the City of London's square mile, the obscure but elegant entrance of St Mary Moorfields welcomes Catholics among the 350,000 strong workforce of Britain's financial heartland.
Barely a moment passes during the day without some lone soul popping in to pause for reflection or prayer, using it as a haven from the sometimes mad and bad corporate world of the city; finding an oasis of peace for half an hour before returning to mammon.
"So many people have come and told me how coming to weekday Mass here has saved them from cracking amid the pressures of their daily work; they develop a great affection for the church," said parish priest, Fr David Barnes.
The arched entrance of Portland stone is charming but restricted, squeezed between two shops and easy to miss in the busy hubbub of the street, a stone's throw from Liverpool Street station. A narrow vestibule leads into a decorative nave held up by four Devonshire marble columns supporting other treasures below. It's hard to believe that this church is less than a hundred years old.
Dark and dapper with silk handkerchief neatly folded into breast pocket, Fr Barnes exuded the buzz of singlehandedly running parish affairs as he marched briskly round the neatly proportioned church, pointing out each splendid detail, such as thick-set altar rails of pavonazzo, inlaid with other coloured marbles, and the chapel at the back, dedicated to St Thomas More, who was born in nearby Milk Street.
A wooden plaque in the porch lists him as only the 25th priest to have served in the City of London since John Gother first celebrated Mass in the Lime Street chapel when it opened in 1686, during the reign of James 11. In the troubled years after that briefest Catholic renaissance, secret Masses were convened in the area for the tenacious Catholic community. By 1736 there was a chapel in Ropemakers Alley, later followed by one in White Street.
The first St Mary of Moorfields was opened in Finsbury Square in 1820. A large, classical and richly ornate structure serving the wealthy Catholic merchants of the area, it became a centre for Catholic worship in London, leading to its being named as pro-Cathedral when the Catholic hierachy was re-established in 1850, before the honour was passed on to Our Lady of Victories, Kensington, in 1869.
The original church was pulled down after a handsome offer was made for the site which had become prime real estate. The present church in Eldon Street was opened in 1903 to accommodate a smaller congregation after houses were replaced by businesses. The Roman sarcophogus altar and the six neo-classical columns lining the back of the sanctuary were salvaged for the new church and remain today, much admired by visitors, some of whom come from as far as Italy.
Fr Barnes smiles as he reflects on the colourful history of the parish and its odd dynamics in present times: "There are only 50 or so residents who attend St Mary Moorfields and there are 500 banks in the parish!" The weekend Masses are small but the church is packed during the week for morning and lunch-time Masses. Many people too just wish to make a visit or seek Confession in one of the two intricately carved, oak confessionals. On holydays 1,500 people cram into the pews for the six Masses.
Having served at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of London for eight years before moving to St Mary Moorfields in 1992, Fr Barnes is well used to the demands of ministering to a large, constantly shifting community. He is happy to welcome troubled souls attracted by the anonymity provided by a small city church, to seek counselling for problems in their marriages or at work.
With such an important role to fulfil as the only Catholic church in the famous square mile, ambitious plans are afoot to provide a parish hall with catering facilities and renovate the historic interior which inspires so many.
Despite the flow of visitors during the week the money needed for the improvements has been hard to come by, especially as St Mary Moorfields suffers when it comes to the crucial Sunday collection. "Paradoxically the 'City Parish' is one of the richest in the world given the movement of money here, yet it has one of the smallest incomes, as the city workers who attend during the week must give priority to their own parishes," said Fr Barnes.
A £450,000 appeal which was launched is going well, and despite the need of a final boost to raise the remaining £150,000, the work is still going ahead.
The new £120,000 parish hall, fully equipped with catering facilities, will be ready for multi-purpose use after Easter. Lectures and seminars on doctrinal issues by well known church figures are planned, along with a centre for Christian business ethics an essential topic for Christians involved in big business. Above all, it is hoped that the hall will install a sense of community for the young and elderly in the parish.
In the five years since he took the parish on, Fr Barnes is pleased with how many more people have become aware of St MaryMoorfields, reflected in ever increasing numbers at daily Mass, experiencing the tranquil respite of a church in the teeming heart of the city, yet away from it all.