Splendid, international regalia
OUR LADY QUEEN of Heaven was built originally in 1868 as a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. In1909 however, the chapel was sold to the West London Ethical Society, a humanist body under the Ministry of Dr Stanton Coit, and frequented by dramatist George Bernard Shaw.
In 1954 the chapel again came up for sale. Father Lambert, Superior at the Oblates of St Charles, attended the auction to bid for the chapel but Dr Colt's daughter, furious at the prospect of a Catholic owner, cancelled the sale! Six months later, the chapel came back onto the market and Father Lambert, wise to Ms Coit's prejudices, donned a collar and tie. The sale was completed.
In 1973 Our Lady's became a separate parish in the Westminster Diocese.
The church's unusual history is reflected in its design. The interior is semi-circular and in the Methodist tradition is galleried; rather like an old fashioned theatre. The Priest faces the altar with his back to the congregation not a plea for preVatican II tradition, but simply because otherwise the congregation in the galleries would not be able to see the altar, The old and the new blend beautifully in this church. A Victorian reproduction, from 1887, of Rubens' 'Descent From The Cross' hangs above the altar and Victorian gothic candlesticks add to the traditional feel. The baptismal font, a gilded serpent twisting around its base, was used previously as a flower stand by the humanist church. An old photograph hanging in the vestry shows the church in its previous incarnation complete with 'speaker's chair' and the 'baptismal flower pot'!
In contrast, a bronze of the Risen Christ, sculpted by Fleischmann, adds a modern touch. This was donated by Sir Harold and Lady Hood to commemorate their coral wedding anniversary and to mark the late Father Philip Carpenter's 25 years as a priest. A carved limestone panel on the other side of the altar records his ministry to the church.
Fr Carpenter, Parish Priest here for nearly 20 years, is fondly remembered in the parish. Francis Wahle came to Our Lady's as Parish Priest in 1992 and in fitting memory to his predecessor has overseen the refurbishment of the church hall; renamed the Carpenter Hall.
The refurbishment was expensive and the fund raising is on-going. Exmembers of the Parish, now living overseas, have generously sent donations. Last Christmas a local Anglican parish gave their church hall, free of charge, for a fund raising concert by musicians from the Royal Opera House.
The reopening of the Hall was a proud occasion for the parish. Fr Carpenter's brother, an Anglican Priest, attended the ceremony continuing the family association with Our Lady's.
Father Wahle is appreciative of the help he receives from his parishioners. "Really, I haven't lifted a finger. There are some very capable people here, the support has been marvellous." Former captains of industry, retired ambassadors and ladies of redoubtable strength rally round to every cause.
Our Lady's is a cosmopolitan parish. On Sunday, liturgy sheets in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Polish are circulated reflecting the range of nationalities who attend Mass. There are 85 hotels within the Parish boundaries. A large section of the congregation are from the hotels both workers and visitors, who return year after year.
The mix of cultures has led to baptisms, confirmations and even funerals with a difference. Fr Wahle recently conducted a Baha'i funeral service. "The deceased was an Iranian lady and her husband wanted her 'funeral to reflect her nationality." At Easter they built a baptismal pool on the altar out of breezeblocks and polythene. People of many nationalities, from South America to Singapore, were received into the Church.
This mix of nations brings other rewards. In the Church porch is a collection box for 'Funny Money'. "I read somewhere that in this country there is 27 million in overseas money in circulation. I thought we could probably benefit from some of it," says Fr Wahle. The Parish astutely offers a limited foreign exchange service and collects a commission fee on any exchange.
In the heart of London, Our Lady's is witness to many of the problems of the inner city. The Church must be locked outside of Mass times. The local population is transient and homelessness is an increasing problem for many families. Fr Wahlc mentions James who made his First Holy Communion this year. "His family live in bed and breakfast accommodation. It is a struggle for them. It is very hard for anyone in those circumstances to come to Mass regularly. They feel, mistakenly, that they are not dressed properly or won't have anything for the collection plate."
Visitors looking for Our Lady's, will find the church on Queensway, a stone's throw from Bayswater station. The back entrance is off Inverness Place. Go through a wrought iron gate and a narrow alley opens up into a pretty and well kept garden flourishing after the hot and sultry summer. It is a delight! Gardening was a great love for Fr Carpenter; Fr Wahle is not so confident. He jokes: "I do my best; Father Carpenter would come back to haunt me if I didn't!"