by Dominic Bellenger
THE traditional conflict between artistic sensi
bility and the practical needs of Catholic worship has been intensified by the reordering of many older churches made necessary by the Vatican Council. Too often the "beauty of holiness" has been drowned in an ocean of "shocking pink."
But at St. Mary's, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, Canon John I.ongstaff, the Rector, has attempted reformation without deformation. His efforts came to a triumphant climax at the recent and very impressive, service to consecrate the new High Altar, conducted by Cardinal Heenan, The church was opened in 1879 and consecrated three years later by Cardinal Manning, replacing a simple classical chapel built in 1812 by a fashionable French emigre clergyman, Jean Voyaux de Franous, Canon of St. Denis and tutor of Robert Peel, the future Prime Minister,
St. Mary's is the oldest of the four Catholic parish churches designed by J. F. Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral. Despite severe war damage and the attempts of Bishop J. L. Patterson, rector at the turn of the century, to transform the building into a sort of pseudo and mini Brompton Oratory, Bentley's
church remained intact.
Now, restored and properly lit, it provides a beautiful setting for the celebration of the liturgy. A spacious essay in a modified Early English style of Gothic, it incorporates a mortuary chapel of 1845, probably designed by A. W. Pugin. the founding father of revived "Christian" architecture, acid a Shrine Chapel by E. W. Pugin of 1860, an ornate work in a sort of Gothic baroque. The nave—now restored to its original colour scheme and stripped of many later accre tions — is dignified and impressive, and leads the eye to the sanctuary which provides the architectural tour de force of the building.
The original levels of the sanctuary floor have been reinstated, and the new freestanding altar (fronted by a Eucharistic cryptogram) reveals to full effect the beautifully proportioned wall arcade which acts not only as a reredos but also provides a series of stone seats for the altar servers.
The celebrant's chair, behind the altar. is one that belonged to the church's founder, and is reputed to have been given to him by King Charles X of France. The dictum "Adaptation of existing fittings wherever possible" has prevented the intrusion of unsuitable modern furnishings and ensured the preservation of all the major items designed by Bentley.
The former high altar has be
come the centrepiece of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the North Chancel aisle, Simplified, with its domed tabernacle restored, and its "Cosmatesque" decoration cleahed, this early work of Bentley (1863) prefigures much of his later Byzantine work at Westminster.
This altar — together with an adjacent plaque unveiled by Cardinal Heenan at the consecration service — is a memorial to Bishop David Cashman, who as the distinguished and much loved parish priest of St. Mary' s before Canon Longstaff instigated the present alterations. The Bentley pulpit, with its Westlake painting, is contemporary with the altar and now serves as an a nib°.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the fittings is the great hanging rood of Christ the High Priest in gold and scarlet which has been lowered to show it to fullest effect. The cleaning of many smaller items — candlesticks and the like — has revealed the high artistic standards set by Victorian crafts. men.
The restored church, however, is no mere showpiece of Victorian art, and the new altar indicates the absence of any false antiquarianism. Canon Longstaff's wish has been to provide the best of each age for future generations. The old and the new can, as here, be used to complement each other.
If this were more often remembered, perhaps the restoration and reordering of churches could become a channel for closer co-operation between the Church and the arts — not the protectionists' nightmare it has become.