Page 10, 23rd March 1979

23rd March 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 23rd March 1979 — London tribute to a noble Frenchman

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London tribute to a noble Frenchman

IF YOU EVER go to Euston Station — and I do not advise it as an architectural outing — try walking along its great, blank, right-hand flank and you will come to a large Catholic "plant".

There is a spreading red-brick church and a huddle of convents and schools and a shop and a presbytery. There is nothing lavish about it, but it all has the busy air of a motor-car factory at a rare time of full production,

Inside the church the space is organised in the new way around the unadorned and massive altar. But tucked away in one corner. there is a sort of shrine, made up of a couple of busts and a memorial and a glass case of memorabilia, all dedicated to the origins of this parish of St Aloysius.

For this place owes its origin to the French emigre priests who were exiled at the French Revolution.

This is part of an extraordinary episode too little remembered by English Catholics. in September and October, 1972, more than 6.000 French bishops and priests came to this country. Most of them had refused to take a schismatic oath committing them to a Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Later the figures rose to 8000. Of these, 3,000 settled in the island of Jersey and there were 660 in the Royal Place designed by Wren for Charles 11 in Winchester. It was never completed and later burned down.

It is said that when the priests there chanted their office they made a great wave of sound that could be heard all over the city. It was a very small city as cities go.

Personally I have thought that they could have done a great deal more with their time here. But proselytism was impolitic. Most of the priests were mouse-poor. They were heartbroken and homesick. Some were very old. Some taught French and some looked after their own. And some did nothing.

But the spectacle of these stricken and desolate priests, the victims of an ugly revolution, brought out the best in the English. The Government provided them with a pension of 355 a month and there were collections for them in almost every parish church (nonCatholic) in the kingdom.

Suddenly Rome took on a human face and a lot of the stories believed about the Romish clergy could be seen to be untrue. Dammit, many of them were gentlemen.

The great Thomas Burke once squeaked—alas, he was incapable of vocal thunder: "lithe Catholic religion is destroyed by infidels. it is a most contemptible and absurd idea that this (the English Church) or any other Protestant Church can long survive the event."

The maintenance of the status quo in society would not today be regarded as one of the primary functions of the Roman Church.

Among the most able of the emigre's was the Abbe Guy Carron from Rennes. He eventually settled in Somers Town, which is now swallowed up by Camden and crushed by Victorian railway stations of the uttermost magnificence.

It was then a suburban village and was the site of some wildly speculative building. A lot of the buildings were left incomplete and were cheap to buy. It became a settling place for the French Royalists. then for Spanish radicals, then for the Irish. Now it is just London. The Abbe Carron is said to have collected the prodigious sum of iI00,000 during his stay. He built schools, a seminary for priests, a home for old emigre priests and a chapel, cream stucco, with a pillared front and the safe symbol of the eye of God glaring unblinking out of a triangle which emits rays of light.

This non-committal symbol, more Masonic than Catholic, was over the entrance and over the high altar. The last is still inside the new church, which was built in 1968.

On the orders of his King, poor, fat, sick, well-meaning Louis XVIII, he went back to France in 1814 and died in 1821. He was a thoroughly good and useful man and he has left this parish to prove it.

It has a weekly Mass attendance of 1,000 and it has to care for five hospitals. It has also the • Irish centre. But that is another story.

The parish priest is now Mgr Bruce Kent, who would not have agreed with the abbe's politics. But for a man with a fierce and creative and radical view of the role of the Church, in international affairs and in the midst of social injustice, he gives his abbe predecessor the honour due to him. I confess to a weakness for such continuity.

lf you can find the most ancient parish church of St Pancras, which claims to be older than Constantine's church at the Lateran, you will find it in a patch of park which is all that is left of a burying ground once much used by Catholics. The municipal turf covers some very noble and some very holy French bones.

A convivial Franciscan

ANOTHER London church has an equally exotic origin. This is the great Italianate church in Soho Square. It was the first dedicated to St Patrick in England since the Reformation.

Its real founder was an Irish Franciscan priest called Arthur O'Leary. He came from a poor Irish country background with the usual Celtic claim to deprived nobility. He was born in 1729 and until late in his forties he was a member of a Franciscan house' in Brittany. Then he went back to Ireland.

He was a droll, convivial man and exactly what that entails I do not know, though 1 have my suspicions. There is a charming life of him written by a priest from Cork and published there in 1868. As pious biographies go, it is a bit on the defensive side. And his doctrine was not always quite orthodox.

He wrote a great deal and did it with an easy charm that took the sting out of controversy. He dined out a great deal. He spoke Irish, He made quick witty answers which look hard going on the printed page but which rolled the nobility about at their dinner tables.

He was in favour of law and order and constituted authority. And although he condemned the insolence of the Protestant Ascendancy and pleaded for a reasonable tolerance for the Catholic Church, he would not now, I think, be a hero to Irish nationalists, But then most of the Irish bishops took the same "prudent" line as he.

After a while he despaired of Ireland and came to live in London, where he became one of the chaplains of the Spanish Embassy. He was immensely popular a.s an original and very Irish wit. He had a strong brogue.

The peerage patronised hint and the Prince Regent asked him several times down to the Brighton Pavilion. His parties there could not have been described as weekend retreats. He had nothing to do with the marriage of the Prince to the Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert. He had terrible black fits of depression.

One of his interests was the setting up of a church in Soho Square. He collected a great deal of money for it. At first they bought the establishment of a Mrs Cornley, who was known as "The Circe of Soho" and no better than she should be.

This consisted of two large pleasure rooms one above the other. They cut the top floor to make a gallery and used the whole building as a very plain church. • Fr O'Leary got a pension of £200 a year from the Irish Government — why? — and he was never made parish priest of St Patrick's. He died in 1802 and his last years were gloomy.

He took a last quick look at post Revolutionary France, and found it horrid. "Not a gentleman left", he said. They gave him one of the first public Requiems in St Patrick's. Before him, even Vicar Apostolics had been buried without vestments and with their arms by their sides, not crossed on their chests.

A handful of blessed earth was inside the coffin before it as hurried, without fuss, usually to the St Pancras graveyard. Arthur O'Leary got a full sung Requiem with an orchestra and a eulogy and a congregation of 2,000.

The present church was put up in 1893, and it really is very fine with a (possible) Van Dyck over the altar from the old church, and a (possible) Murillo on the side, with some handsome 18th century plate and some antique vestments of great glory, one of which clearly belonged to Queen Catherine of Aragon.

But this marvellous church in apple-pie order with a lordly 18th century presbytery next door faces a problem, it has about 70 to 100 resident parishioners. The Sunday congregation of about 350 is eked out with tourists from hotels and people who just love the place, which is light and cheerful and full of colour and

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