Church of Our Lady, St John's Wood, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of Our Lady
Location: St John's Wood, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 April 2022, 6:00pm

The building

Photo: © Jaggery and used under license This is one of the earliest 19th century churches in London, opened in 1836 and designed by the renowned 19th century champion of Gothic Revival, Joseph John Scoles, who built numerous Catholic churches as well as a few Anglican churches and secular structures. Chaste, cool white pillars lead the eye upwards to neo-Gothic pointed arches. The eye then travels to the east end, where beyond the modern altar a large figure of Christ in relief dominates the sanctuary. Beneath this depiction of the risen Christ, the lower part of the wall is covered with a gold motif of wheatsheaves. Despite this attractive motif, the sanctuary still suffers from that post-Vatican II problem of looking 'scooped out', i.e., beyond the altar is something of a void.

The church

This is a busy parish, with a vigil mass and four masses on a Sunday, two of them sung. The voluntary choir sings to a high standard and specializes in the polyphony and plainchant of the Roman Catholic church. There are branches of the Union of Catholic Mothers and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. St Joseph's Fellowship brings together men for socialization, prayer, and the promotion of family values.

The neighborhood

Most of St John's Wood is wealthy, but the church is located where the poshness shades off into a large area of social housing. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue is around the corner. The ziggurat of Lord's, perhaps the most famous cricket ground in the world, looms nearby. Also in parish is Abbey Road, where EMI recorded the famous eponymous Beatles album of 1969: the zebra crossing still exists and tourists take pictures of themselves on it, to the annoyance of drivers. In the vicinity is Redemptoris Mater, a house of formation for the Neo-Catechumenate, one of the new evangelizing movements in the Catholic Church, which has a distinctive liturgical life.

The cast

The assistant priest celebrated the mass.

What was the name of the service?

Evening Mass, Second Sunday of Easter. It was also Divine Mercy Sunday, but apart from a bidding prayer, this modern devotion of Polish origin hardly featured.

How full was the building?

Easily two-thirds full, mostly young families with lots of children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was wished a good evening as I entered, but otherwise left to my own devices.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The warm rays of the setting sun shone on us through the west window, adding to a mellow, prayerful quietness before the service began. Throughout the service the many children (with one exception – see below) were astonishingly well behaved. Like so much of London, this is a very international area, and the composure of the children made me wonder if they were French, whose children are usually models of good practice in church as in restaurants.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The entrance antiphon: 'Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, Alleluia.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a parish book with the readings. I failed to note the publisher.

What musical instruments were played?

None. There was no music or singing.

Did anything distract you?

I could see one or two windows of lovely Victorian stained glass, reminiscent of pre-Raphaelite style. I wondered if more had been lost when substantial damage was caused to the church when it was struck by a V2 rocket in WW2.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a dignified mass celebrated at a measured pace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The celebrant had a rather understated style and I was relieved when he spoke with increasing enthusiasm during the delivery of the sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the readings we hear about three men: Peter, John and Thomas. Because they stayed with the nascent Church and shared faith in the risen Lord, whom they had seen, they all developed through their faith. Peter became a great leader; John a visionary and prophet; Thomas showed how faith and reason were not only compatible but complementary.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was all done decently and reverently, and was uplifting, but funnily enough it was at the end as I left that my heart really lifted. There were the parishioners, chatting to one another and laughing, and there too were the two priests, very much part of the happy company.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

During the eucharistic prayer, a boy old enough to know better sauntered down the side aisle, hands in pockets, presumably en route to the toilet. Dr Pormundi firmly believes that there should be no movement around the church during the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine. It's a problem in other churches too. Also, there no lector or eucharistic minister was available, nor a server. Strange in a church otherwise so well ordered.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I did not want to linger. I was trying to avoid the two over life-size statues of St Joseph and the Madonna and Child, which were cast in the 1970s. They rather loom over the departing worshipper and seem out of place. Also I had to wrestle my car homeward through the London traffic.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 — I would be happy to do so especially on a weekday, but parking in the area is nearly impossible at that time.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The celebrant having to ask if a minister of communion was available. I nearly offered myself, but thought it inappropriate as I was a visitor.

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