Complete History of St George's Cathedral
Before 55BC, the Southwark area was a marshy salt flat, uninhabited, muddy and flooded by the tide twice a day. When the Romans came, they made use of the causeways, embanked the river and reclaimed the marsh. They built a wooden bridge over the Thames and a settlement grew up south of the bridge, which they fortified and made their headquarters.
The earliest mention of Southwark is in 1023 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of that time tells us that the body of St. Alphege, martyr, was carried across the Thames to 'Suthgeworke' on its way to Canterbury. In the Domesday book, the name appears in the form of 'Sudwerche'.
As London grew in importance and wealth. many noblemen settled in Southwark and religious houses grew up round about, notably the abbey at Bermondsey. Because the place was easily reached by water and its air was pure and fresh, many ecclesiastics and nobles had town houses built here.
St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, had a house very close to where St George's now stands. Many famous inns were sited in the area, in particular the Tabard, from which Chaucer's pilgrims set out for Canterbury, and the George, an Elizabethan inn which still stands today. Here medieval merchants lodged while they went across the Thames to transact their business in the City. There were four Elizabethan theatres in Southwark, including The Globe, the scene of Shakespeare's greatest triumphs. The area was also known for its prisons, in particular the Clink and the Marshalsea.
It was from here that St John Jones and St John Rigby, two of the 40 English and Welsh martyrs, were taken to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the gallows down the Kent Road. Blessed David Gonson and Blessed John Pibush also suffered at the same gallows.
During Penal tinies, priests said Mass secretly in cellars or garrets in the back streets of London or in the depth of the country. In 176 7 Father John Baptist Maloney was arrested and irnprisoned for saying Mass on Sundays in a poor house in Kent Street, less than a miIe from where St George's now stands.
The valiant struggles of the martyrs ensured that the Roman Catholic faith never entirely died out in England. A large community of Irish living in Bermondsey and Southwark in the 18th century meant that, once the faith was tolerated again, it was here that the first legal chapels would be built.
The original cathedral
The Catholic Relief Act of 1778 brought a certain limited freedom to those of the faith. Priests no longer moved in fear of imprisonment. Catholics could run their own schools and could once more acquire property. In protest against the Act, Lord George Gordon, on 2 June 1780, gathered a large crowd in St George's Fields to march on Westminster. Refused a hearing, they became violent and so began a week of burning, plundering and killing in which many Catholic chapels and houses were destroyed. There is a tradition that the high altar of the cathedral stands on the spot where the march began.
In 1786 there was only one Catholic chapel in the whole of south London, located at Bermondsey. It was then that Fr Thomas Walsh, a Douai priest, for £20 a year hired a room in Bandyleg Walk (near where the Southwark fire station now stands). Within two years, the numbers attending the little chapel had increased so rapidly that a new building became essential. In 1793 a large chapel dedicated to St George was opened in the London Road at a cost of £2,000. It was designed by James Taylor of Weybridge, Surrey.
According to tradition it was here that the first High Mass was celebrated in London, outside the chapels of ambassadors, since the time of James II. The occasion was the Solemn Requiem sung for the repose of the soul of Louis XVI of France, who was executed on 21 January 1793.
It was to St George's that Fr Thomas Doyle came in 1820, when the congregation stood at around 7,000. He became the First Chaplain in 1829. In the same year, the Catholic Emancipation Act removed nearly all the legal disabilities which Catholics had suffered for 250 years.
As Fr Doyle's congregation increased (to 15,000 by 1829), the idea grew in his mind of a great church, with the dimensions of a long and lofty cathedral. By 1839, enough money had been collected to make a start, and the present site in St George's Fields (then an open space) was purchased for £3,200.
A.W.N. Pugin, the noted architect of the Gothic revival, was commissioned to design the church. Unfortunately, lack of funds prevented the committee from accepting his first design of a cruciform cathedral on a grand scale, and less ambitious plans had to be prepared. Work began at on the old cathedral in 1840, the foundation stone being laid on 8 September. The church was solemnly opened by Bishop Wiseman on 4 July 1848. To mark the occasion Pope Pius IX sent a golden chalice and paten as a gift.
Two years later pope Pius restored the English hierarchy, and St George's was chosen as the Cathedral Church of the new Diocese of Southwark, which was to cover the whole of Southern England. For the next half-century, until the opening of Westminster Cathedral, St George's was the centre of Catholic life in London.
Thomas Grant was made the first Bishop of Southwark; Fr Doyle became the Provost and Administrator, and remained so until his death on 6 June 1879. He is buried in the crypt. The new cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Butt on 7 November 1894 and on that day every year the feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral is celebrated throughout the diocese.
A New Cathedral
Disaster came during the massive air-raids on London during World War 11. On 16 April 1941 an incendiary bomb set light to the roof and in minutes the cathedral was ablaze from end to end, to become the next day a smouldering ruin. For some years the Amigo Hall became the pro-cathedral.
In the early 1950s, under Bishop Cowderoy and Administrator Fr Bernard Bogan, plans for a new cathedral were completed. Romilly Bernard Craze was chosen as the architect. It was only when restoration work commenced in 1953 that the full extent of the fire damage became apparent. Only a few parts of the original building were sound enough to be incorporated in the reconstructed cathedral. In the reconstruction, a clerestory over the nave was introduced, vastly improving the lighting of the new building.
A grant came from the War Damage Commission, but extra money was needed as the plan went beyond mere restoration. Appeals were made far beyond the diocese, notably in Ireland and the USA. On 4 July 1958 the new building was solemnly opened by Bishop Cowderoy. The Lady Chapel was added in 1963 and the Baptistry in 1966. Click here for a plan of the new cathedral.
In 1994 the cathedral's centenary was marked by a weekend of celebrations involving the Papal Nuncio, the Archbishop of Southwark and more than 40 priests who had served the cathedral over the years.
The Papal Visit of 1982
0n Friday 2 8 May 19 82, His Holiness Pope John Paul II came to the cathedral for a liturgy for the sick. Large coloured banners hung from the roof, depicting the positioning of each diocesan group of sick people. The whole floor space was reserved for those in wheelchairs and on mobile beds, many of whom had been wheeled or carried from different halls in the locality.
Amid music, singing and applause, His Holiness gave his full attention to the sick, moving slowly up to the high altar, blessing, caressing the upturned faces, many incredulous, all overjoyed. When the service was over, he walked out to the precinct to bless, talk to, and touch each and every one he could reach as if to say, "You have been very patient - you deserve even more of my attention".
The Nave, North Aisle and Sanctuary
0n entering the cathedral, one should first pause for an overall view of the fine, lofty nave. The white stone used for the interior is Cotswold limestone from Painsivick, Gloucestershire. The wooden panels o the nave ceiling are painted with emblems depicting the story of man's redemption by Christ. Along the walls of the north aisle are the 14 Stations of the Cross, telling the story of Christ's sufferings, from his condemnation by Pilate to his burial in the tomb. These tablets were carved by H.J. Youngman. The originals are in the National Museum of Wales. At the east end of the north aisle is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, another beautiful survival from Pugin's original church.
The Knill Chantry is situated towards the cast end of the north aisle near the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Chantries are found in many cathedrals. They are chapels or altars endowed for the offering of Masses in perpetuity for the repose of the souls of their founders and their families. The money for the Knill Chantry was given by John Knill, later Sir John and Lord Mayor of London, one of a London business family who supported the cathedral for many years. The chantry was designed in 18 5 6 by Edward Pugin, son of A.W.N. Pugin, whose marriage to Miss Jane Knill was the first to be solemnised in the new cathedral.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with its fine wrought-iron gates, is a part of Pugin's original building that survived the bombing in 1941. The Pugin traces can still be seen in the gilt capitals capping the columned arches, and the subdued harmonious hues which are particularly suited to this chapel. The tabernacle, flanked by two arched and gabled recesses, contains the Blessed Sacrament reserved for private devotions and, in case of emergency, for the sick. Its continuing presence is denoted by the ever-burning lamp.
Attached to the pillar to the right of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a modern statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a reminder of His tender and abiding human love for all of us.
The original Pugin high altar was against the back wall, denoted by the golden panels of the ceiling. The 1958 high altar, which was slightly forward, encased the remnants of the frontispiece of the Pugin 1848 altar, now re-assembled in St Joseph 's Chapel. The present sanctuary was reordered in 1989 to emphasise the three focal points of the Liturgy: the ambo, from which the word of God is proclaimed, the altar and the cathedra - the Bishop's chair. The marble floor came from the same Purbeck quarry in Dorset as that used for the 1958 rebuilding.
0n the wall at the south side of chancel arch is the striking modern statue of St George, patron saint of England and titular saint of the cathedral. Like the Stations of the Cross, it is the work of H.J. Youngman.
Nearby in the south-cast corner of the nave, a triple arch, one of the architectural features of the new cathedral, surrounds the Petre Chantry, a perfect Gothic gem, where is buried the Hon. Edward Petre, who gave considerable financial help towards the original costs of the cathedral.
In 1849 there was still fear of antipapal violence, and the bold move to depict Our Lady in bas-relief on the altar frontal resulted in a family request for the chantry to be put in a remote part of the church.
At its east end is the beautiful Lady Chapel, consecrated by Archbishop Cowderoy in 1963. The statue of Our Lady (c. 1725) is a fitting tribute to Fr Thomas Doyle. In 1820, at a time when public devotions had to be discreet, he publicly displayed the statue and led devotions to the Blessed Virgin on a special altar at the only shrine of Our Lady south of the river.
At the east end of the south aisle is the Chapel of St Peter and the English Martyrs. The four martyrs shown on the stone panels are Ven. John Griffiths, parish priest of Wandsworth: St Augustine Webster, a Carthusian rnonk of Sheen: St Philip Howard, a layman: and Blessed Margaret Pole, mother of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Also in the chapel are three oil ampullae containing oils that are blessed and consecrated on Maundy Thursday.
Moving west, the next chapel is that of St Patrick. The people of Ireland subscribed thousands of pounds towards the restoration of the cathedral. A bronze plaque commemorates Terence McSwiney, a Lord Mayor of Cork who died in Brixton prison in 1920 after a hunger strike. A modern reconciliation room occupies part of this chapel.
Further west is St Joseph's Chapel. Traces can be seen of the original chapel, opened in 1889 from a bequest of Baroness Weld, who lies beneath it with her husband. Fragments of the original high altar frontal, preserved during the post-war reconstruction, are mounted on the wall here.
The baptistry (1966), at the southwest corner of the cathedral, was the last part of the building to be completed. The steps down into it remind us of the original custom in the Church of baptism by total immersion. The window showing the Resurrection of Christ is by Harry Clarke Ltd of Dublin.
St George's Cathedral caters for people from many different walks of life. Being south of the River Thames, it is off the tourist routes and is very much a working parish church which, from time to time, must double up as the metropolitan cathedral for the south of England. In the heart of a very cosmopolitan area all come together, bringing their joys and sorrows, to worship and get support from one another. This multiplicity is reflected in the different forms of worship in the cathedral.
The Cathedral's worship starts each Sunday with a quiet Mass at 8 a.m. when parishioners are left to their own prayers during a meditative service. The hustle and bustle breaks out with the Family Mass at 10 a.m., when the children actively participate in the liturgy. This is followed by the solemn liturgy of a choral Mass at 11.3 0 a. m. when the traditional choir of men and boys sings polyphony of the greatest composers. The day finishes with a contemporary music Mass at 6 p.m. when the piano and flute help the younger generation worship in a more up-to-date style. The cathedral is open every day from 6.30 a.m. until 8 at night and a steady stream of people pause, often on their way to or from work, to ask God's blessing on their work and family.
Special events take place throughout the year. The Ghanaians and Nigerians celebrate national days. The Archbishop leads the liturgy on the major feast days, sometimes with the priests of the diocese, and with the people of the parish. St George's is not a cultural or fashionable church - it is very much a parish church.
Pictures courtesy of Pitkin Guides Ltd.
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