An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

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          St Mary Moorfields                                          
It comes as a surprise to some people to realise that St Mary Moorfields is the only Catholic Church in the City of London. St Etheldreda in Ely Place, which is often thought of being a City church, is actually in the Borough of Camden, and English Martyrs church near Tower Hill station is in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. And the dedication is an odd one, for Moorfields is some way to the north of here. The reason is an interesting historical accident. In the penal years of course there must have been a number of secretive, illegal Catholic chapels scattered throughout the City, and the Faithful could also worship in the embassy chapels of Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal. But in 1820, after Catholicism began to be decriminalised in England, a large Classical church was built at Finsbury Circus in Moorfields to the north of the City and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

This St Mary Moorfields was the biggest Catholic church in London in its day, and from 1851 served as London's Catholic pro-cathedral, the seat of Cardinal Wiseman. However, plans were already well-advanced by then to build a cathedral more suited to the triumphalism of the day, and in 1884 the Catholic Church acquired a huge site off of Victoria Street in west London. The construction of what would be Westminster Cathedral commenced in 1895, and in 1899, when parts of the new building became useable for worship, the site of St Mary Moorfields was sold off and the church demolished.

The replacement church for the Moorfields parishioners would be within the City, the first new Catholic parish church to be built in the City of London for more than 400 years. It would retain the dedication of the former church. The architect was George Sherrin, and the church opened for business on the Feast of the Annunciation 1903. The site, roughly halfway between Liverpool Street and Moorgate stations, was an already established commercial one; Sherrin rebuilt the entire row, squeezing a narrow entrance to the church between two of the shops. Despite this it is a grand, classical entrance, and if St Mary Moorfields doesn't look much like a church from the outside then it is perhaps a reminder of what was once the common setting of many City churches, the frontage of their building encroached on by shops and tenements. This only survives elsewhere in the City today at St Peter Cornhill.

Large reliefs above the main entrance depict four significant events in the story of the Blessed Virgin: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Deposition and the Assumption. Above them stands a statue of the Virgin and child being crowned by cherubs. You step through and down into a long, almost windowless church, the only daylight coming from rooflights in the long domed ceiling. A 'north aisle' runs to the left (the church is actually aligned to the north, so this aisle is to the west). Arcades (blank on the right hand 'south' side) and the ceiling lead the eye towards the vertical columns of the apse, creating a sense of height and depth. The gravitas is enhanced by a large crucifix, nothing else - incidentally, the most recent revision of Pevsner seems to have misread its notes here, describing a spectacular altarpiece from the old church which I do not think ever made its way into the new church, although as Simon Bradley records there was a smaller version of it here until 1964.

The wide becherubed font, however, was brought here from the old church, and given a font cover typical of the 17th Century City of London style, but in many ways the new church was really a condensation of the old. Despite the date of 1903, the interior of St Mary Moorfields is really a design of eighty years earlier, and that itself was a Georgian reimagining of the Italian 15th Century. Because of this, the 20th Century details do not merge as comfortably as might be hoped, but are still good in themselves, including the tympanum above the shrine to St Thomas More at the south end of the aisle, which depicts his execution in 1920s mosaic style. At the other end of the aisle, the altar is surmounted by stained glass (though not, I think, actually a window) depicting the Assumption, flanked by St Thomas More and St John Fisher. This may have been installed at the time of their canonisation by Pius XI in 1935, although it appears the work of a decade or so earlier.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: Eldon Street EC2M 7LS 3/064
status: working Catholic parish church
access: open seven days a week 6.45am - 6.45pm

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An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile