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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

175th Anniversary of Farm Street Church

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair, otherwise known as Farm Street Church. To celebrate, the Archives are holding an exhibition of material from the church’s history which will be repeated three times across the year. We have already had two successful dates in May, and it will be shown again this weekend (5-7 July), with a final chance to see it on 22 and 23 October. It is open to all and is being held in the reading room of the British Jesuit Archives, which is located in the Provincial offices next to the Church. For the opening times, please see the flyer at the bottom of this page.

The opening of the church, on 31 July 1849, is demonstrative of the new-felt confidence that Catholics in Britain felt after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Over the course of the 1830s and 1840s the Jesuits opened several new schools and churches in quick succession, such as St Ignatius, Preston, St Francis Xavier (College and Church), Liverpool, Mount St Mary’s College, and the scholasticate at St Beuno’s, thus cementing themselves in everyday British life. They also sought to build a church in the heart of London.

Initially, they faced fierce opposition from the then Vicar Apostolic of the London region, Thomas Griffith, who argued that such a church would take away revenue made by nearby Catholic parishes from baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Indeed, in a letter of 27 December 1842 (ref. MSB/1 ff. 58-59) the Provincial Fr Randall Lythgoe SJ stated that Griffiths would “move heaven and earth” to prevent the Society building a church in London. The matter was taken to Rome and permission was finally granted, on various conditions, by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in April 1843. Fr Lythgoe laid the foundation stone on the Feast of St Ignatius, 31 July, 1844.

The church itself was designed by Joseph John Scoles (1798-1863), an English Gothic Revival architect and was equipped with an altar by Augustus Pugin (1812-1852). The building was intended to take 18 months but was not opened until five years later on 31 July 1849. Dr Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865), who was soon to be installed as the first Archbishop of Westminster, had a more positive attitude to the Society than his predecessor and preached at the opening.

Over the next 50 years the building continued to evolve as the land around the church became available, in response to the growing congregation and support for its clergy. It was completed in 1903 with the construction of the west aisle. Although it survived the Second World War largely intact, the church did not avoid damage altogether, with several windows being blown out and part of the roof being destroyed.

On 1 January 1966, over 100 years after the church’s opening, Farm Street became a parish church. There was a concelebrated Low Mass for the induction of the first parish priest, Fr John Brooks SJ (1920-1988) on 28 January at which Cardinal John Heenan (1905-1975) was the principal celebrant. Weddings and baptisms could now take place, and a font was placed in the Calvary chapel. The proximity to high end hotels in which receptions could be held made Farm Street a fashionable place to get married. Nowadays Farm Street is known as a community welcoming converts to Roman Catholicism, famous writers, and for challenging preaching and beautiful music and art.

The exhibition highlights some of the Jesuits that have been associated with Farm Street over the years – some well-known and some less so. Fr Bernard Vaughan (1847-1922), for example, was a renowned preacher, and drew large crowds at Farm Street, where he became a permanent member of the community in 1901. According to Fr Cyril Martindale SJ (1879-1963), Vaughan “wore himself out in God’s service, preaching, lecturing, and giving retreats.” He died at Mount Street 31 October 1922. The news was announced across London and many thronged to his requiem.

In 1977 Fr Peter Knott SJ (1926-2017) was appointed Parish Priest at Farm Street. In the 1980s and 1990s, Knott wrote a number of books on spirituality which were published by the Catholic Truth Society, and in later years he contributed articles to Thinking Faith, the online journal of the Jesuits in Britain, and his weekly column of short reflections, entitled 'God Talk', was published on the Province website. Knott was an accomplished pianist and painter, and many of his watercolours were exhibited and auctioned to raise money to support various Jesuit ministries.

In the church itself, in the Sacred Heart Chapel to the right of the Sanctuary, is a semi-permanent display on four of the church’s architects: Joseph John Scoles, Augustus Pugin, Henry Clutton, and W. H. Romaine Walker. This will remain in the church until the final exhibition in October.

Due to the lack of a dedicated space that would have allowed us to keep the exhibition open throughout the year, and in order to provide access to as wide an audience as possible, we will be looking into creating an online version of the exhibition later in the year, accessed via our website Jesuit Collections – a platform held with Stonyhurst College Collections and other collaborators for projects such as this. If you would like to hear about this and future projects, please sign up to the mailing list on the website.

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