Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sung Latin Mass in England's Oldest Catholic Church

Sunday, September, 2008

My day began gloriously with the discovery that I might soon be registered as a parishioner in the oldest Catholic Church in England! Three days ago, in an attempt to find the location of Catholic churches closest to my residence at Holborn, I had googled the words 'Catholic parishes in London' and came up with three: St. Anselm and St. Cecilia's at Lincoln Inn Fields, St. Peter's at Clerkenwell Road and St. Etheldreda's at Ely Place. Studying the map of London, I also made the discovery that the last one was closest to me--just three block away as we would say in New York. So I went to their website and found out that the Latin Mass is sung in this church every Sunday at 11 am. So there I was giving myself, or so I thought, enough time to find the place of worship.

Easier thought that done! I circled Holborn Circle on foot several times, asked many passers-by if they knew where the Catholic Church was but drew a complete blank. Meanwhile, the square tower of St. Andrew's Presbyterian church loomed in front of me and another Protestant church was right behind it. But not a sign of St. Etheldreda's did I see.

Just when I was beginning to despair, I dug out my map and carefully followed it towards Ely Place, a very small, nondescript lane right in front of my eyes. And there it was: a small, nondescript sign that said: 'Ely Place for St. Etheldreda's Church'. A few steps later, I was entering an ancient church, so completely hidden away from the main road and even the street front that I could have walked right by it and missed it altogether.

Mass had just barely begun when I entered and the rich sounds of a Latin choir singing a Gregorian chant reached my delighted ears. I was so relieved to have found the place that I forgot to notice the sobering age of the building as I walked down a narrow corridor, no doubt the cloister of old and entered a darkened church, fragrant with incense.

It was also packed, many members of the congregation dressed in tourist garb--the church is probably mentioned in Lonely Planet or some other guide as a must-see church in London. Taking my seat just after the Introductory Rite was complete, I picked up a brochure lying on my seat and was able to follow most of the Latin liturgy. The choir was marvelous and the priest whose name I did not get, preached a very long and very learned sermon rife with allusions to the Letters of St. Paul and an attempt to interpret Scripture for our 21st century intellects.

Right ahead of me, creating an arresting focal point were exquisite stained glass widows. These were also visible throughout the three sides of the church and at the very opposite end was another equally stunning one. The interior walls were lined with yellow Cotswold stone with windows sporting typical Gothic tracery. Statues of saints encircled the church high upon their carved stone plinths. The effect was deeply awesome and I felt humbled in the presence of so much holiness. It was clear to me, merely from a cursory glance at the interior, that this church was old, indeed as old, if not older than Roslyn Chapel that we had seen in Roslyn, Scotland, not even a fortnight ago.

I thoroughly enjoyed the service, every second of it, and was inspired and moved by the devotion expressed by the people all around me. In keeping with the rites of the old sung Latin mass, there was a solemnity throughout the proceedings and everyone looked suitably formal and serious. One of the con-celebrants, who came out to help distribute Communion, was an Indian priest. I hoped to meet with him at the end of the Mass but he was detained by a parishioner who asked him f0r a special blessing.

After Communion, I glanced at the short history of the Church as detailed on the brochure and discovered that St. Etheldreda's was the first church to return to Catholicism after the Protestant Reformation in England which makes it the oldest Catholic Church in the country. The street is named after the Bishop of Ely (outside Cambridge) who arrived in 1250 to build a church on the site. The church in which Mass is celebrated today is all that remains of what was the vast land holding of the church. It was named after St. Etheldreda who grew up near Ely, remained a virgin according to the terms of her marriage agreement and after the death of her husband founded two monasteries and served as abbess of one of them until her death, the cause of which was a tumor in her neck. When her body was dug up about twelve years after her death, it was found to have remained uncorrupted and the tumor had completely disappeared.

Henry the VIII held a banquet in this church in 1531 that lasted five days and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1570s ordered that a part of the church's property be turned over to Lord Hatton, after whom the adjoining street was named--today known as Hatton Gardens, London's jewelry district. Imagine all this Tudor and Elizabethan history literally in my own backyard! I was so delighted by the church's location so close to where I live that I have resolved to make a trip there again in a day or two to register as a new parishioner.

The rest of the day passed by as I did a spot of cooking--Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, a Chicken and Mixed Vegetable Stir Fry with Wagamama's Spicy Chili Men Sauce and a nice Chicken Caesar Salad.

In the evening, I went for a short walk, just to get some air, up to New Oxford Street and back, strolling around the British Museum and browsing in some of the stores that were open on a Sunday evening.

Tomorrow begins a new week in London--my second--and I hope to get down to some research in the library.

No comments: