The Church of Our Lady was one of the first Catholic Churches to be built in London following the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act which, among other things, once more permitted Catholic churches to be built for use in public worship.
The Church was built to support the work of the Catholic Mission in St Johns Wood and that mission would shortly be supported by the establishing of the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Harewood Avenue, and the establishing of Catholic schools.
The parish church was largely funded by two sisters, daughters of Sir John Gallini, using the legacy left them by their father. He had been a dancing master and had managed Covent Garden Opera House and Assembly Rooms in Hanover Square. The Gallini sisters at first intended their church to be in Hanover Square, but permission was refused by Bishop Brampton, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, who requested that the new church be built at a greater distance from the church in Spanish Place, George Street.
The church of Our Lady was designed by J.J. Scoles, in the newly fashionable Gothic style. It was described as Regency Classic by Sir John Betjeman on a visit here in 1971, and its most notable features are the vaulted ceiling and the elegant cast iron pillars which support it. As originally designed the two transepts were not true transepts at all, but two houses. The one to the north of the church proper was the presbytery, and the one to the south was home to the church’s founders, the two Gallini sisters. Only in 1937, a hundred years after the opening of the church, were the priests to move into the current rectory and the two transepts incorporated into the church.
Some of the earliest photos and images of the Church of Our Lady
When the Church of Our Lady was first opened in 1830s it was relatively plain in its decoration. The church has known various decoration schemes since then. During the 19th century the church was progressively enriched by the addition of a new High Altar and Lady Altar, with marble altar rails and an elaborate and decorative reredos. Some of these elements were damaged during the Second World War when substantial damage was caused to the church by a V2 rocket the same rocket harming also our neighbour, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.
By the 1970s the church was in a very poor state of repair, and there were those who argued strongly that the church should be pulled down and a new building erected in its place. Instead the structure was thoroughly overhauled, under the guidance of the Parish Priest, Fr Michael O’Dwyer. All of the adornments added in the 19th century were stripped out. The floors were replaced, walls patched up, ‘old doors’ long bricked up were opened anew and statues and the Stations of the Cross were replaced by contemporary works.
Looking at photos of the church in its earlier days one can’t help but regret the loss of what was a beautiful Victorian interior. At the same time many feel that, somewhat remarkably, the fine lines and clear light of the Regency gothic found an effective complement in the contemporary art works, statues and carvings by Michael Clarke and the painting of the Baptism of Christ by Marek Zulaski.
Photos of the Church of Our Lady following the 1970s reordering
The 1970s reordering lasted well. However during the 1990s and later it became clear that some basic refurbishment work was needed, and that additional major work was needed to provide a permanent font, a sound-proofed area for Reconciliation (confessions), improving the fitments at the back of the church, improve access for those with reduced mobility, and to renew the lighting.
After much planning and a lot of fund raising these works were undertaken and were mostly concluded in time for Easter 2010.
Photos of the Church of Our Lady following the most recent works.