Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 12, 2003
In search of St. Phillip Neri
This astounding London Oratory had its beginnings as a house of prayer
Saint Phillip Neri - Feast Day - May 26
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
It's enormous. A visitor standing in the Oratory nave must decide how best to tour this colossal church with its many side chapels, Italian statuary everywhere, and a dome that is "heavenly" in size. Where to begin? The most popular of the chapels and the one devoted to the originator of the Oratory is a good place to start.
The Congregation of the Oratory was established in 17th century Rome, during the Counter Reformation, by a remarkable and charismatic priest, Philip Neri. He began by conducting prayer meetings, mainly for young people, in places that came to be called oratories (speaking places). He was encouraged to assemble a community of priests who lived together but followed no strict rule nor took vows. Formalized in 1612, the congregation spread, founding urban houses beyond Rome.
By 1848, a self-governing, independent oratory had been established in England and a house and temporary church built in the West End London Suburb of Brompton.
Herbert Gribble, architect of the Oratory, designed the large altar of St. Philip Neri which is to the left of the church's sanctuary. The saint, said to be the patron of humour, is depicted in a copy of a painting by Guido Reni and a prone effigy of St. Philip is displayed beneath the altar. During his lifetime he became known as the Apostle of Rome and was widely acclaimed for his wisdom and understanding, miracles and prophecies. Philip died in 1595 and was canonized a short 27 years later.
History influenced the striking design of the London Oratory, commonly but incorrectly referred to as the Brompton Oratory. This grand basilica was built to fulfill a desire for a "proper" Catholic-looking church, unlike Great Britain's many Gothic (Anglican, formerly Roman Catholic) cathedrals and churches.
The result - of Italian Renaissance style modelled after St. Peter's in Rome - was consecrated in 1884, replacing an 1854 church on the site. The fa‡ade was added in 1893 and the dome three years later. Next to Winchester Cathedral, it's the second largest Catholic Church in London and even exceeds massive St. Paul's in width of its nave.
More properly, a tour of the great Italianate church should begin at the focal point and reason for the building's existence at the unusually large sanctuary with its great altar, inlaid wood floors and massive chandelier.
To the right of the sanctuary, in front of a chapel honouring St. Wilfrid of York, the large Lady Chapel attracts much attention. It's noted for the statue of Our Lady of Victories with the Christ Child and its huge altar, a gift from the Chiesa Nuova, the order's motherhouse in Italy.
Towards the front of the church, chapels are devoted to St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalen, the Sacred Heart and Calvary. Last, on the right hand side of the nave, is St. Patrick's chapel, honouring Ireland's patron saint.
And at one side of this chapel, the sacristan will show visitors the place used for a "dead drop" to pass information to its agents by the Soviet KGB during the Cold War. It's ironic that, until discovered in 1985, microfilms and documents were secreted behind a large marble pieta, a soldier's memorial dedicated to the fallen (Pro Patria Mori) of the Great War of 1914-18. Their names are inscribed beside the monument.
The Oratory is an active parish with the Eucharist celebrated at the shrines of St. Philip and Our Lady of Victories as well as at the main altar. Four Masses are said daily during the week with nine (three sung) on weekends. A variety of Vesper and Benediction services are held and a whole range of lay Church service organizations exists.