LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Any visit to a picturesque village in England wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the local parish church. The country is also known for its grand cathedrals, including those at York, Lincoln, and St Paul’s in London.
One thing you are likely to see in front of any ecclesiastical tourist attraction in the country is the cross in a circle symbol creating a lowercase letter “e” – the trademark of the (Anglican) Church of England.
There are few Catholic churches on anyone’s itinerary when travelling through England, for various reasons. First of all, most of those picturesque Anglican churches were once Catholic, but became part of the Church of England was formed by Henry VIII at the height of the Reformation.
Yet when the Catholic Church began building churches in England after restrictions on “papist worship” were lifted in the 1800’s several architectural gems were constructed. Why do so few people seek them out?
Elena Curti, a Catholic journalist who worked at The Tablet from 2001-2016, once had this discussion while speaking to a colleague over coffee.
“We were talking about the popularity of church tourism and asking ourselves why Catholic churches were missing out. One obvious point is that there are a lot of books written about Church of England churches but very little about Catholic churches. My colleague casually said, ‘Someone ought to write a book, Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die,’” Curti recalled, which planted the idea in her head.
She acknowledged the problems facing Catholic churches when it comes to tourism.
“There are a great many more Anglican churches and cathedrals and a lot of them are very ancient and beautiful,” she told Crux.
“Even so, some of the very best Catholic churches are hiding in plain sight. Outside their congregations, people barely know that they are there even though they might drive past them every day. Yet the architecture is fantastic. Catholic churches have been built in an extraordinary range of styles. They are the most amazing treasure houses of religious art and furnishings,” Curti said.
When she approached the small Catholic publisher Gracewing with the idea, they were enthusiastic and Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die became a reality.
Curti said she knew some of the churches she wanted to include from her work in Catholic media, and friends and colleagues also suggested their favorites.
“I also visited most of the Grade I listed churches for the book and that made me realize for the first time the richness of this heritage. I’m hoping that my book will encourage many more people to visit not just the 50 but do some exploring of their own,” she told Crux.
In the UK, “listed buildings” are those structures that are protected in law due to their historical or artistic importance. In England and Wales, a “Grade I” listing is a building of “exceptional interest.” There are 34 Grade I listed Catholic churches in England and Wales.
Catholic worship was officially banned in England after the Reformation, and priests operated in secret. Catholic churches weren’t allowed to be built until the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 – even then, they couldn’t have steeples or belltowers.
When restrictions were lifted in the 19th century, the Catholic Church in England benefited from the Gothic revival.
“The fifty churches I’ve chosen for the book relate this history. Two were constructed when Catholic worship and the building of churches was illegal. These had to be concealed within other buildings: One is in the wing of a Palladian mansion, the other is a domed chapel hidden within a pitched roof. You really wouldn’t guess they were there,” Curti said.
“As Catholics slowly came out of the shadows they were, understandably, anxious not to draw attention to their places of worship given the history of persecution. The first churches were very plain and resembled non-Conformist chapels often known as ‘preaching boxes’. I’ve got one of these in the book that has survived virtually intact,” she continued.
Curti said the nineteenth century saw a gradual resurgence of the Catholic faith fueled by mass immigration from Ireland and a series of high-profile converts like John Henry Newman.
“The decades after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 were the heyday of Catholic church building. The best churches – many of them built by the Jesuits and other orders – reflected newfound confidence and ambition. Their style was unique at the time bringing together Gothic Revival pioneered by AWN Pugin, and Roman influence with clear views of the altar and tabernacle as dictated by the Counter Reformation,” she explained.
History continues to shape Catholic churches in England, with Curti saying the reform of the liturgy at the Second Vatican Council was a “powerful driver of change in church architecture.”
“This influenced moves away from the traditional longitudinal plan for churches with the priest in the sanctuary at some distance from the congregation. I’ve got a church in the book dating from the 1939 in which the altar was placed centrally but mostly this happened in the 1960s following the Vatican instruction on implementing the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy,” she said.
Curti said the post-Vatican II period was “major era of church building,” with modernist structures of concrete and glass instead of stone building evoking past glories.
“I’ve got a couple of beautiful churches built to a circular plan. I love the boldness and originality of the best 1960s churches, the sense of light and space and particularly the windows with thick slabs of very colorful glass,” she said.
Curti says she hopes Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die will raise awareness of the importance of conserving the finest Catholic churches in the country.
“Many are in urgent need of repair,” she explained.
“The main threat to those built in the Victorian era is from failing roofs, gutters and crumbling stonework. Although well-built in their time, they are reaching the point where original materials have started to fail and need replacing. Those constructed later, especially in the 1960s, have a myriad of problems relating to flat roofs, deteriorating concrete and leaking windows, the result of experimentation with materials and with cutting edge design,” Curti continued.
She noted this is happening as Mass attendance has been falling, with a resulting drop in the income from the collection plate, a problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the government has in the past given grants to Catholic cathedrals for repairs, there has been no state aid offered to repair listed churches.
“That needs to change,” Curti said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome