St George's Sudbury and Fr. Clement Lloyd Russell

The High Altar
The great expansion of the London Underground in the first half of the 20th century, with the associated sprawl of the London suburbs, also saw the expansion of the Church, parishes being created to meet these needs of the rapidly growing population. Of all of these suburban London churches, undoubtedly the most fascinating is that of St. George's, Sudbury, on the far western end of the Piccadilly line. 

As you see, it does not exactly look like the average Catholic parish! The man who founded it was not exactly the most average Catholic priest either.

Fr Russell in procession
Fr. Clement Lloyd Russell was born in 1884 (the year the present church of the London Oratory opened), the son of the Vicar of the Annunciation, Chislehurst -- a solidly Tractarian parish -- but the young Russell was somewhat higher church than his father. He trained for orders in the Church of England, being appointed to a curacy at St. Andrew's, Willesden Green, but became a Catholic in 1910, being ordained deacon in 1914 and priest in 1915; he was appointed to Holy Rosary, Marylebone (the church he knew has since been replaced).

Here Fr. Russell languished for some years until he was called on by Cardinal Bourne to found a new parish in the growing suburb of Sudbury under the auspices of a benefactress, Miss Frances Westwood. (Legend has it that she would only give the money if the diocese would give her Fr. Russell, though there is perhaps more to it than that.) Fr Russell was then in the enviable position of being in total creative control of the building of a presbytery and church. This he set to with gusto, and for the rest of his life he worked tirelessly to build an English Catholic church where, it would seem, the Reformation (or indeed the Counter-reformation) had never happened.

The Church today
The building is a dignified Gothic, Arts and Crafts church, built by an unassuming architect, Leonard Williams, who died before the building was completed. It was solemnly consecrated on April 18, 1927, with four altars: St. George, Our Layde (where, on the 20th of November, one of the first images of Our Lady of Walsingham was solemnly enthroned: the first in any Catholic church), St. Michael the Archangel and St. Thomas of Canterbury. Each altar was decorated with riddel curtains in the traditional English manner, each with a carved wooden statue. Also of great interest was the Shrine of the Five Wounds (no devotion without pre-reformation antecedents was tolerated), decorated with the words: "Jhesu by Thye Woundes Fyve: shewe me the waye to Vertuyous lyfe." A rood, complete which Cherubim on wheels, was also installed, along with an eagle lectern for the cantors to sing from. Yes. Cantors.

The image of Our Ladye of Walsingham
Not only did Fr. Russell decorate his church in fine style, he also worked tirelessly to order the liturgy there as correctly as possible. To this end he was supported by many parishioners in the choir and in serving at the altar. There would be First and Second Vespers of feasts, as well as sung and High Masses for Sundays and festivals, together with Matins on days such as Christmas and Pentecost, rogation-tide processions, as well as processions of Our Lady, the Relics, and the usual procession of Corpus Christi. One can only imagine what the Triduum must have been like. These grand liturgies were not hugely well attended, but this did not worry Fr. Russell who knew the nave to be full of angels regardless of the number of people.

A procession
Those who ministered in the sanctuary never number more than 35, servers and singers combined. The choir sat in their stalls; there were coped cantors when the rubrics demanded, all wore huge English surplices, so beloved now of English cathedrals, or apparelled albes and amices.

High Mass in progress. Note the fine sedilia in the background
Fr Russell lived until the age of 80, and in good health, still running his parish. He died suddenly and tragically, being knocked down by a bus.

His successor, Mgr. Purney, tried valiantly to continue the work and the church remained untouched until the mid-90s, when the sanctuary was vandalised for the sake of progress, removing the fine English altar, replacing it with an octagonal plinth. Special mention however, must be made of the current parish priest, Msgr. Fairhead, who is working hard to restore something of the former glory of the place.

Low Mass. Note the apparels on the alb and amice, and also the missal cushion
I will end this with Fr Russell's own words, from a parish magazine (he really was doing Anglican Patrimony before it was fashionable!) of 1940:
And beyond all, I want the sanctuary, especially at sung Mass and at vespers and benediction, to speak to people of the glories of Heaven, and that, as far as is humanly possible, there shall be gathered there a splendour of colour and light, beauty of vesture, and ordered movement that compels the most wandering and distracted of undisciplined minds to realise that something far, far more than the satisfaction of human devotion is being accomplished – that the eternal and invisible GOD is being worshipped, and that all that is being done, is performed to render the easier, a response to the invitation “Sursum Corda!” There, at all events, is and has been my great endeavour.
The photos used in this article, and a great many more, may be found here and a fuller history of the parish and the work of Fr Russell here.

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