The Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Brompton Oratory)

The renowned Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, also known as the Brompton Oratory, is one of my favorite places to visit every time I find myself in the UK. It is an internationally recognized parish with a vibrant school in a posh neighborhood of London - a community that has preserved the finest traditions of the sacred arts and Roman liturgy. The interior sanctuary witnesses some of the most solemn liturgies imaginable, capturing a special interplay of light and shadow within the majestic backdrop of a church built in the style of the Italian Renaissance.  

I first heard about the Oratory in high school from the deacon at my parish, an old RAF pilot, Harold H. Hughesdon, a devotee of the Roman Rite and a custodian of classical liturgy and all things of good taste.  Born in 1920, he had grown up at Westminster Cathedral during the days of Francis Cardinal Bourne.  Every year he returned to London, he would stay at the RAF Club and visit the Oratory, where he would never miss a Sunday High Mass. My first visit to the Oratory was in 2004 following in his footsteps.  

Architecture has been defined quite rightly as "the gift of one generation to the next." This can be seen at the Oratory and everywhere around it. Across the street is the Victoria and Albert Museum, a masterpiece of visual beauty. Rose Kennedy writes of visiting here after Sunday Masses at the Oratory in the late 1930s when she lived in the neighborhood during her husband's stunt as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The Oratory has drawn many notables over the years. Alfred Hitchcock was married here in 1926.  Visiting the Oratory for Sunday Mass is a who's who of the British Catholic world. The liturgy is a taste of Heaven. You will never see more stunning vestments and visual liturgical appurtenances.      

The Liturgical and Musical Legacy of the Oratory

The Oratory in London is renowned for its dynamic liturgical and musical tradition that seeks to ensure the sacred liturgy is celebrated with the utmost dignity and respect.  This tradition reaches back to the 16th century when the first Oratory was established in Rome during the Counter-Reformation period.  Both Palestrina and Victoria were closely associated with the Oratory in Rome and were personal friends with St. Philip Neri, its founder.  In fact, Victoria, a Spaniard, became an Oratorian priest.  

The London Oratory has been closely associated with the preservation and fostering of this rich musical heritage that naturally includes both polyphony and plainchant.  This has made the London Oratory an outstanding custodian of the musical tradition of the Roman Church.  Solemn High Mass in Latin and sung Vespers on Sundays are celebrated throughout the year with due care and reverent solemnity.  

The London Oratory, therefore, has a staunch reputation for maintaining these beautiful traditions that have fleetingly gone by the wayside in so many other places.  It is only right. As a major European city, London is a fashion capital of the world that offers the finest in visual arts, with the Oratory offering a solid tradition of liturgical arts on a firm foundation for the future.  The parish has three separate choirs with a professional music staff.  Services are regularly enhanced with choral and organ music, sometimes with period instruments and orchestral accompaniment.   

The choir of the London Oratory is England's premier senior professional Catholic choir.  They sing for all the major Solemn Liturgies at the Oratory.  This choir comprises of some of London's leading ensemble singers and is internationally renowned.  Its working repertoire covers all periods of liturgical music for the Roman Rite with special emphasis on the 16th and 17th centuries polyphony and Mass repertory of the late 18th and 19th centuries.  

The organ of the Oratory is considered one of the finest built in England after World War II.  It has 45 stops, 3 manuals and pedals, built by J.W. Walker & Sons Ltd. between 1952-1954, to the specifications of Ralph Downes, the organist from 1936-1977.  It was the first church organ in London built on neo-classical lines.   

The London Oratory and its Oratorians 

The Oratory is a parish under the care and direction of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a society of apostolic life of priests who live in community without formal vows.  They live under a rule of life established by their founder, St. Philip, in the sixteenth century.  They wear their own version of the sixteenth-century cassock of St. Philip and live in a palazzo attached to the church with its beautiful garden.  They also have their own magnificent library and splendid private chapel for their community known as the "Little Oratory."  

The Oratorian Fathers are some of the finest men you could ever hope to meet.  I have been privileged to visit here many times and have always been received with warmth and hospitality.  They minister to the needs of the parishioners and maintain a prominent school.  As part of their formation, some of the members have studied for the priesthood in Rome at the Pontifical Beda College and the Pontifical Gregorian University.  

The community elects its own Provost, who serves as the pastor of the parish.  One of the more noteworthy was Fr. Michael Scott Napier (1929-1996), of happy memory.  He was a convert to the Faith, who was first elected Provost in 1969.  Needless to say, that was a particularly difficult time of change and renewal (upheaval and decline) in many religious orders and an important junction for the future of religious life. The London Oratory weathered the storm and passed on successfully its worthy traditions. 

As a result, the community has flourished through the difficult post-Vatican II years, preserving its integral identity in continuity with the past, and continuing to foster vocations by maintaining the full liturgical heritage of the Latin Church.  Thankfully the Oratorians in London have maintained the use of their high altar without rupture. 

The Connection with Cardinal Newman and Fr. Faber 

The Brompton Oratory traces its roots to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was a convert to the Faith in 1845.  In the spirit of St. Philip Neri, he founded the Birmingham Oratory, and dedicated it in honor of the saint.  Other former Anglicans followed him, including Fr. Frederick Faber, who actually established the Oratory in London.  

In 1852 Fr. Faber and his growing community purchased a 3.5 acre property on the edge of London in the (then) rapidly developing suburb of Brompton, in the Knightsbridge area of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  An appeal was launched in 1874 to build a proper church.  In 1880 construction began on the new neo-Baroque church that is seen today.  Fr. Faber, who died in 1863, is buried in one of the side chapels.    

The Architect and Architecture

The architect chosen to build the Oratory was a twenty-nine-year-old Catholic convert by the name of Herbert Gribble.  In 1876 he won the competition to design the church. The style chosen was Italian Renaissance, with Roman Baroque elements inspired by the Chiesa Nuova in downtown Rome.  True to Catholic design, the exterior of the building clearly reflects the purpose for which it was constructed. There are also obvious influences from Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects.  The new church was consecrated in 1884.  The front facade was not added until 1893.  The church exterior is made of Portland stone, with the vaults and dome made of concrete.  

The marvelous dome, with its Beaux-Arts influence and exterior copper roof, stands 200 feet high and was completed in 1896; the design by architect George Sherrin. Its octagonal base reflects the old baptismal fonts from the Middle Ages, such as the one excavated underneath the Duomo in Milan. The Oratory is the second largest Catholic church in London, following Westminster Cathedral.  

The large floor-plan includes a very large sacristy and an ambulatory passage behind the apse that connects one sacristy to the other. Devon marble was used in the major order of pilasters and the minor order of columns. More exotic marbles were used, Roman style, in the apse and on the altars. In true Baroque fashion, elaborate carvings can be seen in metalwork, plasterwork, wood, and stone. One of the more famous statues is called the Twelve Apostles, a work by the Italian artist Giuseppe Mazzuoli (1644-1725); this was acquired from Siena Cathedral in 1894. The Lady altar has sculptures by the artist Tommaso Rues (1650-1690).  

The beautiful main altar was acquired from the church of San Domenico in Brescia after its demolition in 1883. It had adorned a chapel that was dedicated to the Holy Rosary. The tabernacle on the main altar is one of the largest in England. The church was renovated and embellished with its second decorative scheme from 1927-1932, under the auspices of the Italian architect C.T.G. Formilli. Works were completed at that time in mosaic, plaster, and woodwork.  Further decoration marked the 1984 centenary.  

More recent works have been done by the artist Russell Taylor: the reredos in the St. Joseph Chapel, with new Doric columns in yellow scagliola (2006) and the new altar and reredos of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in the chapel dedicated in his honor (2010). The statue of Cardinal Newman is by L.J. Chavalliaud (1896).  

The London Oratory School and Its Schola

The Oratory owes much of the success of its great liturgy and music to its excellent choir and cadre of altar servers, all well-trained and well-disciplined.  Many of these boys study in the extra-parochial London Oratory School located in West Brompton, about a 10-minute drive from the church.  This is a secondary school for boys aged 7-18 and for girls aged 16-18.  Today it is one of England's most prestigious Catholic schools, founded in 1863 by the Fathers of the London Oratory.  

The school shares its religious and cultural identity with the Oratorians who founded it and are the trustees. The school is linked to two Oratorian institutions: the Brompton Oratory and the Oratory School in Berkshire. The school is well-known for the quality of its choral and instrumental music. The school motto is Respice Finem (look to the end). The school moved to its present site in 1970 and the current enrollment is about 1,350.  

The London Oratory School Schola, a boys choir established in 1996, includes boys from the age of 7, giving them the rigorous experience of a choral education.  The partnership between the school and the Brompton Oratory allows the boys the chance to sing within the context of the Church's living liturgical patrimony.  The Schola sings the Saturday evening Mass at the Oratory every week during the academic year and at other Masses and services during breaks.  The boys rehearse every morning at 8:00 o'clock.  They are selected by audition and receive voice training from a professional voice coach.  

May God continue to bless the London Oratory. They give us hope and lead the way as a shining example of what can be done when we give only the regal best to the Lord.  History is prologue. Such a fine parish will always flourish and foster vocations, in the future, as in the past.  Laus Deo.   

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