The New Altar of the Sacred Heart at the Oxford Oratory

The following submission was kindly sent in to LAJ by the good fathers of the Oxford Oratory, detailing some of the ongoing architectural restorations and beautifications that are taking place there. In this particular instance, they detail their new altar, done in an Italo-Roman style, for the Sacred Heart chapel:

In 2017 the Fathers of the Oratory in Oxford were given a generous bequest to restore the Sacred Heart chapel in the Oratory church. Although much loved, the furnishings of the chapel were not in a good condition. The timber altar and reredos had suffered the ravages of time and several unsuccessful attempts to update and renew them. With the support of a number of additional benefactors, the Fathers decided to take the opportunity to design something beautiful and lasting which would contribute to their overall goal of restoring the Oratory church to something of its original splendour. 

After consultation with a number of architects, the new Sacred Heart altar was designed by Robert Kerr riba, of ADAM Architecture in Winchester.  ADAM Architecture are one of the leading practices in the UK specialising in classical and traditional architecture, and Mr Kerr’s expertise in classical architecture fits well with our design brief and the Oratory’s intentions for what is today an unusual and exciting project for architects working in traditional architecture in England. The Altar was crafted by S McConnell & Sons, expert stonemasons working in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. 

It was the Fathers’ desire from the outset to install an altar sympathetic to both their Oratorian patrimony in the Italian counter-reformation and to the sober, restrained neo-gothic character of the Oxford Oratory church, designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom in 1875. This is quite appropriate a development, finding precedent in a number of neo-gothic churches in England, but particularly so in Oxford where there are many examples, both secular and ecclesiastical, of classical and baroque architectural elements sitting in harmony with their gothic surroundings. 

Mr Kerr took as his inspiration a number of churches in the city of Rome associated with St Philip Neri, founder of the Oratory, with the facade of the church of the Roman Oratory, Santa Maria in Vallicella, providing significant inspiration for the design in this proposal. The volutes supporting the sides of the mensa are evocative of the great volutes supporting the upper register of the facade of the Vallicella and the surround to the tabernacle here is reminiscent of the great west door St Philip’s church. 

The use of coloured stone in this proposed design is entirely in keeping with the tradition of design in the Roman baroque but also in keeping with the use of marble elsewhere in the Oratory church in Oxford. The red, green, yellow and black can be found throughout the sanctuary and on the nave pilasters, whilst the soft green is picked up from both the pulpit and the other side chapels. 

The Fathers were very pleased to be able to have the altar consecrated according to the more ancient use of the Roman Rite on 14th August 2020 by Bishop Robert Byrne, Cong. Orat. Bishop Byrne was the founding provost of the Oxford Oratory and is now bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. The altar provides a fitting place for the devotion to the Sacred Heart which is so central to the devotional life of many Catholics, but also importantly for the celebration of private Masses. A film of the highlights of the consecration, accompanied by the music sung by the Oratory Choir on the same occasion, may be viewed here

The Oratory Church in Oxford is a very beautiful building. — it is much loved and much prayed in. Countless young Catholics have been formed in the faith here and gone on to bring that faith to all parts of the globe. The importance of beauty in the mission of the Oratory was not lost on St Philip Neri and it is not lost on the Fathers in Oxford today as they carry on their ministry of prayer, preaching and the administration of the sacraments, particularly the solemn celebration of the liturgy in continuity with the Church’s tradition. It is the Fathers’ hope to soon begin a full restoration of the Oratory and so make that church which welcomed Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkein and where Gerard Manley Hopkins ministered the true fulfilment of Newman’s dream of what an Oratory in his beloved Oxford would be. To mark the 30th Anniversary of the Oratory’s foundation, The Friends of the Oratory has been created to help gather support for this monumental task. More information about the Friends of the Oratory for those who wish to know more or join (including in the U.S.) is available here. 

The biannual newsletter of the Friends of the Oratory is also available to view online, and the Fathers would welcome support or new members for this exciting venture. 

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