Monday, June 30, 2008

Catholic London in the early 1800's

One of our priestly readers sent me a link to a post made back in March on the blog of an English Catholic priest, Roman Miscellany which summarizes some excerpts from a book about English Catholic life shortly after the Catholic relief acts of the late 18th century.

The book was written by Bernard Ward, and published under the title of Catholic London A Century Ago by the Catholic Truth Society. It sounded interesting enough that I've ordered a copy of the book for my own reference.

Here, however, are the summary points made by Fr. Nicholas of Roman Miscellany:

* Catholic churches looked very different from the ones built later in the nineteenth century - no side altars, minimal decoration and divisions in the church seating for the different classes of person. The best seats cost a shilling or sixpence and could be found in the 'Tribune' or the 'Enclosure' immediately in front of the sanctuary. You can see such privileged positions in the picture above of the old Sardinian Chapel (the ancestor of SS Anselm and Cecilia, Kingsway). The poorer members stood behind in the 'Body of the Church' and this section often had its own communion rail. I wonder if this is one reason why so many Catholics instinctively tend to sit at the back of the church?!

* Apparently, 'the subdeacon of the [High] Mass was usually the preacher, but before the sermon he would disappear into the sacristy to take off his tunicle and come out to preach in cotta and stole.'

* Confessionals were rare. Ward writes that 'there are those still alive who have described the scene on a Saturday evening, when the line of penitents were kneeling all up the stairs of the priest's house, taking their turns for admissions to his room.'

* There is a wonderful description of Tenebrae that has come down to us thanks to Thomas Doyle, later Provost of Southwark. He wrote (and it is quoted by Ward): 'Dr Bramston used to describe with much effect the Tenebrae in Castle Street, Holborn, where he, a limb of the law [before ordination], and Charles Butler, another limb, and the Rev. Mr Lindow, and Bishop Douglass, met in the “Episcopal palace” in an upper chamber, at the fourth house on the right hand – and a dirty, dingy, shabby-genteel house it was – for the purpose of reciting the Divine Office. They met and separated, too thankful that even that much was done, and hoped for better days.’ Many churches followed the French custom of decorating the 'Easter sepulchre' with empty chalices and other church plate.

* Priests no longer wore wigs in the nineteenth century but tended to powder their hair - the first to discard the custom of powdering before singing Mass was Dr Weathers, later Auxiliary to Cardinal Manning (ordained priest 1838). When whiskers became fashionable, priests sported what was called the 'clerical inch' so as not to draw attention to themselves. Interestingly, the first priest in England to wear black clothing (rather than brown or other sober colours) was Joseph Berington, considered by many of his contemporaries as an 'arch-liberal' and Cisalpine - his writings shared many of the proposals of the 1786 Synod of Pistoia (eg Mass in the vernacular, greater democracy in the Church, etc).

* Ward writes: 'A custom of administering wine from the chalice to children with whooping-cough lasted on till my own time - it was administered to myself under these circumstances - but I have never heard of its being done in recent years.' He adds in a footnote that he had heard 'that there are one or two parishes in London in which the practice still obtains' at the time of writing (1905). I assume the wine was unconsecrated. Does anyone know anything more about this strange practice?

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