Article in the Westminster Record

This is my second article in the Westminster Record. I had a lot of fun writing this parish profile, probably because it was on my local parish.

It's one of those rare pieces where I really felt like I was able to inject a little bit of myself in the article. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

Here's the text:

On a pleasant afternoon I am welcomed into the presbytery by a cheerful Fr Shaun Church. The parish priest of Kensal New Town, Fr Shaun has been at the parish for four years and has just recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. The parish is located in the north of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and is only a stone’s throw away from the famed Portobello Market.

The Oblates of St Charles in Bayswater, who recognised a need to serve the people in the local area, founded the mission in Kensal New Town in 1858. In the same year the St Mary’s Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green, where the priests had chaplaincy responsibilities, was opened, hence the dedication to the church. Our Lady of the Holy Souls is a unique title and is the only church in the UK to have this dedication. The church was considered a centre of prayer for all the faithful departed, with marble tablets positioned on the walls detailing the names and dates of death for the departed.

Attuned to the needs of the faithful

Sitting in the study I asked Fr Shaun about the religious communities within the parish. “We have the Sisters of Mercy, both of whom are very involved and have been for many years: Sr Margarita Cunningham and Sr Angela Moroney,” he said. “Both were headteachers at the local primary school, St Mary’s. Sr Margarita is parish sister and coordinates most of the catechetical programs. She also teaches religious education for children not in Catholic schools. Sr Angela helps with RCIA and is spiritual director for the Union of Catholic Mothers (UCM).”

For a church that looks small on the outside, the 600-strong congregation represents a diverse and spiritual community, highly attuned to the needs of the faithful. Telling me about the numerous parish groups, Fr Shaun said, “The Missionaries of Charity are very committed, working beyond the parish boundaries. They run a soup kitchen at St Pius X, St Charles Square and hold a summer camp for the children in the parish of Kensal New Town. We have the UCM, a prayer group and Lectio Divina group who meet every week. There’s also the Legion of Mary who meet on a Wednesday and the Divine Mercy who meet twice on a Tuesday.”

Giving the church back its dignity

“What about the parish itself? What do you like about it?” I asked. “I love the sense of community and that it is very ethnically diverse,” he said. “Although this is the case, within the community there is a great sense of coming together. There is a cohesiveness and wholeness to it. I also love the church; it is very beautiful. Unfortunately in the late 1950s and early 60s many of the beautiful treasures that we had were sadly removed or covered over. We have just been given permission by the Diocese to undergo a major restoration of the church, which we’re hoping to begin in September. We want to try and give back some of its lost beauty, to reflect what it once was and give back some of its dignity. It’s a very exciting prospect to hopefully see some of it restored.”

In 1882 John Francis Bentley, the same architect responsible for Westminster Cathedral, designed the church building standing today. Built in the style of English Gothic architecture, it is the red-bricked fa├žade that instantly attracts my eye. As part of the restoration project the front of the church has recently been given new life, a reflection of the generosity and efficaciousness of the parishioners. 
Showing me a photo of what the church looked like in the 50s, I can see the lost beauty Fr Shaun speaks of. The rood screen that once stood between the sanctuary and the nave was ornate in every way, now with only the altar rails remaining. The reredos (the decorated screen behind the altar) stretched to the ceiling, showcasing 30 grandly painted panels, along with a large crucifix atop of the rood screen.

I was thoroughly excited to see the architectural plans for the restoration project. Showing me blueprints and a sample tile for the sanctuary, one cannot help but look forward to see what the church will look like with some of its original beauty restored. Taking me around the church, Fr Shaun points out some of the treasures that have been uncovered. Up high above the entrance to the church is a Latin inscription of Psalm 24. Exposed as preparation for the restoration, one can see the original Gothic paintwork peering through. The original Bentley pulpit has been uncovered along with the painted wooden altarpiece which was found disused in the sacristy. “Some of the work includes replacing the existing lighting with something more sympathetic to the building. The emphasis is not on creating something new, but in trying to regain what was present in the original design. We hope to uncover the rest of the De Profundis inscription, re-paint the church and install a new altar – and that’s not even half of it!” he tells me with great enthusiasm.

The priesthood of the faithful

Approaching the question every parish priest anticipates with apprehension, I ask Fr Shaun about any challenges he has experienced in the parish. Not afraid to answer he replied, “I am aware that we are lacking in a generation of post-confirmation parishioners. It’s difficult keeping young people engaged with the church and with their faith.” I go on to ask him what can be done to change this. He said, “I want to help the parishioners take more ownership of their faith. Most usually look to the parish priest and religious for leadership. This is good but they need to look at their own priesthood, the priesthood of the faithful.”

I am intrigued by this suggestion and ask Fr Shaun if he could elaborate a bit more. “We need to be as open as possible to listening to young people. We need something that will help nurture their spirituality,” he said. “It must be Catholic but it must also appeal to them, one example is World Youth Day. Events such as these plant small seeds in the hearts and minds of the young. Who knows what can come back and grow once they return to their parishes? The priest has to be a part of this process but the willingness must come from the people themselves. Ownership belongs with the young people.”

Leaving Fr Shaun I am encouraged by the generosity and concern of the parishioners, both for the restoration of their church and for the faithful of their community. I have no doubts about the strength of the Catholic faith at Kensal New Town, and I look forward to seeing the church restored to its original beauty.

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