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Westminster Cathedral (part one)
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Westminster Cathedral (part one)The campanile of Westminster Cathedral soars above the buildings and bustle of London's Victoria like an exclamation of astonishment. This principal Roman Catholic church in London is no less striking for its distinctive Byzantine style today than when it was completed in 1903. Richard Norman Shaw said of it: 'It is like a revelation after the feeble Gothic stuff on which we have been mainly fed for the last half-century.' It was the intention of its founder, Herbert, Cardinal Vaughan, that the long-intended cathedral should be built quickly and should soon be free from debt. The foundation stone was laid in 1895 and so the great structure took just eight years to build, which is perhaps the most remarkable fact of the scheme. (St Paul's Cathedral took 35 years to build, and Truro Cathedral, Westminster's contemporary, 30 years.) The debt was extinguished by 1910, when the cathedral was consecrated. It had cost £253,000. By then, Cardinal Vaughan had died - his funeral was the first great service in the building - and his successor had begun the long process of adorning its interior.

Westminster Cathedral (part one)

View of the high altar and its baldacchino, and the great hanging rood, both by J. F. Bentley.


Westminster Cathedral (part one)

The mosaic decoration in the Blessed Sacrament chapel was created by Boris Anrep in 1953-61.


It is sometimes stated that as the first Archbishop of Westminster was appointed in 1850 and Westminster Cathedral was started only in 1895, the archbishops' policy towards building a cathedral had altered over that period. Cardinal Vaughan's wish to build is contrasted with his predecessor, Cardinal Manning's public identification with the poor and emphasis on building schools. In fact, Manning had made many preparations for building a cathedral, including the gradual assembly of a substantial site and the raising of much money. He even approved an ambitious Gothic design by Henry Clutton. He considered that Westminster needed a cathedral 'proportionate to the chief diocese of the Catholic Church in England, and to the chief city of the British Empire'. But the money to build was insufficient. As for Cardinal Vaughan, it is often forgotten that he founded the Mill Hill Fathers, a significant missionary order, and established the Catholic Social Union. His concern for the wider Church was obvious enough. What was striking about his decision to build a cathedral was his wish to impose a tight grip on the scheme: he wanted the shell to be built quickly and relatively cheaply so that it could be adorned gradually while it was already in use. He particularly wanted a building in which the divine office could be recited and sung daily. To attain that aim, he had the strange idea of bringing Benedictine monks from Downside to Ealing, from where they would commute to Westminster. When this plan faltered, he had the even stranger idea of bringing French Benedictine monks from Solesmes (who were renowned for their Gregorian chant, or plainsong), which ruffled many feathers. In the end, his own diocesan clergy fulfilled the role.

Westminster Cathedral (part one)

The apsidal Lady chapel, south of the high altar.



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