St Mary's, Chelsea: a very large, small community

By Fiona Paley

Our thanks to the Westminster Record
for permission to use this Article

I enter St Mary’s Rectory one sunny morning and it seems every bit as busy as the Kings Road which it is tucked behind in the heart of Chelsea.  As I wait for Canon Stuart Wilson at least three people bustle past and all take the trouble to ensure that I have a cup of tea and ask whether I am comfortable.

When Canon Stuart arrives he takes me from the large kitchen into his office and gives me an outline of the parish history. St Mary’s Church in Chelsea is one of the 12 original churches in the Diocese of Westminster. This is where, in 1812, the first Catholic Chapel in Chelsea, and one of the first in the country since the Reformation, was erected. It had been established by Abbé Jean Voyaux de Franous, who arrived in London in 1793. The Abbé had been given special charge of the spiritual welfare of the veteran soldiers at what is now known as the Royal Hospital. When the Abbé died in 1840 his work was continued by many dedicated people including Joseph and Mary Knight. They purchased, for £5,000, two and a half acres of land which had formerly been the Wellington Cricket Ground. This is now the site of the Church and Rectory together with St Joseph's Primary School, St Thomas More Language College and the St Joseph's Almshouses.

Canon Stuart Wilson has been at St Mary’s since 2007. As well as being the former editor of the Diocesan Yearbook, he was the diocesan ‘At Your Word Lord’ programme of renewal designed to strengthen religious practice and communities.

‘The energy was already there’

“When I came to St Mary’s” says Canon Stuart, “I was still full of the enthusiasm and excitement that came from the renewal programme and so in a way it was a challenge for me to put into practice the things I’d become aware of in the programme. The heart of that, for me, was building community. Coming to Mass, important though it is, was not enough, there had to be a sense that within the Mass people belonged to one another. There was much to do for the community to grow strong and encourage new members. The whole of my first year was trying to encourage members to begin this process. I discovered that I only needed to turn on the tap and the energy was there. I couldn’t have done any of this without the commitment and enthusiasm of the lay people and the support I have from priest colleague who work with me; Fr Paul McDermott and Fr Georgios Dagas.”

Physically rebuilding the community

Another issue Canon Stuart had to deal with was also renewing the physical structure of the parish.
“Building community was difficult here because it didn’t have adequate buildings. So very early on I put to the parish the idea that if we were to build the community we also had to physically rebuild, and they were very enthusiastic. The first phase is now complete, and has given us a Rectory which is good quality and has allowed us to create rooms for our daily office work as well as meeting rooms for the parish and rooms for our catechesis and First Holy Communion work.”
As a result of this work, the congregation has grown, and catechetical programmes developed. This year alone 78 children made their First Holy Communion. It also explains the busy kitchen and friendly parishioners who seem so at home in this parish.

An international mesh

St Mary’s is a highly international parish. There are several large groups; Italian, French and Spanish speaking, Philipino and Americans. “They are here mainly because they are working in finance or law,” says Canon Stuart, “and they bring much experience and enthusiasm. One of the difficulties though and something that most of the parishes in this deanery have to deal with is a constantly changing congregation. I calculate that about 40% of our congregation changes every year. One of the real challenges is to keep community going. You constantly have to bring people in and encourage them to be committed. People tell you when they arrive, but they never tell you when they leave!”

Serving all, everyday

Canon Stuart strongly believes that the Church building is there to serve all the local community. “When I came here the church was semi-open, a screen prevented people from going all the way in. I consulted the parish and said that I would like to open the doors and since then our church is open every day from 8am-7pm which means that it is used all the time especially in the morning and in the evening on their way to and from work. The idea of the Church visit is becoming a live thing here. We have developed a lively young adult Mass on Sunday evenings which meets the needs of the young adult congregation. One of the distinctive features of all churches in this deanery is that we have full parishes on Sunday evenings, we have an amazing ministry of serving young professional adults and keeping them strong in their faith. One of the gaps we recognise is that we don’t do much for children after First Holy Communion and so the weekend that the World Cup starts we are organising a five a side football competition for 9-11 year olds to hopefully start a group.”

Canon Stuart has to go and prepare for Adoration and as he does so Fr Georgios Dagas shows me around the Church. The Church was designed by the Architect John Francis Bentley, the same architect that designed Westminster Cathedral. The large cross that hangs in the church is a prototype for the large Rood in Westminster Cathedral. There are already people gathering in the church and I see the people that I saw in the Rectory earlier making sure that the church is well looked after and the people welcomed.

This clearly is a very large, small community.

Published June 2010

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