This century-old church in Holborn is a reminder of anti-catholic protests and a street widening programme to sweep away slumps.

It’s quite an easy church to miss, being next to Holborn tube station and in the incredibly crowded street something you hurry past, but being a Catholic church, the doors are almost always open to pop in for a break, or to take a look.

The church however is a successor to a much older building that used to be just down the road.

We find ourselves heading back to the time of King James II, who granted land next to Lincoln’s Inn to Franciscan priests, which was a controversial move in a strongly Protestant country. When the Glorious Revolution dumped King James II and England went Dutch, the Franciscan chapel was destroyed by anti-papist riots.

By 1700 though, the site was occupied by the Portuguese embassy, and later following a land swap by the Duke of Savoy, it became known as the Sardinian Embassy Chapel. A grand building was erected on the site in the 1760s which was to become one of the main sites of Catholic worship in London.

Although inside an Embassy, the notion of embassies being legally separate from their host country didn’t apply at the time, and English Catholics trying to get to the embassy to pray could be arrested, or worse if there was a riot, as happened a number of times.

Wrecked by the Gordon Riots of 1780, it was rebuilt, but by then the Sardinian ambassador was looking to move, and now that Catholic worship was no longer illegal, it was possible for the chapel to remain active when the embassy closed.

In 1852 the chapel became a mission church, dedicated to St Anselm, with the additional dedication to St Cecilia following in 1866.

But it wasn’t to last long as a church, as the area was full of short narrow streets and Edwardian plans for the Kingsway were to clear away all the old and replace them with the grand road we have today. The old church was in the way and scheduled for demolition, but in compensation, they were able to get land nearby and in 1909 the current Church of St Anselm and St Cecilia opened its doors.

The present Church of St Anselm and St Cæcilia preserves some of the architectural styles of the old Chapel. In addition, it contains some striking reminders of the former Sardinian Chapel.

Several furnishings in the present church were brought from the old one, including the oval marble font with mahogany cover, the organ of 1857, the arms of the House of Savoy, the large painting of the Deposition, and in the south aisle the sarcophagus-shaped Lady Altar.

Outside, the building looks like a typical Edwardian stone-fronted building that adorns Kingsway, and I would say that by Catholic standards, the interior is also quite plain. However, it has the usual trappings of many altars to worship at, including one devoted to Thomas Moore (of King Henry the Beheader fame).

There’s a slight oddity in how the interior is laid out, with blocked-off arches on one side and open arches on the other, almost as if an unfinished extension is planned, even though that would not have been possible.

As I was in, two people were using the church for its official function, one blogger was taking photos, and one dog was sniffing around the blogger’s legs.


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  1. Jonathan Wadman says:

    This presumably explains the naming of Portugal Street and Sardinia Street.

  2. MiceElf says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve retweeted on my parish church account as I suspect not many Catholics are familiar with this church.

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