For obvious, and less obvious reasons, right now is a very good time to pay a visit to the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London, which can be found just off Oxford Street in central London.
The obvious is because of what’s happening in that country, but the less obvious is that unusually for a Catholic Cathedral, the doors are usually locked. My hairdresser (very good by the way) is next to the Cathedral, and the handful of times the doors were unlocked when I popped past, it was was for a private service, so I’ve never been past the front doors.
For all the wrong reasons though, at the moment, the doors are open and welcoming people to come in and pray for Ukraine. So this is a fairly rare opportunity to see inside a very impressive building. It wasn’t built as Catholic Cathedral though, and indirectly, owes its existence here to the construction of the London Underground.
All the way back in 1685, a Protestant Calvinist Congregational church was set up in the City of London, and after growing in size, in 1833 moved to a larger site in nearby Fish Street Hill. Just 50 years later though, that site was needed for the construction of Monument tube station, so the church had to go.
The Fish Street Hill entrance to Monument station is where the church used to stand.
In need of a new home, the congregation was offered a plot of land for a peppercorn rent near Oxford Street and they commissioned a very grand building designed by Alfred Waterhouse, using the compensation from the sale of their old church. If you think it has a certain familiar appearance, that’s because Alfred Waterhouse also designed the Natural History Museum.
The church opened in 1891, but over the decades the congregation shrunk until eventually in 1966 it closed down and the church was put up for sale. It was at this moment that a Protestant Church became a Ukrainian Cathedral. Some modifications to add the necessary level of Popery to the decoration inside, and the Cathedral opened in 1968.
The reason for a Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral here is that in the 19th-century and post- WW2, there had been Ukrainian migration to London and Manchester, often worshipping in small hostels for immigrants. Finally, in 1957, the then Pope Pius XII created an apostolic exarchate for Ukrainian Greek Catholics, which was later elevated to the rank of an Eparchy (full bishopric) by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.
So they needed a Cathedral, and this empty church was an ideal choice for them.
The normally grand but unadorned exterior of the church had gained ribbons in the now very familiar blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag, and just a quick hop up the stairs and through the doors to go inside. Here, the Cathedral boasts a round-arched Italianate classical design, using hard brick and buff terracotta, and is typical of Waterhouse’s work elsewhere. In fact, if you were to remove the religious aspects, the Cathedral could easily be mistaken for a gallery in South Kensington’s Natural History Museum.
Dominating the far end though is something added later, the iconostasis, a wall of icons and religious paintings, used to separate the nave from the sanctuary. This impressive work was created by a Ukrainian monk, Juvenalij Mokrytsky, and for us less religious visitors, there’s a helpful guide next to it as to what each of the painting sections refers to.
The Cathedral suffered damage in 2007 when part of the ceiling collapsed, but it was repaired, and it’s difficult today to see which part of the ceiling is new and which is original. It’s a fairly simple ceiling, but with so much decoration going on at eye level it’s probably just as well that there’s a space to rest tired eyes as they look heavenward.
In one corner is a large stone carving of the Holy Family, salvaged from the Saffron Hill Church, the original place of worship of the Ukrainian Catholic community in the UK. And something else not in the original church, a couple of confessional boxes.
At the moment, the Cathedral is open from 10am to 8pm, and the main entrance to the Cathedral is on Duke Street, a short walk from Bond Street tube station.
It may seem a bit off to use Putin’s war on Ukraine as an excuse to visit a Cathedral, but I salved my conscience with a donation to the collection box in the Cathedral. And so can you.