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The Consecration of St James's

Story by Robert Proctor

Pope Benedict XVI


The solemn liturgy for the dedication of a church is a moment of intense and common spiritual joy for all God’s people who live in the area …. the parish is a beacon that radiates the light of the faith and thus responds to the deepest and truest desires of the human heart, giving meaning and hope to the lives of individuals and families .... a church, a building in which God and man desire to meet: a house that unites us, in which we are attracted to God, and being with God unites us with one another. The church building exists so that God’s Word may be listened to, explained and understood by us; it exists so that God’s Word may be active among us as a force that creates justice and love. It exists in particular so that in it the celebration in which God wants humanity to participate may begin, not only at the end of time but already today. It exists so that the knowledge of justice and goodness may be awakened within us, and there is no other source for knowing and strengthening this knowledge of justice and goodness other than the Word of God. It exists so that we may learn to live the joy of the Lord who is our strength. Just as in their love man and woman become ‘one flesh’, so Christ and humanity gathered in the Church become through Christ’s love ‘one spirit’ (cf. I Cor 6: 17; Eph 5: 29ff.). The candles we light on the walls of the church in the places where annointings will take place are reminiscent precisely of the Apostles: their faith is the true light that illumines the Church and at the same time, the foundation that supports the Church. This is the deepest purpose of this sacred building’s existence: the church exists so that in it we may encounter Christ, Son of the living God. God has a Face. God has a Name. In Christ, God was made flesh and gave himself to us in the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. The Church is the place of our encounter with the Son of the living God and thus becomes the place for the encounter among ourselves. This is the joy that God gives us: that he made himself one of us, that we can touch him and that he dwells among us. Mary tells us why church buildings exist: they exist so that room may be made within us for the Word of God; so that within us and through us the Word may also be made flesh today.

A Special Message to the Patrons gathered in Rome for the 500th Anniversary of the Vatican Museums, 1 June 2006 from Pope Benedict XVI


Opening of the “New” Church

St James is the successor church to the chapel of the Spanish Embassy, from the days when the Embassy was at Hertford House in Manchester Square (which now houses the Wallace Collection). The chapel was built in 1793–6 and was handed over to the London Vicariate in 1827, at which point the official connexion with the Embassy came to an end.

As the lease on the land on which the chapel stood was soon to expire, a neighbouring site was acquired on which the present church was built. The foundation stone was laid on 17 June 1887 and the church was opened on Monday, 29 September 1890.

A church may not be consecrated until it is free of all debt and so the opening of the church was marked with a High Mass celebrated by the Very Rev. Mgr. Stanley, in the presence of the Bishops of Southwark, Northampton and the Titular Bishop of Amycla. The Spanish Ambassador and the full suite of the Spanish Embassy also attended. Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, had intended to preach but was prevented by ill health and so his place was taken by the Rev. Father Lockhart.

The celebrant, the Very Rev. the Hon. Algernon Stanley had been attached to St James since 1883. Born in 1843, the fourth son of 2nd Lord Stanley of Alderley he was, incidentally, the great uncle of Clementine Churchill, and great great uncle of the Mitford girls. Originally ordained as an Anglican minister, he was the vicar of Holy Cross, Cromer Street, London NW1, before being received into the Catholic Church in 1879 by Cardinal Manning. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in Rome in 1880, he was appointed a Protonotary Apostolic by Pope Leo XIII and attached to St James from 1883 and so celebrated the opening High Mass.

He went to Rome in 1893 but following his consecration as the titular Bishop of Emmaus he came back to London in 1903 for a year as Bishop-Auxiliary to the ailing Cardinal Vaughan, before returning to Rome for the rest of his life. He died in 1928 and his Funeral Requiem was sung in the Venerable English College. His brother, 3rd Baron Stanley of Alderley, converted to Islam and became the first Moslem member of the House of Lords.

The music of the Mass was by Goetz with a Te Deum composed by Father Richard Sankey (1847-1904). Father Sankey seemingly had the extraordinary distinction of being the first undergraduate at Oxford University for 300 years to take the degree of Bachelor of Music. Having been received into the Catholic Church (bringing half of his Anglican congregation with him) he took charge of the music at Spanish Place while still pursuing his studies for the priesthood at St. Thomas’s Seminary, Hammersmith. He said his first Mass at Spanish Place in 1883 and remained there until his death in 1904.



The church was eventually completed in 1918 but it could not be consecrated at that stage as it was still indebted. The debt was paid off by 1935 but the death of Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, meant it could not take place during a period of mourning. It was rescheduled for 1940 but this time it was prevented by the war. 

The consecration eventually took place on Thursday 28th April 1949 and the principal consecrator was the Rector, Mgr George Craven, Titular Bishop of Sebastopolis and auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, of whom more below.

The ceremonies began at 8.30 a.m. but members of the public were not admitted until two hours later. 

It was not possible to go round to bless the whole of the outside of the church, as is the usual case, because of adjoining buildings. Therefore, the south wall was blessed first and the procession then passed through the presbytery to bless the north wall.

It then entered the church for the consecration of the interior. Bishop Craven traced the Greek and Roman alphabets in ashes on the floor of the nave and anointed the twelve consecration crosses carved out on the wall of the church in the weeks preceding the consecration.

All of the altars were consecrated simultaneously. Bishop Craven consecrated the High Altar; Mgr Flynn, Bishop of Lancaster, the Lady Altar; Mgr Myers, auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, the Sacred Heart Altar; Mgr Beck, Coadjutor Bishop of Brentwood, the Altar of Our Lady of Victories; Mgr Ellis, Bishop of Nottingham, the Altar of St Joseph; and Mgr King, Bishop of Portsmouth, the English Martyrs Altar.

The Pontifical Mass of Consecration was at 12 noon and lasted until nearly 2pm. There were about 100 Catholic clergy in the congregation. 

Afterwards there was a celebration in St Vincent’s Convent in Blandford Street at which the Apostolic Delegate, William Godfrey, Titular Archbishop of Cius (and subsequently Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster), presided and proposed the toast to the church of St James. The Spanish Chargé d’Affaires, the Duke of San Luchar y Mayor, was present.

The following Sunday Mgr Ronald Knox preached at a thanksgiving service with Pontifical Benediction.


Bishop Craven

Fr Craven was born on 1st February 1884 and ordained as a priest in Westminster in 1912. He served as a military chaplain in World War I, being mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross. Returning to Westminster he was, for 27 years, Administrator of the Crusade of Rescue (now the Catholic Children’s Society). In July 1947 he was consecrated a bishop in Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Griffin, as titular Bishop of Sebastopolis and an Auxiliary of Westminster. Shortly afterwards he also became rector of St James. In 1963, in recognition of his work among the French community in London, he was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. He continued as Rector at Spanish Place until his death in 1967.

Fr Charles McGowan in his appreciation published in the Catholic Herald wrote “I remember him as being in every part the Sulpician in piety and outlook, only departing from that mould in having a fastidious and excellent taste in art and literature. This talent led him to remove from St. James's the many vulgarities that had disfigured the church in the 1930s and restore it to its former dignity. He tried to live the gospel before preaching it. The memory lingers on of him, morning after morning at 7 a.m. in the Lady Chapel, the white hair, the handsome features, the red silk, the gold glinting in the light of the votive candles, vaguely but pleasantly triumphal, making his long meditation before Mass.


Consecration Rite


Unfortunately, it has not proved possible to find a copy of the order of service for the consecration of St James and so, apart from a few newspaper references to the ceremonies, we cannot be absolutely sure how they were conducted on the day.

What follows is a very brief general outline of the rite of consecration as it would have been celebrated in the 1940s. The rite was revised and simplified in 1961 and again in 1977 and is now referred to as a rite of dedication.

In the evening before the consecration, there is solemn exposition of the relics to be enclosed in the altar the following day.

The consecration begins with the Bishop entering the church in procession and ordering the deacon to light the twelve consecration candles around the walls of the church. After reciting the seven penitential psalms the procession moves to the entrance of the Church where prayers and the Litany of the Saints are recited.

The Bishop then blesses water and asperses those around him before proceeding around the outside of the church aspersing the upper part of the walls. At the conclusion he stands before the door of the church and strikes it once with his crozier saying:

Attollite portas, principes, vestras, et elevamini,
portæ aeternales, et introibit rex gloriæ

(Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up,
O eternal gates: and the king of glory shall enter in)

The Deacon responds Quis est iste rex gloriæ?
(Who is this king of glory?)
The Bishop answers Dominus fortis et potens,
Dominus potens in prælio

(The Lord strong and mighty: The Lord mighty in battle.

The Bishop again circles the church, sprinkling the lower part with the holy water. Standing before the door the responsory is repeated and he strikes the door as before. He now proceeds to circle the church for the third time blessing the middle part of the walls. Again he strikes the door and repeats the responsory concluding with “Aperi, aperi, aperi.” (Open, open, open.) He makes the sign of the cross on the threshold with his crozier. The door is opened to admit the procession and the Bishop goes to the middle of the church.

Ashes are spread on the floor in the shape of a cross.

The Litany of the Saints is recited again then the Bishop makes three successive signs of the cross over the ashes, accompanied by prayers. 

While the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke I is recited, the Bishop writes the letters of the Greek alphabet in the ashes with the tip of his crozier, beginning from the corner at the left of the main entrance and then writes the Latin alphabet beginning on the opposite side.

Water, salt, ashes and wine are then blessed and mixed together to form Gregorian Water, so-called because Pope St Gregory the Great appointed its use for the special purpose of consecrating churches.

The Bishop goes to the door of the church, and makes the sign of the cross on the upper part of the door with his crozier, and again on the lower part while reciting a prayer. He then returns to the centre and prays facing the High Altar before advancing to it accompanied by the recitation of Psalm 43 (42) Introibo ad altare Dei. 

The Bishop blesses himself with the Gregorian water and, all the while praying, makes the sign of the cross with the water in the middle cross of the altar, then does the same on the crosses on the four corners of the altar starting with the cross on the right rear side of the altar, where the gospel is said. He then asperses the altar table seven times.

Afterwards he goes around the interior of the church three times aspersing the interior walls in the same manner as the exterior walls had been blessed previously.

He then asperses the floor in the middle of the church, turning east, west, north, and south. 

The Bishop returns to the High Altar. 

Accompanied by antiphons, responsories and prayers all the while, the Bishop censes the High Altar. He then anoints the altar with oil of Catechumens and Holy Chrism.

He then anoints the twelve consecration crosses around the walls of the church, incensing each one.

Again at the High Altar, the Bishop incenses it and sprinkles himself with blessed water. He then puts incense in the five crosses of the altar, and over each he places a candles in the form of a cross. They are lit and the incense burns to ashes.

More prayers are said and the Bishop anoints the front, sides and corner of the altar with Chrism.

The altar is then prepared for mass, aspersed and censed.

The Bishop retires to prepare for mass, which follows in the usual form.



New Liturgical Journal
St James Spanish Place by Nicholas Schofield
The Tablet
Westminster Diocesan Archive
Westminster Year Book



With thanks to Robert Proctor, Matthew Clarke, Lisa Chin Yuen Kee and James Turner

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