The visitor to St James’s Church is often puzzled to know why a church which stands in George Street, W1, should have derived a kind of secondary title from a street called Spanish Place which can be found opposite the Presbytery door. The explanation is that St James’s, Spanish Place, like so many of the older parishes in the Westminster diocese, can trace its origin to the penal times and to the benefactions of a friendly Catholic embassy. And this is perhaps the reason why, despite the magnificence of the church, there is within an atmosphere that breathes our Catholic past.
In the reign of Elizabeth I the Bishops of Ely let their palace and chapel in Ely Place to the Spanish Ambassador, and until the reign of Charles I it was occupied by the representative of the Court of Spain. During this period the chapel was freely used by English Catholics and became a place of sanctuary for them.
After the restoration of Charles II the Spanish Embassy was re-established in London, first on Ormond Street and then at Hartford house, Manchester Square, where the Wallace Collection is now housed. Here, in 1791, shortly after the first repeal of some of the laws affecting Catholic worship, a chapel was built on the corner of Spanish Place and Charles Street (now George Street), largely through the efforts of Doctor Thomas Hussey who had been a chaplain at the Embassy since his ordination in 1769. Most of the objects of piety in the present church are legacies from this older building which was famous enough in its day to be mentioned by Thackeray in Vanity Fair as the church attended by the Marchioness of Steyne.
Dr Hussey, to whom this mission owes so much and who was for so long associated with it, later became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. Deep religious impressions and a desire for solitude had led him, soon after ordination, to the renowned Abbey La Trappe with the desire to take the habit of that order. This determination would certainly have been carried out had it not been for the influence of lijs confessor who, feeling that the talents of Dr Hussey would in that case be lost to the Church, wrote to Rome for a mandate restraining his penitent from carrying out his intention of taking monastic vows. It was in obedience, then, to the Holy See that Dr Hussey returned to the active scene and he now ranks as the founder of Spanish Place.
In the year 1827 the official Spanish connection with the chapel ceased and it was handed over to the London Vicariate. However, there is much in the present church to remind us of our Spanish heritage including Alfonso XIII’s personal standard which is in a frame over the sacristy door, and the parishioners of Spanish Place have never forgotten their debt to Spain for having established and maintained the mission in the dark days. An unofficial connection with the Embassy of Spain has continued and is still cherished by the Church of St James today.
A recurring anxiety from 1827 was the fact that the chapel was on leasehold property and the lease was not renewable. Funds were raised with a view to purchasing a site and building a new church, but as the neighbourhood was almost entirely divided up into large estates, it seemed impossible to find a site anywhere near the old chapel. One tradition has it, however, that the Rector towards the end of the lease, Canon William Barry, had a great devotion to the Holy Souls and he promised a hundred Masses for their repose in petition for a site. Soon after he had redeemed his promise the site of the present church, immediately opposite the old chapel, came up for sale at £30,000, the exact sum which Barry and his preJanessors had collected towards a new church. The site was purchased and the design for a new church was made an open competition. Edward Goldie, great grandson of the architect of the old chapel, Signor Joseph Bonomi, won the competition and the present edifice, partially completed, was opened on Michaelmas Day, 1890.
The Church was consecrated on 28th July, 1949, by His Lordship Bishop Craven: a rare privilege for at that time he was parish priest and rector, and thus consecrated his own church. The consecration had been planned on two previous occasions but had had to be postponed – in 1935 because of the death of Cardinal Bourne, and in 1940 because of the second World War. Most of the archives of the old Spanish Chapel have gone to Spain, but there are preserved in the Church both Baptismal and Marriage Registers dating back to 1732.