2014 marks the 160th anniversary of the establishment in Kingsland of the Catholic Parish dedicated to Our Lady and Saint Joseph, and the 50th anniversary of the solemn opening of our current Parish Church in the Balls Pond Road. In the 1930’s, the old Church, although much loved, and previously situated nearby, was considered no longer suitable for the ever growing Catholic population.
When the area of De Beauvoir was designed in the 1820s, no provision was made for a Catholic church: the first Catholic place of worship was created in 1854, in a private house on Culford Road. In 1854 a Mr Thomas Kelly, an Irish builder who owned 83 Culford Road, (later re-numbered 164) had offered the first floor of his house: the back parlour was to serve as the sanctuary of the chapel, while the drawing room in front, connected by large folding doors, formed the body of the chapel. On the other side of the hall, two small rooms served as the priest’s study and bedroom. This generous offer was accepted, and the first mass was said by Dr. Henry Manning (later Cardinal Manning), with about six people present. Father William Lockhart (1819-1892), one of the first priests of the Oxford Movement, was then chosen to start a mission in Kingsland, as the area was known. The Oxford Movement had coincided with a period of famine in Ireland, and Irish immigration was resulting in a desperate need for Catholic churches, particularly in London. Father Lockhart moved into 83 Culford Road, and by Christmas of that year the congregation was, not surprisingly, spilling over into the corridors, down the front steps and onto the pavement.
The church quickly expanded, first into a converted storage shed behind Kelly’s house, and then in 1856 into a paper dyeing factory at the corner of Culford and Tottenham Roads. Here the upper floor was converted by William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), who went on to design Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia. He knew and was influenced by A.W.N. Pugin, the leading Gothic Revival architect of the Victorian era, also a convert to Catholicism. All the building work was, of course, done by the faithful Mr. Kelly.
By 1860, the church had again been extensively remodelled, this time by E.W. Pugin, the son of A.W.N. Pugin. The old wooden windows were replaced by stone windows with tracery in Gothic style. This remodelled church was reopened on 24 February 1860, and remained in use, substantially unaltered, for the next 100 years.
In 1934 a site in Balls Pond Road, originally occupied by a Bookbinders Provident Asylum, became available. It was here that the current Catholic Church was eventually opened in 1964, though it was not consecrated until 1975. This is because a new church cannot be consecrated until it is free of debt! The houses and church on Culford Road were demolished in the 1970s, in order to allow construction of the current Our Lady and Saint Joseph’s Primary School, in 1972, thus maintaining the deep Catholic link to the area.
Many former parishioners remember being delighted when the new Church was built, although some people missed the Gothic style of the old building and its interior, and felt that the new structure was just a bit too modern! There was a real feeling of loss that the old statues, candlesticks and other furnishings didn’t make the move to the new site. However, there was general agreement at the time that the construction of a new and much larger place of worship was necessary, and of course, styles do change!
One of the principal figures in the push to build the new Church, adjoining presbytery and new parish halls was Father William Michael Dempsey, who was parish priest of Kingsland for 42 years from 1920 to1964. Under his direction, since before the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945) many parishioners got involved in the effort of painstakingly raising the money not only to purchase the building site, but for later construction work to take place.
Adult parishioners were asked to buy bricks for £1 or £5 each, depending on their circumstances, and even children bought bricks for a shilling. The parish back then was mainly made up of working-class people – mostly Irish. There was a very strong sense of community. The Church was an integral part of social interaction for many parishioners, as they had left family, relatives and friends back in Ireland. The Church and parish were primarily for worship, of course, and the practice of their Catholic faith, but also for support, companionship and outreach. Consequently, raising adequate funds for the building of a new Church only sought to strengthen the bonds of community that already existed, and also provided those involved with a great sense of purpose and pride.
Eventually, because of the tenacity of Father Dempsey and the commitment of the people of the parish, enough money was raised to buy the plot that had become available on the Balls Pond Road, in spite of the fact that there had been pressure to build flats on the site which was heavily resisted. Many men who worked in the construction and decorating trades gave much of their free time to help in the building of the new Church as bricklayers, joiners, painters, electricians, plumbers and so on. It was a real community effort. Men often used to work all day and then come to work voluntarily on the Church in their spare time. Because everyone had contributed so much to this project, in so many different ways, there was a real feeling of ownership. The Church along with the presbytery and hall cost £120,000 to build. The Church accommodates 520 people sitting. A sterling effort! Once installed, names were given to the bells in the new and imposing Church tower, which were Gabriel (the traditional name for the Angelus bell), William (after Cardinal Godfrey), John (after Pope John XXIII), Paul (after Paul Pope VI), Carmel (Cardinal Heenan’s middle name), Saint Joseph (the parish patron) and Saint Monica and Saint Scholastica (the dedications of Kingsland’s two daughter parishes at Hoxton and Clapton).
Unfortunately, ill health forced Father Dempsey to retire in July 1962 at the age of 81, after 42 years as parish priest. Building work began in October 1962, and in February 1964, the new parish priest Father Thomas Hookham moved into the presbytery and celebrated the first Mass in the new Church. It was solemnly opened by Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Carmel Heenan on the 12th April 1964. The occasion had been slightly delayed because he had been attending the second session of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. By this stage, Father Dempsey was very unwell and sadly unable to attend the opening after all his efforts, although he did come by car a few days later to see the new Church. He leaves behind a fine legacy of priestly ministry and commitment to the community of Kingsland, for which the current generation remain grateful.
Some parishioners today remember the Church being absolutely packed for the solemn opening; there was standing-room only. It was a lovely, warm and friendly occasion. One parishioner recalls that there was a baby crying during the ceremony and the mother was moving to take it outside the Church but Archbishop Heenan stopped her and said: ‘Don’t you worry. I can shout louder than any baby!’
Since those days, the neighbourhood has changed so much. The parish community was almost exclusively comprised of Irish working people, and the Church was the focus for a good number of them. After the Second World War, the composition of the surrounding community and the congregation began to change, with newcomers arriving from all corners of the world. First, came new parishioners from many of the Caribbean Islands, many of whom had been invited by the government of the time to work in England. These were followed by people from Vietnam, The Philippines, parts of Africa and others from Asia, Europe, and South America. The Irish presence and influence remains strong. Because of all these factors, the parish of Kingsland is truly Catholic in its embrace and universality. Many describe the Church and parish as very welcoming. The doors of the Church have always been open, right up to the present day, which means anyone can come in and find some peace to reflect and pray from early morning to late evening. This is so important to the people of the area. However, like any parish, it’s not just buildings that matter, it’s the heart of a community that attracts others to join us; and the heart of this community is alive and well. This, in part, is forged by the strong link that exists between the Church and the parish school of Our Lady and Saint Joseph. The interaction and shared mission between home, school and parish remains an essential element in the life of the Catholic community in Kingsland.
The Church of Our Lady and Saint Joseph, known simply and affectionately throughout the surrounding area as the ‘Balls Pond Road’ is a beacon of faith, hope and comfort not only for the people who worship here, but also for the many who come from far and wide to pray in what is very much a working, vibrant and living Church.
On the 9th May 2014, the Archbishop of Westminster, His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, came to celebrate Mass to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the foundation of the parish and the 50th anniversary of the solemn opening of the current Church. It was a great occasion, much enjoyed by the many who were able to attend. This was followed by a reception at Our Lady and St Joseph School, where the Cardinal was able to meet and greet many people.
‘You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone. As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit.’ (Ephesians 2: 19-22)