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Homily given by Bishop John Sherrington on the 128th Anniversary of the Laying of the Foundation Stone of the Church St Francis de Sales, Tottenham, on Sunday 18th June 2023

Today we begin to remember the foundation of the parish and this Church as we prepare for
the 130th Anniversary of the Laying of the Foundation Stone in 2025, the Great Year of the Jubilee. We mark the 128th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone by Cardinal Vaughan on 19 June 1895.

It is important to remember our beginnings, our history and those men and women whose generosity has provided the Church and buildings which we enjoy today. Today we celebrate this Mass of Thanksgiving for the Catholic Parish of Tottenham.

The history begins with the remarkable pioneering spirit of Fr Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, aged 25, ordained only three years, who arrived in the Tottenham area in 1793 after the turmoil of the French Revolution, full of zeal to spread the gospel and serve the Church. He founded a Mission and began to minister to the Catholic population which he found in the largely rural area populated mainly by Irish workers. A chapel, over a beer shop, 4 Tottenham Terrace, dedicated to St Mary and St Joseph, was used but it was bombed and destroyed in the Second World War. In 1793 there was still a lot of suspicion, hostility and sometimes violence towards Catholics and the Church was run by Vicars Apostolic. Bishop Douglass estimated that three years later nearly 100 people attended Mass when Fr Cheverus departed for the American Mission and later became the first Bishop of Boston.

In 1823, for some reason, the chapel closed but three years later a second chapel, started by Fr Thomas Ewart, was also dedicated to St Mary and St Joseph. This served also as a school since education was a priority for the Church. Tottenham was poor, priests were dedicated and worked hard, money was found from generous donors beyond Tottenham. With the coming of the railways and the expansion of this part of London, a third chapel, which is now the parish hall, was built in 1881 to serve both as school rooms and church. The congregation numbered about 900 people, including 300 people living in workhouses, but all were poor. 

The Foundation Stone of this Church was laid on 19 June 1895 and the first Mass celebrated by Cardinal Vaughan two years later. This same year also marked the arrival of the Marist Sisters from Bethnal Green to run the school. Like the people of Israel in the first reading, who lived in tents and wandered in the desert for forty years, the parish chapel moved about before this church was built. The people trusted in God and grew into a parish community.

Whilst we give thanks for the building of the church, at a deeper level we give thanks for the men and women, the families, priests and religious, who handed on the Catholic faith, often facing opposition, hostility, and sometimes violence. Their faithfulness, commitment, perseverance and generosity are the reasons why we can gather and celebrate the Mass here today. They, with you, are the living stones which make up the spiritual temple of the Lord. At St Peter writes, ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people…’ (1 Peter 2: 9-10). You are God’s holy people. If the walls could speak, they would speak of the prayers offered over two centuries here in Tottenham.

Here the thirsty and the weary, those people described at the beginning of today’s gospel, lost like sheep without a shepherd, have found solace and consolation in prayer, in the sacraments, and in Mass. God’s mercy has been proclaimed. Sins have been forgiven because Christ died when we were sinners so that we have been reconciled to the Father and saved by the life of his Son. Children have been educated and taught their Catholic faith and handed it on to their families. In many ways, the parish has cared for the poor and the sick, the homeless and the dying. In these ways the work of the Church continues as we heard in the gospel. The priests have led the community with passion and the desire to spread the gospel of Christ. Pope Francis provides us with a beautiful description of a parish, ‘The parish is… a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach’ (EG 28). I find this a very moving description of the parish and its life in Christ. Today the parish is a ‘community of communities’ as people of many different backgrounds and origins gather to share one faith, one Lord, one baptism. It is a sanctuary – a place of prayer, safety, and peace. Here the ‘thirsty come to drink’ of God, especially in his Body and Blood in the Mass. It is called to constantly reach out to others and be a place of welcome which is much needed in a busy world. Our challenge today is to hand on the faith to the children, and to invite others to share in the hope that we find in Jesus Christ. We continue to reflect together how we find new ways to do this and accompany people on the journey of faith.

We act under the inspiration of St Francis de Sales, your patron, who was declared a Doctor of the Church, in 1877, only a few years before the foundation of the Church. He taught people about the love of God which reached into the hearts of every man and woman and encouraged every person to develop their own life of prayer amid the hurly-burly of everyday life. He focused on the deep and gentle touch of God into our hearts and the heart that responds generously. He is a saint suited to Tottenham. He invites us to have joyful trust in God,

‘Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering, or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually: The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart has trusted in him and I am helped. He is not only with me, but in me and I in him.’ (St Francis de Sales).

Bishop John Sherrington