Friday 14 November 2014 was a momentous day in the life of the parish of St John Fisher in North Harrow. On that day, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, visited the parish in order to dedicate the church and new altar. For the past ten months the church has been closed whilst major renovation and rebuilding work has taken place.
The first part of the church was started in 1938, and was designed by Thomas Henry Birchall Scott. Scott was responsible for many churches in the Diocese of Westminster during the 1930’s. Work on St John Fisher ceased with the outbreak of World War II. After the war building materials were a precious resource and so the church was not completed until 1982.
Sadly, the ’82 scheme did not sit comfortably with the 1938 building and the ’82 sanctuary had begun to leak. The parish community was faced with a choice; whether to try and work with the existing structure, or to embark on a major rebuilding. With great faith, the parish council opted for the more radical option.
The parish priest, Fr Shaun Middleton, was aware that Scott’s churches were based on a byzantine model. They were long, rectangular and finished with an apse. Working with the architect Colin Smart and his team, Fr Shaun developed a scheme for the church. The interior gallery which cut across the side aisle arches would be demolished as would the square sanctuary. In its place, a curved domed apse would be built. To the side, a retro chapel would be constructed which faced towards the baptistery which would have the font at its heart. The vision was to regain the architectural harmony of the church that Scott had originally intended. However, it was also felt by the pastoral council that provision should be made for the continuing catechetical work of the parish. A new meeting room was developed out of the old sacristies.
The results have been spectacular. The church now has a noble simplicity and is a space which encourages prayerful devotion. The new Altar, Ambo and Tabernacle Plinth are made of Portland stone and are embellished with symbols taken from the book of Revelation which speak of the mystical reality of Christ who dwells in the midst of his people.
In his homily, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, spoke of the Altar and made mention of the five crosses that were carved into it. ‘These’, he said ‘remind us of the five wounds of Christ into which the oil of chrism, will be poured’.
The Cardinal went on to talk of the action of the women parishioners who would then come to the altar to clean it and dress it with a cloth, ‘just like the holy women had done so long ago, when they prepared the body of the Lord for burial.’
Above the altar, suspended from an arch hangs a byzantine cross painted by the renowned iconographer Sr Petra Clare. As the altar was being consecrated, the eyes of the congregation were drawn to the cross with its image of the crucified Christ whilst the sixteen concelebrants looked to the image of the Mother of Sorrows which has been painted on to the back of the cross. Either side of Our Lady is painted with images of St Margaret Clitheroe and St Anne Line, two women martyrs of the Reformation. Also inscribed along the cross is Cardinal Nichols’ motto: ‘Fortis est ut Mors Dilectio’ (‘Love is strong as death.’) Fr Shaun remarked later, that the back of the cross was dedicated to the women of the parish. ‘Women,’ he noted, ‘just get on with things, the majority of what they do is hidden but without them nothing would happen.’
One touching story concerns the font. This is the gift of the children of the parish. As part of the fundraising effort, Fr Shaun gave every child in the parish a tube of Smarties. He invited them to enjoy the sweets and to fill the empty tube with 20 pence pieces. The children raised over £3,000 in their ‘Smartie People’ campaign, and it is wonderful to think that every child who receives the gift of the new life of baptism in that font will be linked in a profound way to that generation of children who made such an effort.
The parish of St John Fisher now has a church it can be proud of and it is the profound hope of Fr Shaun that, along with the physical renewal of the parish church, spiritual and pastoral renewal of the community will begin to take place. He recognises that although much has been done, there is still so much more to do.