For a gem of a war-torn cathedral, the delicacies are in the details

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Destroyed during World War II, the Catholic Cathedral in London’s Southwark district is rising from its ashes.

With three cathedrals, the London Borough of Southwark should look like the “dreamy spiers” of Oxford. It is unfortunate that St. George’s does not have any spiers or towers at all. The first Catholic cathedral allowed to be built in the UK since the Reformation was also the first to be destroyed during World War II. In London, he was the only one – Catholic or Anglican – to have a massive, direct blow from the Luftwaffe. As the legendary St. Paul’s stood proud and almost untouched, surrounded by smoldering ruins, St. George’s above the river was nearly flattened.

The grandeur of the original St. George’s

Southwark Catholic Cathedral was rebuilt after the war, but a lot is missing. Its Anglican counterpart in the same district is several centuries older and retains much of its 500-year-old integrity. St. George’s was once the epitome of the Victorian Gothic revival. Its creator was Augustus Pugin, the most prominent Catholic architect of the 19th century. He designed this very symbol of London, the Houses of Parliament, as well as the tower that houses Big Ben.

Southwark meant a lot more to him spiritually. His marriage was the first to take place in the cathedral he had built. It was his third marriage as his two previous wives had passed away. Poor health surrounded him and he only lived until he was 40 years old.

Pugin’s sanity also took a hit in his short life. For a while he was placed in the infamous Bethlehem Hospital, better known as “Bedlam”. As it was across from St. George’s Cathedral, he could at least find some comfort in looking at his work.

A story of immigrants of renewal

The cathedral was an inspiring sight for the growing number of Catholics in London. It will be more than 50 years before Westminster’s largest cathedral is built. ULike Westminster, which has always attracted a fashionable congregation, Southwark has been a magnet for immigrant communities from the start.

In the 19th century, it was the Irish who migrated to this part of London and brought Catholicism back to whatever part of Britain they settled. There is a chapel dedicated to Saint Patrick in the cathedral. Accompanied by deliciously green brocade on the walls, there is a plaque to commemorate a leader of the Irish independence movement who is barely remembered. Terence MacSwiney, Mayor of Cork, died in a nearby London prison in 1920. Cathedral clergy bravely defied government instructions banning a funeral mass for this victim of oppression.

In the 21st century, there has been a lot of immigration from Latin America. The cathedral has masses in Spanish, as well as a spectacular memorial to the martyred bishop, Saint Oscar Romero. It’s hard to miss this painted crucifix, at least 10 feet tall, in a cheerfully colorful Salvadoran style. It is even more difficult to photograph. The same is true of the image of the Italian saint Françoise Xavier Cabrini, patron saint of migrants, whose sanctuary I came across. Although she is based in America, she often visited this cathedral and did good works in the neighborhood. Unless the lights are on, which is less often the case with daily rising energy prices, it’s hard to spot this wonder of bronze sculpture.

An unknown wonder

In every corner of the sacred interior of the cathedral, surprises await you. Its grimly reconstructed exterior promises little but offers a lot for those who venture inside. For visitors who are there when the choir is singing, the acoustics are almost divine.

St. George’s is not on any tourist trail and is largely forgotten, even by the many Catholics who prefer the alluring Byzantine charms of Westminster Cathedral. At least Southwark was not overlooked by Pope John Paul II when he anointed large numbers of the sick there in 1982. One of the advantages of modern stained glass, which has slowly replaced the wreckage of the Second World War, is this more topical subject the matter can be highlighted. Indeed, there is the Pope, touchingly illuminated by the gray sky of London.

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