Chelsea 1 - St Mary

Draycott Terrace, Chelsea SW3

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The mission was founded by the French émigré priest Abbé Voyaux de Franous, mainly to serve the Catholic pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. A small Regency chapel was built in 1811–12 and extended several times. The present church, built in 1877–79 from deigns by J. F. Bentley, is on part of a site acquired in c.1840 and developed by A. W. N. Pugin with a convent, schools, cemetery chapel and almshouses. Bentley’s church incorporates both Pugin’s cemetery chapel and a re-erected chapel by E. W. Pugin.

The mission was one of several founded by French émigré priests. Abbé Jean Voyaux de Franous, who had been Royal Almoner to Louis XVI, arrived in London in 1793. In 1796, he was appointed missionary to the Catholic pensioners in the Royal Hospital and local residents. Various locations were used as temporary chapels until 1811, when a plot was leased from Lady Charlotte, wife of Peter Denys. This was located at the northwest corner of what are now Cadogan Street and Pavilion Road. The foundation stone for the chapel was laid by the Duchess of Angoulême, the daughter of Louis XVI. It was opened in 1812. Built to designs by G. J. Wigley[1], it cost £6,000. It was a plain Regency chapel with a shallow curved ceiling (figure 1).

By 1825, the parish encompassed 2,000 to 3,000 people and the chapel was extended several times: in 1824–25 by a side chapel and in 1850 by a new sanctuary by J. J. Scoles. In 1860, E. W. Pugin built a Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with an elaborate altar and reredos, marble-lined walls, windows by J.H. Powell and metalwork by Hardman & Co. In 1863–64, John Francis Bentley designed a new high altar and pulpit for the church and designed sanctuary decorations which were painted by Westlake.

By 1875, the chapel was far too small for its congregation and the lease was about to run out. Bentley was commissioned to build a new church on a two and a half acre plot formerly used as the Wellington cricket ground, which had been acquired in c.1840 by the botanist and nurseryman Joseph Knight and his wife Mary. Here they had built a complete Catholic community based on medieval models, including schools, a convent, a cemetery, almshouses and a chapel, all from designs by A. W. N. Pugin. The girls’ and boys’ schools flanked a central convent building shared by the Sisters of Mercy (who were to teach the girls) and the Christian Brothers (who taught the boys) (1841–4; photo centre right). The convent and the schools were ceremonially opened in 1845, with an address by the Hon. Edward Petre. The rear of the site was used as a burial ground and in the northeast corner of the site (the site of the present church) was a cemetery chapel (1845). Almshouses for eighteen (instead of the planned twenty-four) residents were built at the far western corner of the site in c.1848–55.

In 1865 Cardinal Manning considered the site as suitable for his proposed cathedral, on the grounds that such a large site – large enough for a cathedral, bishop’s house and seminary – would be unaffordable in central London (de L’Hôpital, pp. 10–11). However, these proposals came to nothing. Instead, Bentley’s new church was built on the northeast corner of the site, incorporating A. W. N. Pugin’s cemetery chapel as a side chapel (photo top left). E. W. Pugin’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel was dismantled and with its furnishings re-erected at the new site (photo bottom left). Bentley’s pulpit and altar of the 1860s were also installed in the new church. The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Manning on 12 July 1877 and he opened the church on 1 May 1879. The builders were Messrs Braid. Economies had to be made and Bentley was asked several times to simplify elements of his design or omit specific ornaments. Casualties included a planned more elaborate east window and a projected tower and spire at the northwest. The overall cost came to £10,000. The adjoining rectory was built by Bentley in 1879 for about £2,750 (photo centre left). The church was consecrated on 12 June 1882. Bentley continued to add furnishings until his death, with some being completed by his son, Osmond. Today, none of the original stained glass by Bentley, Westlake & Lavers and Barraud & Westlake survives.

The sanctuary was reordered in 1972, moving the high altar by Bentley to the northeast chapel and the tall spire over the tabernacle to the baptistery. The same year, the northeast chapel was restored in memory of Bishop Cashman (rector in 1958–65). In 2009, the restoration of the rectory was completed which included the creation of a parish office and meeting rooms.

The burial ground was closed during the nineteenth century and eventually built over in the twentieth century. The Christian Brothers ceased to teach at the boys’ school in 1880. The Sisters of Mercy departed in about 1954 and the former convent building was taken over by St Thomas More Secondary School (since 2004 St Thomas More Language College). St Joseph’s primary school occupies part of the complex. In 1994, Cardinal Hume laid the foundation stone for an extension to the schools.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: A. W. N. Pugin; E. W. Pugin; J. F. Bentley

Original Date: 1845

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1860;1877–78

Listed Grade: Grade II*