The Oval, Hackney Road, London E2
A small brick church built for the Lithuanian community in the East End in the simple Romanesque style which the architect, Fr Benedict Williamson, frequently used for his plainer churches. The focus of the church is the large Tyrolean carved altarpiece of c.1851. A recent reordering has replaced the sanctuary furnishings and removed the painted decoration of colourful folk patterns, leaving the church interior white and focused on the altarpiece. The church is of high significance for the London Lithuanian community.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Lithuanians came to Britain to escape the repressive Tsarist regime in their country, then part of the Russian empire. In the late-nineteenth-century, an East End mission served both Catholic Polish and Lithuanian refugees who settled in London’s East End and worked as tailors and cabinet makers. The congregation probably also included Lithuanian sailors working in the Baltic timber trade. In 1894, a joint Polish-Lithuanian church, St Joseph and St Casimir, opened in Globe Road, but this closed in the following year for financial reasons. In 1895-97, the congregation met in an apartment in 184A Cambridge Road, served by the Missionaries of Divine Love. In 1899, Cardinal Vaughan gave permission for a separate Lithuanian parish with its own priest. In 1901 the Lithuanian mission moved to a former warehouse at the corner of Cable Street and Christian Street. The site for the current church was bought in 1911. The church was built 1912 from designs by the architect-priest Fr Benedict Williamson (1868-1948), who officiated at the Mass on 10 March 1912 when the church was opened by Cardinal Bourne. A Tyrolean altarpiece of 1851 (purchased from the Book and Arts Company and reputedly exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition) was installed by the time the church opened. The church was dedicated to the Patron Saint of Lithuania.
In 1926, Cardinal Bourne and the visiting Lithuanian Archbishop agreed that the parish should be served by Marian fathers (VCH: from 1931). In 1928 a Lourdes chapel was established in the church and in 1936 an altar to St Casimir installed. In 1974, the parish social centre opened. In 1980 the church was redecorated and in c.1990 the altarpiece repainted.
In c.2004, Francis Weal & Partners (now Weal Architects) reordered the church. This work included a new floor of Lithuanian oak, a new confessional, and new sanctuary furniture designed by the architects and made in Lithuania. Several of the furnishings draw on the motif of the church’s distinctive capitals, described by Rottmann and Evinson as ‘Egyptian’; including a short stone column with such a capital which supports the tabernacle.
The original high altar, the painted inscription in the sanctuary, the large crucifix with Lithuanian inscription and the decorative friezes and borders featuring the Lithuanian national flower described by Rottmann in 1926 have all gone. The painted decoration of Lithuanian folk patterns described in The Buildings of England does not appear to survive.
The church faces west. This description uses the conventional liturgical orientation.
The church is built in brick laid in English bond with stone dressings. The plan is rectangular, with an aisled nave. Above the church are rooms, indicated by domestic windows in the gable. These continue only partway across the church and are roofed by a hipped roof to the east.
The gabled west front is dominated by the large circular window with a strong roll moulding. Above a stone sill band are two windows in round-headed recesses. Below the gable with apex cross is an empty pedestal and canopy. On the ground floor are two round-headed windows on either side of a small pedimented projection with a small window. The circular windows recur on the side elevations and on the presbytery facade.
The three-bay nave has two ‘Egyptian’ columns on each side. The ceiling is flat and coffered. The aisles also have flat ceilings. At the west, below the gallery stair at the southwest is the Lourdes grotto of 1928 (possibly the former baptistery) with a plaque to John Michael Liudžius OBE (1916-1999), ‘diplomat and patriot’. Another plaque commemorates Kunigas Juozapas Montvila, a Lithuanian Catholic priest who died in the sinking of the Titanic.
The gallery front has a painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, possibly that mentioned by Rottmann in c.1926 as being on the high altar frontal. The split pipe organ is by Baldwin. At clerestory level at the northwest is a blocked round-headed window, presumably originally communicating with the presbytery. Further east along this level is a crucifix. The north aisle has a pieta and a blind circular window with a mural of the Virgin Mary (possibly the painting of Our Lady of Vilna mentioned by Rottmann). At the northwest is a timber confessional which dates from the reordering of c.2004. Above the door to the presbytery is a mural fragment.
The sanctuary furnishings all date from c.2004 apart from the painted Tyrolean altarpiece (c.1851) set into a shallow round-headed arch with ‘Egyptian’ capitals. It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin carved in three-dimensional relief with Rococo-style clouds. The sacristy is at the southeast. At the east end of the south aisle is a stone statue of St Casimir by James Dagys (1951). Further west along the aisle is a statue of the Sacred Heart.
The Stations are glazed paintings on canvas in timber frames. Set against the nave columns on either side are small statues of Saints Anthony, Peter, Paul and a monk with the crucified Christ.
Architect: Fr Benedict Williamson
Original Date: 1912
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed