An exquisite little church in Soho in the heart of London, built originally for the needs of the Francophone community in the mid 19th century, this building offers an excellent visit to anyone investigating the varied churches of our capital city, particularly those interested in contemporary art.
French roots in England began with the invasion of William the Conqueror and, despite wars between England and France persisting into the early 19th century, the commercial and cultural ties remained strong and over the centuries there was a steady influx of French citizens.
In the 17th century London welcomed the Protestant refugees, the Huguenots, feeling from Catholic persecution. Catholics escaping the French Revolution in the 18th century also found refuge and peace here. By the mid 19th century many thousands of French citizens had made London their home, many of them crowded around Leicester Square and constituting what was known as “the French colony”. It was for them that Notre Dame was founded.
In 1861 Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster, asked the Marist Fathers to establish their mission here and put Father Charles Faure in charge of the project. Father Faure purchased the circular building already existing near Leicester Square and the building was transformed into a church, opening its doors in 1868.
The church and community flourished, but in 1940 during the Blitz a direct hit from German bombs left the church and crypt a heap of rubble, broken planks and twisted beams. After much fundraising and hard work the new church reopened for worship in 1955. The building was deliberately light and modern in design and the decoration was to include contemporary religious art rather than focus on the traditional accumulation of statues, candelabra, stained glass, many confessional boxes, heavy wooden or stone furniture.
And this is how it is today. As you step in you are immediately struck by the lightness and airiness of the building. The dome above allows brightness in, the walls are white, the whole impression is of openness and welcome.
All the traditional Catholic elements are here when you look, such as the Stations of the Cross which are in small discreet tiles around the walls, but there is none of the “heaviness” often associated with older churches. A circular balcony provides more space, thus not cluttering the interior of the church but adding to the sense of radiance that permeates this building.
Above the main altar is displayed a large tapestry completed in the Aubusson workshops designed by Dom Robert, monk, theologian and a lover of nature. On an azure blue background a young woman in a white dress, symbolising purity and wisdom, stands in the middle of verdant scenery surrounded by animals.
In a side chapel consecrated to Mary is a mosaic by Boris Anrep depicting the Nativity. And behind it are glorious paintings by Jean Cocteau showing three episodes of Mary’s life - the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. The newest addition is a painting of the Flight to Egypt by Timur D’vatz, unveiled in 2015, continuing the church’s principle of support for contemporary religious art.
Today the church continues to serve the Francophone community in London, many now coming from Mauritius and other African countries and Asia as well as France itself. It has a role in supporting the homeless as well as refugees and asylum seekers, but it welcomes all visitors to view its splendid building and its modern art, and is definitely somewhere for the Slow Traveller to appreciate and enjoy.
The church isn't easy to find but is well worth it
Visiting the Church of Notre Dame in London
Address: 5 Leicester Place, London WC2H 7BX
Nearest tube: Leicester Square