Surprised by Joy
“The Royal Foundation of St Katharine is a Christian organisation that was established in 1147,” introduces Chaplain Carol Rider. “The original community was next to the Tower of London in St Katharine’s Docks before setting up in Regent’s Park. We’ve been in the East End since the late 18th century. St Katharine’s doesn’t come under the Anglican Diocese: it became a Royal Peculiar when Queen Eleanor recognised it in the 13th century. Since World War II The Queen has been our patron. In fact, all our Patrons have been female royals. The Duchess of Cornwall recently visited us too.” Photos of Camilla add sparkle to the bookshelves of the Lounge.
At the heart of the current St Katharine’s on Butcher Row, Limehouse, rooted in the deep urban fabric is the Master’s House, a handsome tallish squarish brownish brick piece of Georgian London attributed to Thomas Leverton. Note ‘attribution’ only for much of Georgian London was formed not by great architects but by developers. The most extraordinary aspect of the Master’s House is the collection of murals adorning the two principal reception rooms overlooking the garden. Aha! The Queen Matilda Room and the Chapter Room. Such surprise, such joy! A rare explosion of period trompe l’oeil.
Charles Saumarez Smith believes that St Katharine’s has a “very atmospheric post war chapel”. The former Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts London observes, “The chapel was designed by Roderick Enthoven in 1953. He obviously had a sensitivity to historic buildings because he was able to incorporate some of the surviving medieval fittings which came from the Foundation’s original home, including an Italian reredos.” Charles also notes that the carved lettering in the chapel – check out the Welsh slate altar – is by Ralph Beyer, a German sculptor who was an apprentice of Eric Gill.
The Foundation of St Katharine is a joyous blend of ages, from Festival of Britain architecture to medieval statuary. The eclectic yet harmonious group of buildings housing the Foundation encloses a peaceful garden and stylish croquet lawn. The ultimate urban oasis. Cliché perhaps, reality, yes. Above and beyond the entrance gates to St Katharine’s the Docklands Light Rail whizzes by – an ever urgent flash of red and blue. Below, in full view of the travelling tourists and commuters and locals are the Yurt Café and neighbouring converted shipping container studios. Deconstructivism meets urban renewal meets spare space meets hipsterism meets great coffee in a meaningful meanwhile use.
“The Foundation is committed to worship, service and hospitality,” explains Carol. “Some people just book a room and create their own retreat. Guests might join us for our twice daily worship or use the stillness of the chapel at other times of the day. They might sit in the garden in the sun or under the shade of our huge plane tree. They can use our small library with its comfy chairs. Or they might spend time here at St Katharine’s but also venture out to explore London, to visit some of its wonderful architecture, art galleries and theatres.”
At the turn of the 21st century, the Foundation was revitalised. The Victor Churchill Building by Matthew Lloyd Architects added seven bedrooms next to the chapel. Founding Partner Matthew Lloyd states, “This new building sensitively relates to the chapel itself and also to the adjoining 1950s extension on its west side, both in height and materiality.” Jonathan Dinnewell of Smallwood Architects reordered the chapel, increasing natural light into its interior. Following renovations and extensions by PRP Architects, there are now nine meeting rooms from the intimate Queen Philippa Room (maximum two guests) to the Queen Elizabeth Conference Room (maximum 70 guests).
Concerts, residential retreats, supper clubs and reflection days led by the likes of Muthuraj Swamy (author of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2019 Lent Book Reconciliation) and Pádraig Ó Tuama (poet, theologian and former leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation) fill the calendar of St Katharine’s. Today, Langley House Trust is recording a Christmas carol service in the chapel.
Dee Spurdle, Head of Fundraising and Communication, relates, “Langley House Trust is a Christian charity which provides accommodation based support to people at risk of offending or who have committed offences.” Chief Executive Tracy Wild, who is speaking at the carol service, adds, “Our vision is of a crime free society where no one is unfairly disadvantaged or excluded because of their past. We’ve been going for 62 years now.” As for the carol service, required to be online this year due to a pandemic: “We’ve gone from 15 carol services to one online. But when there is a blocked road ahead, you need to turn left or right. We are hoping that more people will be able to watch the carol service online. We want to increase awareness of our charity and also encourage churches to watch it.”
The Reverend Andy Rider, National Chaplain of Langley House Trust, reveals, “Langley’s Resident Worship Leader Luke Hamlyn and singer Hannah Ravenor, who also works for Langley as well as being Marketing and Engagement Manager at the charity Clean Sheet, will lead the band in ‘Joy To The World’. They are joined by the band including the violinist from Christ Church Spitalfields, Amy Mulholland. This carol will be a feature of the service amongst lots of others.” As for his message, “I am speaking on Colossians 1 – a very early hymn. Maybe we should call it the first ever Christmas carol!” Another recognised New Testament hymn which would have been sung in Greek is 1 Timothy 3:16, “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
“Contemplation occurs naturally when we behold something of beauty. In the presence of beauty, understanding becomes suspended and analysis futile. Contemplative prayer is the act of beholding Jesus and becoming ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.” So scribes Andy in his 2009 book Three Holy Habits. The Royal Foundation of St Katharine is the ultimate sanctuary of contemplation in London. There are no equals. And so a golden leaf strewn autumnal afternoon of how it was and how it is and how it will be can sometimes last forever. “You are never more than a moment away from God,” muses Reverend Rider. That moment is now. Enjoy the carol service.
- The Streaming Premier of Langley House Trust National Carol Service 2020 is on Sunday 13 December at 4pm and 8pm https://www.langleyhousetrust.org