History of our church

Welcome to the website of our Lady of La Salette and St Joseph Church. We base in Bermondsey South East London

Dour lady

The Origins of Melior Street

In a well-known letter of 1850 Nicholas Wiseman, Bishop of the London District, and later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, enumerated some of his achievements during his first two years in office. These included “four new missions in the heart of the poor population.” One of these missions was started in a disused School of Anatomy in Webb Street, Borough, a turning off Weston Street and St. Thomas’ Street, now completely engulfed by London Bridge Station, but less than a hundred yards away from the present church in Melior Street.

The mission had been started in 1847 by Father Robert Hodgson, a friend of Bishop Nicholas Wiseman. Wiseman attended the official opening on the 20th March 1848.

The Catholic Directory of 1852 printed an appeal for the Webb Street Mission:-

Here pause, gentle reader. Shall not the following enlist your sympathies? The adult Catholic population about this Mission number 5,000; the children 800. The Chapel, or rather room, will hold but 450; four times filled on Sunday Morning; the number able to hear Mass 1,800; what is to become of the remaining 3,200, and of the 800 children?

Their angel guardians turn imploring to you, and ask from your jewellery, your rich viands, your amusements, wherewith ground may be purchased, a church, with convent and school, erected, – souls fitted for heaven.

The manifestation of your sympathy will be thankfully received by the Right Rev. Dr. Grant, or by the resident clergy.

Several secular priests served the Mission of Our Lady and Saint Patrick in its early years, most for one or two years each. In 1850 Capuchin Franciscans from the Continent came to work alongside the English seculars, the most prominent being Father Laurence Praxmarer from Austria. He arrived in Webb Street in 1852 and was in charge of the mission from 1856 to 1858. During his years of service the following account of the task appeared in the Catholic Directory of 1856.

This is one of the poorest and most destitute Mission in London, being exclusively composed of the labouring Irish. The present temporary Chapel is not near large enough, and must besides, very likely in a short time be given up, and therefore a new Church is much wanted, A Boys’ and Girls’ School is established; but both are in a sad state for wants of books, maps, etc., as the School depends mainly on the scanty means of the Mission.

The official records of the schools of the Southwark diocese contain this entry.

The Boys’ School at Webb Street was inspected on 11th February 1857. It is a temporary building, twenty-seven feet long by twenty-one feet broad, and twelve feet high. It is a present sufficiently provided with Furniture, sufficiently with Books of the Christian Brothers and fairly with Maps, and Apparatus. The present Master is Timothy Herley, thirty-five years of age, and is an untrained teacher. The numbers of Children on the Books are one hundred and fifty, of whom there is an average attendance of eighty, divided into four classes. It is not under Government inspection, and has no Pupil Teachers. There is no School Library.

There was another special appeal in 1932, this time for the building of a suitable shrine to Our Lady of La Salette. It is interesting both in itself and for the way in which it represents the history of our Parish.

EIGHTY-SIX YEARS have passed since the Apparition of Our Lady on the Mountain of La Salette. The scene has been described again and again and yet the story has lost none of its charm and beauty or of its appeal. What heart can remain unmoved at the picture of the two peasant children staring in wonder at a woman, seated on the mountain-side, her face hidden in her hands and who is weeping bitterly; weeping because of the irreverence given by men to her Devine Son, weeping because of their neglect of Him. “Go,” she cried to the children, “tell this to my people.”

The message was given. At once there were signs of great religious awakening in France and a revival of an enthusiastic devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. To her shrine at La Salette thousands came in pilgrimage. Devine Providence acts in strange ways. Who would have thought that the Lady of La Salette would come to poverty-stricken Bermondsey! Yet fifteen years after the Apparition a church dedicated in her honour was opened in Melior Street and her shrine set up, the first in England.

The more we consider the facts, the more we are convinced that something other then mere human design was at work in bringing “Our Lady of La Salette” to Melior Street. Was it just chance that one day, there came among the thousands that flocked to La Salette, in the South of France, a priest from Bermondsey, a priest whose bore the signs of worry and anxiety? As he stood there on the mountain-side, his thoughts were far-away. There were where his heart was – in a little, squalid Chapel in Bermondsey. This Chapel was known as St. Patrick’s, in Webb Street. Once, it had been a dissecting room belonging to the medical students of St. Thomas’ Hospital, which in those days stood opposite Guy’s. Standing amid a maze of narrow, dreary streets and dirty alley-ways, surrounded by degrading drinking saloons, it was the House of God and the Gate of Heaven for poor Irish exiles who had been driven from their native land by famine and persecution, and had come to London and had settled near the Thames river. Life was hard for them – for the men, the daily search for work, but seeing everywhere that shameful notice: “No Irish need apply”; for the women – the daily weary trudge to the West-End to sell their flowers. There were no doles, no relief funds, but in spite of their poverty and hardship their courage never wavered, and the Light of Faith shone brightly and strongly in their hearts. Sunday after Sunday they flocked to the little Chapel in Webb Street, and at the Altar of God they found peace and rest for their poor, weary hearts. It was their priest that stood on the mountain of La Salette; a priest whose name is still remembered and spoken of with veneration and affection: Father McDaniel.

Simon McDaniel came to the mission of St. Patrick, Webb Street, in 1857, eleven years after the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette. It was not long before he realised the necessity of building a church. The Chapel was falling to pieces and was far too small to hold the numbers that flocked to it Sunday after Sunday. Then there was the awful necessity of building schools for the Catholic children, who were in danger of losing their Faith. All this he saw with anxious eyes, at the same time realising that delay in acting was fraught with terrible consequences, and yet it seemed impossible to make a beginning.

Obstacles appeared everywhere and seemed insurmountable. Money was needed to buy and to build, but how could he ask his poor flock to raise such a large sum when they obtained barely sufficient to live on. The heart of the priest was brave and strong, but it must have wavered under strain of the anxiety. He was not alone in his trouble, his flock shared his worry, and every day priest and people stormed Heaven with their prayers, imploring God to pity them and give His all-powerful assistance.

So it was that Divine Providence led Father McDaniel to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette. There, on the mountain side, he solemnly promised the Blessed Virgin that he would name the church in her honour if She would help him to build it. He came to La Salette with despair, he left, his heart strong with confidence and hope. Tradition has it that on his way back he turned aside to visit the holy priest of Ars, and that he opened his heart to the saint and told him everything about his project. The holy man listened attentively and then said, “Go, my son, do what you intend, Our Lady of La Salette will go with you.” Returning to Webb Street, Father McDaniel began what seemed for that moment an impossible task. He managed to secure the site close by and began to build his church. His poor Irish congregation gave and gave, denying themselves even necessities. A few generous benefactors came forward with sums of money, but soon it was realised that work would have to be stopped, as the money collected was not sufficient. A great cry of distress went up before the throne of Our Lady from priest and people. The answer came with startling suddenness. A large sum of money was found in the church box of the old Chapel in Webb Street. No one knew where it came from or who put it there. It remains a mystery. With that money the church was finished. On May 2nd, 1861, it was opened, and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette was erected for the first time in England.

It is sixty-one years since that wonderful day and with the passing of the years have gone most of those brave, generous souls who laboured and struggled for their Church. Father McDaniel died March 14th, 1899. May his name be always remembered amongst us. The old places are gone. The Chapel in Webb Street with the narrow courts and alleyways that surrounded it have long disappeared and their places to-day stands the railway arches and warehouses.

The years have brought many changes, but the same brave spirit of faith that was manifest in those early days still prevails in Melior Street. It is a heritage given us by our fathers and mothers – it will be kept.

In 1922, Father Flanagan came to Melior Street as its Parish Priest. It was a renewal of acquaintance, for he had spent a number of years here as a curate. It was no time before he became alive to the urgent needs of the church. The High Altar was almost on the point of collapse, the old shrine to Our Lady had become dowdy and desolate, and there were so many other things demanding immediate attention that it was difficult to know where and how to begin. He decided to build a new High Altar. Many would have hesitated, as those six years after the Great War were not prosperous years for Bermondsey. Father Flanagan, however, knew his flock. As Father McDaniel in the days of old appealed to the Catholic hearts of his people, so Father Flanagan, called to their children, and the result showed that the spirit of generosity and self-sacrifice remained still in the Parish of Melior Street. The Altar was completed in 1928 and now stands as monument to a great Catholic Architect, Mr Walters, the man who designed Buckfast Abbey. It is one of the most beautiful altars in London, and many have come from far and near to admire and pray.

Curiosity must compel them to look at the shrine of Our Lady. – They see a large statue on a small wooden altar. There is nothing grand or startling, and some give it a casual glance and pass by, but those who linger and pray feel an indescribable rest and peace radiating from that spot. Many a poor heart has come there to pray and weep, to place their petitions on the altar, to light their candles. None have gone away unconsoled or discomforted. Let us remember that it is here that the devotion to Our Lady of La Salette has been kept and guarded for many years.

This church, this shrine, must be dear to her maternal heart.

We feel that the time has come when a more fitting shrine should be erected. The designs were sketches by Mr Walters shortly before he died. All his skill was brought into play, all his love and devotion, and when these plans are realised in mosaic and marble, the new altar will be an exquisite example of his wonderful art, a beautiful tribute of affection to the Mother of God from the people of Melior Street.

We are passing through a lean years, many claims are made on our charity. Nevertheless we know that the brave spirit of faith and love that built the church will build the new shrine. To that spirit we appeal. We are appealing to the sons and daughters of those who, in days gone by, lived and died for the Faith. Our Lady of La Salette will have her altar.

Money has been collected already, but we are asking for £300. The men of the Guild of Blessed Sacrament have appointed a Committee to organise the collection of funds, and this Committee have called upon representatives of the Children of Mary and the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart to help them. We the undersigned ask, in the name of Our Lady, 10/- from every member of the Guild, of the Children of Mary and of the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart and from all other adults of this parish. We suggest that the subscription should be paid at 3d per week by those who cannot give 10/- in one sum. Those who can afford more will give more, we know.

The names of the subscribers and benefactors will be written on a scroll and buried in the altar, away from the sight of men but visible to Him who sees all things. When the altar is built, Mass will be offered there once a week, and a special commemoration will be made of all those benefactors of Melior Street who names are inscribes in the altar and whose faith and love inspired them to raise this wonderful shrine to Our Lady of La Salette. – Rev. Herbert W. Loader (Chairman) and representatives of the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament, the Children of Mary and the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart.