Forgotten frescoes uncovered at East London church

Pugin's letter 'M'

Pugin's letter 'M'

A remarkable discovery was made in an east London church earlier this month when exploratory restoration work revealed beneath layers of paint, the original decorations of EW Pugin, featuring Latin inscriptions and stylised floral motifs.

St Monica's Church at Hoxton Square, which survived the Blitz, was built in 1864-65, shortly after the parish was founded as a mission of the Irish Augustinians to the East End of London. EW Pugin, the son of Augustus Welby Pugin, one of Victorian England's most eminent church architects, designed St Monica's Church and priory, the first permanent foundation of the Augustinian friars in England since the Reformation.

A gilded wooden altar with reredos was installed in 1875: Cardinal Manning came to consecrate it, and thought it was the finest in Westminster diocese. In 1880 a Lady Chapel was created: it was blessed by the Cardinal on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in December. Into the front of the chapel's altar was set a copy of the miraculous image preserved at an Augustinian shrine in Italy, the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Genazzano.

Sadly, the statues of Ss Monica and Augustine that originally flanked the sanctuary have disappeared. However the discovery of the inscriptions and floral motifs could mean that other treasures are yet to be found.

The story of St Monica's would be incomplete without mention of Father Michael Kelly (1833-1914), the 'Saint of the Slums'. Born in Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland, Fr Kelly was ordained to the priesthood in 1863. The following year he was transferred to Hoxton. Within three years of his arrival, he set up a committee to relieve the distress resulting from a severe winter, was instrumental in establishing the parish school and raising money for it, and quickly gained the respect of the local people, especially the Catholic poor. So widespread was his fame at the end of his life, that his obituary appeared in The New York Times and pictures of his funeral covered the entire back page of the Edwardian London tabloid, The Daily Sketch.

It is difficult to imagine present-day Hoxton Square, with its proliferation of avant-garde art galleries, graphic design studios, and trendy bar-restaurants, as it was in Fr Kelly's time, when London was one of the fastest-growing cities in the industrialised world. Thousands flocked to its crowded tenements looking for work. A small house only two doors away from the priory had 40 people living in it. Hoxton and Shoreditch's poverty was notorious, even by the standards of the day: the infamous 'Old Nichol' slum was in St Monica's parish. Hoxton was thought to be the most drunken district in London: there were over 47 pubs in Hoxton street alone. It was into this setting that Fr Kelly came as a young priest from rural Ireland, as were many of his parishoners.

The moving story of Fr Kelly is a testimony of a humble priest to a life inspired by the love of Christ. A 30 page book by Jean Olwen Maynard entitled 'The Saint of Hoxton': Father Michael Kelly OSA and the Beginnings of St Monica's Parish is available from the parish secretary. To obtain a copy by post, please send four second class stamps and contact details to St Monica's Priory, 19 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NT.

Proceeds from this book sale along with any other donations for this undertaking will be used for the church restoration fund soley to refurbish St Monica's and restore its original EWPugin decorations. It is hoped that this work will be completed in time for St Monica's 150th anniversay in 2015. Thank you for your support!

St Monica's next open evening of evangelisation, entitled 'Prayer in the Square', will be held on Saturday 9 February 2013. A holy hour of silent prayer will be held from 5-6pm, mass will be celebrated from 6.30pm-7.30pm, and our open evening event will be held from 7.30pm-9.30pm.

The evening will include light refreshments, recitation of the rosary, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and offers visitors a unique opportunity to view our historic Victorian church by candlelight. Quiet devotional music will be provided by the talented young musicians of the Shalom Catholic Community. Say a prayer, light a candle, come and join us! All are welcome.

Share this story