UK Cathedrals – Southwark

I thought readers may be interested in a series on the Roman Catholic Cathedrals of the UK and their musical provision. I wrote an article recently on the Choral Outreach Programme at Leeds Cathedral which seemed to interest readers on NLM, so I will follow this up with a profile of each UK Catholic Cathedral, beginning with my own, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark.

St George’s Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic Cathedral to be built in the UK after the Reformation. The original building (1848) was the work of the great Victorian Architect Pugin. Although much of the Cathedral was badly bombed in 1941 during the Second World War, a great deal of his design remains, and is incorporated into the rebuilt Cathedral, which was re-opened in 1958.

The Cathedral seen from the Imperial War Museum

St George’s is the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Southwark, which covers the actual Diocese of Southwark (South London, North Surrey, and Kent), and also the Dioceses of Arundel and Brighton, Portsmouth, and Plymouth.

The Cathedral occupies an historic site close to the Imperial War Museum, a few minutes walk from London‘s South Bank and the Thames, Westminster Bridge, the London Eye, and landmarks such as St Thomas‘ Hospital and Waterloo Station. It serves a lively and cosmopolitan community from all over London, and has a strong parish identity in addition to its role as a Cathedral. For example, the vibrant Latin American community is served with a Spanish Mass every Sunday at 1pm, delivered completely in the Spanish language. On top of this, every Mass is attended by people of different ethnicities and ages, ranging from African to Asian to European. The Cathedral is proud to be a religious home to all these people.

The Cathedral nave

The Cathedral’s Music Department was founded in 1848 with a choir of boys and men, thus making it the oldest RC Cathedral Choir in the UK. This Choir still sings the weekly Solemn Mass on Sunday morning, as well as occasional extra services such as Christmas and Holy Week. In addition there is a new Cathedral Girls’ Choir which sings the weekly Family Mass on Sunday mornings. The Cathedral has a Director of Music (Nick Gale), who is also responsible for training the Boys’ Choir, an Organist (Nicholas O’Neill) and an Assistant Organist (Norman Harper), who is responsible for training the Girls’ Choir.

The Cathedral Boys’ Choir is made up of 18 boy choristers, 6 choral scholars and 9 lay-clerks and sings a repertoire ranging from polyphonic settings by composers like Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina through to works by modern composers such as James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt and Judith Bingham, to name but a few. We are also fortunate to have an in-house composer – Nicholas O’Neill – who has composed 3 Masses and numerous motets for us. Gregorian Chant plays a major role in the Solemn Mass – all propers are sung in full, and the people also sing a Chant Gloria, Credo and Marian Antiphon.

When I took over as Cathedral DoM ten years ago things had reached a point of stagnation. There were four choristers left, no lay-clerks or choral scholars, and the diet of music on Sunday mornings was largely hymns and simple congregational Mass settings. Thanks to supremely supportive clergy and a newly-assembled team of dedicated, enthusiastic, professional musicians, we have managed to restore our great musical heritage and return the Chant to its rightful place in the Liturgy.

The Cathedral Choristers receiving Holy Communion

Now, thanks to the wonderful team of musicians and clergy, a typical Sunday Solemn Mass involves the Introit, a congregational hymn to accompany the long procession down the vast nave, a choral setting of the Kyrie followed by a Chant Gloria. The Psalm is sung in the vernacular in directum (no response) by choir and congregation alternatum, followed by the proper Alleluia with verse. A Chant Credo follows the homily and, after a congregational hymn, the Chant Offertory precedes a choral Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The Communio is sung with psalm verses in Latin (from the CMAA’s wonderful Communio books) followed by a motet. After the blessing the seasonal Antiphon to Our Lady is sung, usually to Chant or, occasionally, to a polyphonic setting, such as Robert White’s wonderful 6-part Regina Caeli. The organ then leads us out of the Cathedral.

At the Family Mass the Girls’ Choir leads a more congregational-style liturgy, with an English Language Mass Setting (John Bertalot, David Thorne and one composed especially for the Girls by our in-house composer Nicholas O’Neill) and vernacular hymnody, with a sparing use of Taizé-style chants. However, they lead the Mass extremely effectively and regularly sing parts of the Mass to the Chant. They have been a blessing and a real asset to the Cathedral community.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, the Cathedral has been blessed with a wonderfully supportive Dean (Canon James Cronin), who has been so helpful and kind over the past 10 years, and a series of Archbishops (most recently ++Michael Bowen and ++ Kevin McDonald) all of whom have encouraged the choirs both spiritually, morally and financially, and it is due to this support that we are able to continue doing the work that we do.

Canon James Cronin (left) and Nick Gale (right)

The Cathedral Boys’ Choir tours every other year – recent destinations include Cologne and Rome – and has broadcast live twice on BBC Radio 4 and once on BBC 1 Television in recent years. The Cathedral also played host to Pope John Paul II on his visit to the UK in 1982. Particularly noteworthy is the recently-dedicated shrine to St Francesca ‘Mother’ Cabrini, a former worshipper in the Cathedral Parish before her emigration to the USA. The Cathedral Choir recently sang for the blessing of this beautiful new shrine.

Archbishop Peter Smith

The original Cathedral Organ (Willis) was destroyed by the bombing during the War. It was replaced by an extension organ by John Compton, an inadequate solution and one that is now in need of serious attention, ideally replacement. However, the Cathedral has recently had to spend an enormous amount repairing its roof, replacing the obsolete and dangerous electrics and rebuilding the condemned Archbishop Amigo Hall, which now looks resplendent outside the West End of the Cathedral. The Cathedral is a poor parish, and the people have already dug deeply and given generously and, at present, funds do not allow us to do anything about the organ situation, which detracts from the otherwise wonderful music-making that takes place in this noble, historic and prayerful building in South London.

Please pray for Archbishop Peter, Canon James and the Choirs of St George’s Cathedral for their continued work.

4 Replies to “UK Cathedrals – Southwark”

  1. You have clearly done wonderful things! I recall a report of some years ago, whether true or not I cannot say, of the then Nuncio Archbishop Pablo Puente, having been heard to remark "Why should anyone want to polish Jesus?" while processing into St George's Cathedral to the strains of "Shine Jesus, Shine".

  2. Great to see this series taking shape. It's been well overdue – and it couldn't be in better hands.

    Thanks, Nick!

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