“St Matthew’s is on fire.” My friend’s short phone message made my world spin. My children were in the church school. I bolted from my office near Trafalgar Square and ran into Whitehall. No buses. It seemed hours before I reached Great Peter Street.
Then, what a relief! All the children had been taken to safety in the Victorian washhouse then in St Anne’s Street. My nursery class daughter was excited – a policeman had carried her down Old Pye Street; but my infant son was left – as I was – with a respect, bordering on terror, for fire.
Later a former colleague let me into the Department of the Environment’s office block which stood on what is now the Home Office site. From its eighteenth floor St Matthew’s tower looked like a chimney. Smoke billowed out. There were no flames.
For days afterwards the people of old Westminster village were in shock. In those days children of existing Peabody residents received priority in local housing allocation. As a result three, sometimes four, generations of families lived in the flats around the yards by St Matthew’s church. This promoted social cohesion, and had its impact on church and school.
Thirty years ago many St Matthew’s pupils attended the same school and church their parents and even their grandparents had attended. They cared deeply about the building, and respect for its clergy was almost inbuilt. Like the St Andrew’s club, it was impossible for many local parents to imagine the area without it
Horror followed shock. A rumour spread that repairs to the church could not be paid for from insurance. The parish went back to worshipping in the cavernous Victorian aisles; but the chancel was a no-go area. Instead we took communion at the rails of a side chapel dedicated to Bishop Weston.
Father Gerard Irvine, then vicar of St Matthew’s, chivvied us out of our gloom. He preached resurrection. In so doing he drew our attention to the fact that not only had St Matthew’s statue survived, the flowers beneath it had not wilted.
But there would be changes. The resurrected church would be smaller but more beautiful. The gloomy Trevelyan Hall, in which the Labour Party had held its gloomy 1970 election press conferences, would be demolished. The gloomy mortuary chapel on Great Peter Street would be demolished and would not be missed. Meantime we would be offered refuge by the Roman Catholics.
Worshiping at St Matthew’s, below the Roman Catholic Cathedral, felt odd. During moments of prayerful silence the St Matthew’s flock could hear the strains of familiar hymns being sung by the Roman Catholics above us. It made me yearn for the unity of Christianity yet dwell on its near impossibility.
Then our new church was consecrated. It was as beautiful as Father Irvine had predicted; and the more recent transformation of the Clergy House under Father Philip Chester’s ministry has made it even more welcoming. Today, for all who enter its doors, St Matthew’s Westminster offers an oasis for peaceful contemplation and daily worship in what too often seems a fraught and noisy world.
© Ann Carlton, 2011