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Westminster Cathedral

From Academic Kids

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Westminster Cathedral from Victoria Street

Westminster Cathedral is the motherchurch of the Roman Catholic faithful of Great Britain located in the City of Westminster in London. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in England and Wales. Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey of the Church of England, Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, currently Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, shepherd of the Archdiocese of Westminster and primate of the nation's Catholics. As a primacy, each newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster is created a cardinal in consistory. Reminiscent of Byzantine church architecture, John Francis Bentley designed Westminster Cathedral to be a distinctive place of worship when compared with the other cathedrals in London of Gothic character.

In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church hierarchy had only recently been restored in the United Kingdom, and it was in memory of Cardinal Wiseman (who died in 1865, and was the first Archbishop of Westminster from 1850) that the first substantial sum of money was raised for the new Cathedral. The land was acquired in 1884 by Wiseman's successor, Cardinal Manning. After two false starts in 1867 (under architect Henry Clutton) and 1892 (architect Baron von Herstel), construction only commenced in 1895 under Manning's successor, the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughan with the aforementioned Bentley as architect. The cathedral opened in 1903, unfortunately a little after Bentley's death. For reasons of economy the decoration of the interior had hardly been started and still much remains to be completed.

Under the laws of the Church no place of worship could be consecrated unless free from debt and having its fabric completed, so the consecration ceremony did not take place until June 28, 1910.

inside of the Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2004
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inside of the Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2004

The dominating external features are the great campanile, St. Edward's Tower, 273ft high (top of cross, 284ft), and the dignified West Front with its finely balanced pillars and arches.

The nave is the widest of any church in England, and owing to the fact that the Sanctuary is 4.5ft above the level of the nave, every part commands an uninterrupted view of the High Altar, with its imposing marble and mosaic baldacchino, on which light is cleverly concentrated. The richly gilt Crucifix hanging from the chancel arch is 30ft in length. On one side is the figure of Christ; on the reverse, towards the altar, the figure of the Sorrowful Mother. The Archiepiscopal Throne or cathedra, of marble and mosaic, is modelled on the Papal Throne at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.

If the Cathedral had no other feature of interest, the beautiful marble pillars (nearly all the gifts of various benefactors) would well repay a visit. All the pillars have elaborately carved caps of white Carrara marble, no two alike. There are in all eleven side-chapels. Adjoining the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (to the left as one faces the High Altar) is a white marble monument of Cardinal Vaughan (d. 1903). The screen and gates in this chapel, surmounted by a gold pelican, are very beautiful. In a corresponding position on the other side of the Sanctuary is the Lady Chapel. The Chapel of St. Gregory and Augustine (the first on the right as one enters the nave) and the Chapel of the Holy Souls (the first on the left as one enters) are also complete; the former was the gift of Lord and Lady Brampton.

Below the Choir is the Crypt, or St. Peter's Chapel, also with fine columns. Here are monuments covering the remains of Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, transferred from their original place of interment and Kensal Green. Those who make the ascent of the tower will be rewarded in clear weather with a magnificent view over London. The tower is about 60ft higher than the western towers of Westminster Abbey, but is 30ft lower than the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament. Archbishop's House adjoins the eastern end of the Cathedral, in Ambrosden Avenue.

On May 28, 1982, the first day of his six-day visit to the UK, Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in the cathedral.

In 1995, at the invitation of Cardinal Basil Hume, it was visited by the Queen, this being the first visit of a reigning monarch of the United Kingdom to a Catholic liturgy for several hundred years.


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