Simon Walsh marks the 150th Anniversary of the First Mass celebrated at St Augustine’s Kilburn
It has become fashionable now to speak of passion as a great enthusiasm for something. Candidates in job interviews, CVs and social media posts declare how ‘passionate’ they are about a cause or activity, as though it were a ‘mad-passionate’ love affair. Passion Sunday, however, takes us back to the Latin origin of the word: patior, to suffer or endure. It speaks more of being tested or pushed to a limit, and for the Church as we enter Passiontide, it turns us towards the cross and the death of Our Lord.
The first mass on this site took place 150 years ago on Passion Sunday. It makes sense to start the journey here, the lead-in to Holy Week, the Sacred Triduum, Easter, the resurrection. It is a good point to enter in. Easter is at the heart of our Christian identity and it doesn’t make sense to turn up on the morning itself without any of the preparation and build up that comes before. And Passiontide gives us that, connecting with suffering and hardship in our world today. Much of the last year has felt like patient suffering through the coronavirus pandemic with its death, loss and confusion. Suffering is a constant companion and we all need that resurrection light. We can trace it too in the news that vaccinations are going well and lockdown restrictions will soon be lifted. After suffering comes relief and reward.
Just a simple glance at the history of this great parish shows how much suffering there had been. There was the split from the congregation at St Mary’s, the search for a plot to build thus church, the various houses where the people had to meet and worship first, and the obvious costs (time, money, energy) that a terrific building such as this demands. There has to be suffering and sacrifice. Later generations would bring their own memorials to this, after the Great War and WWII, the crucifix naming those parishioners who served their country and died in action, with memories and evidence of the German bombs all around. Consider also the wider context of the hostile 1860s and ‘70s when to praise God in the way we do now was against the law. Priests went to prison for the use of candles, vestments, incense.
Fr Kirkpatrick was not an extremist though. Changes at St Mary’s in 1867 saw people and priest migrate south to found a new parish, and with that the desire to build a new church. From ‘a shed in Andover Place’ where the faithful had begun to worship in 1870, a site ‘unsatisfactory, on low ground, further away from the main part of the district’ than hoped was bought and roots were laid. A temporary iron church was put up, and first used on Passion Sunday, 26 March, 1871. Getting that far must have felt like a miracle to them. But the architect JL Pearson was appointed, and the foundation stone of the new church was laid just a few months later on 12 July. It was completed in 1877 and consecrated by the bishop in 1880. Behind those dates is a very human story of what it means to strive and suffer, to bear the fruit that is this “Cathedral of North London” – and fruit that lasts to this day. It took great sacrifice and vision to build this church in love and for eternity. Its glory and splendour testify their labours were not in vain.
Suffering is central to our Gospel reading today; the idea that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (Jn 12.24). Suffering and death are necessary in order to bear fruit. And we know how ‘dying to self’ is part of our faith. There are things we have to let go or lose so that we might gain more in uncovering who we are as children of our heavenly father. ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ There is the taking up of our cross to follow Christ and exchanging it for the crown of eternal life, the fruits of eternity.
St Macarius of Egypt described it as ‘when Christ, the heavenly king and true husbandman, came to humanity laid waste by sin, he clothed himself in a body and carried the cross as his implement and cultivated the deserted soul’. And through the work of Christ, ‘when thus he had tilled the ground of the soul with the wooden plough of his cross, he planted in it a lovely garden of the Spirit; a garden which brings forth for God as its master the sweetest and most delightful fruits of every sort’ (Homily 28).
It begins with humility and love, coming to Christ in prayer and sacrament, to follow him ‘through all the changing scenes of life’. It means to bring all our human experience of suffering and love in heartfelt thanks to the throne of grace where, drawn by Christ crucified, we ‘find in him a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope, and the assurance of sins forgiven’. May this now and always be our passion, as much as it was when those first souls proclaimed their faith on this patch of ground in 1871, and who have long since entered into the glory of their master.
This church continues to stand today as a beacon of faith and hope. Like Passion Sunday, it points us to the suffering of the cross where human sacrifice is made holy and we are brought to the gate of heaven. May the holy sacrifice continue here for another 150 years and many, many more.
Fr Simon Walsh is a member of the Editorial Board of New Directions. This sermon was preached on Passion Sunday 2021 to mark the 150th Anniversary of the First Mass being offered on the sight of St Augustine’s Kilburn. The readings at Mass were Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5.7-9; John 12.20-33