Cardinal Raymond Burke, prominent American cardinal, has praised the ‘nobility and beauty’ of England’s Christian culture on a visit to Augustus Pugin’s personal church in Ramsgate, Kent. The visit took place on 9th March 2015. Pugin – famous for designing much of the Houses of Parliament – built his home and church at Ramsgate in the 1840s.
The cardinal highlighted the long history of English culture, and Anglophone cultures around the world, being shaped by Christianity brought by St Augustine of Canterbury who landed close to Ramsgate in AD 597.
Struck by Pugin’s architecture, Cardinal Burke said, “I cannot fail to note the example of the Catholic architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, architect of this beautiful church which is also the place of his burial. Augustus Pugin was attracted to the truth of the Catholic faith through its reflection in the beauty of the great Church architecture of the Middle Ages.”
Speaking of the ‘serious threat’ of ‘radical secularism’ that England faces, Cardinal Burke said, “[Pugin] sought to express and inspire by his architecture the nobility and beauty of a Christian culture during a time in which the Christian foundations of society were already under serious from the radical secularism of the thinking of the so-called Enlightenment.
“From historical accounts, we know how much Pope Saint Gregory the Great desired to bring the truth and love of Christ to the English nation [in the 6th century]. He had seen the English youth brought as slaves to Rome, and his heart was filled with compassion for them and for their fellow countrymen.
“Thus, he called upon the monks of the Roman Monastery of Saint Andrew, from which he had been called to the See of Peter and of which Saint Augustine was the Prior, to undertake the long and difficult journey to England and to preach the Gospel in a place totally unknown to them.”
Cardinal Burke was speaking at Mass celebrated in Pugin’s church, which was packed beyond capacity. Numerous people had to stand in the cloisters.
The Order of Malta, of which Cardinal Burke was made Patron last year, was in attendance. The Grand Prior of England, His Excellency Fra’ Ian Scott, was present along with eight other Knights and two Dames of the Order of Malta. Also in attendance was the Abbot of Farnborough, His Lordship Dom Cuthbert Brogan; the Prior and Superior of St Philip’s Priory, Chelmsford, the Very Reverend Fr Hugh Allan; and more than 20 other clergy.
Music was provided by The Victoria Consort, directed by Thomas Neal, who are artists-in-residence at St Augustine’s and tour across Europe.
Afterwards a 3rd-century skull was reinstated in the Digby Chantry Chapel on the site. The skull and teeth are relics of St Benignus, brought to Ramsgate by the famous Victorian writer Kenelm Digby. St Benignus was a boy-martyr in the third century; the bones come from the Cemetery of Priscilla in Rome. The relics were originally placed in this chapel on 25th June 1859.
The ancient skull has been conserved by Michael Whitebread. The skull has been damaged in the past – possibly including at the moment of death – and has previously been repaired unsuitably. The previous material had absorbed moisture which had led to damage of the bone, so this has been replaced with modern safe materials. Previously the skull rested on its base which led to pressure on fragile parts of the skull; it now has a foam support on the inside of the skull so that the exterior of the relic can be seen and the skull has a more upright position.
Cardinal Burke’s visit marked the first pilgrimage by a cardinal to the recently-reinstated shrine of St Augustine at Pugin’s church. The original shrine, in Canterbury, was destroyed in 1538 by order of Thomas Cranmer and Henry VIII, but the status was accorded to St Augustine’s in 2012 by His Grace Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, after 474 years of abeyance.
The visit was also the first known visit of a cardinal from Rome to Ramsgate. Although cardinals serving as archbishops in England and France have visited, this is the first time a cardinal serving in Rome is known to have travelled to Ramsgate.
The significance of a Roman cardinal visiting is large: just as St Augustine came to this site from Rome, so now a cardinal visits from Rome. There are numerous other parallels with the historical accounts of Augustine’s arrival: Augustine entered Canterbury singing psalms, and Monday’s Mass began with the same; Augustine preached in Thanet, as did the cardinal; Augustine celebrated Mass near the site, as did the cardinal. Thus the cardinal’s visit marked the continuation of the culture and religion that St Augustine brought to these islands over 1,400 years ago.
Augustus Pugin (1812-52) led the Gothic Revival with prodigious energy and output. His designs – of buildings, stonework, glasswork, metalwork, wallpaper, woodwork, encaustic tiles, and more – shaped cityscapes across the world. Although he died aged only 40, his legacy has embedded the idea of “pointed” architecture in the minds of millions of people.
The church in Ramsgate (the only one Pugin built without patrons’ funding) is his vision of a gothic building and therefore of immense importance. It has had £425,000 spent on urgent repairs in the last three years (largely funded by English Heritage). It has recently submitted a bid for £700,000 to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to create an Education, Research, and Visitor Centre. The result of the HLF bid will be made public in June.
St Augustine’s is open every day between 10am and 4pm for visiting. Mass is celebrated every day at 12 noon, with an additional Mass at 8.30am on Sundays.
Clive Aslet, Editor-at-Large of Country Life magazine, has recently called for the site to become a World Heritage Site. Also on the site is Pugin’s house (The Grange) and the presbytery Pugin built for the church (St Edward’s), both of which are now owned by the Landmark Trust. The Grange is available to let for holidays and is open to the public every Wednesday afternoon. St Edward’s is currently being restored. Across the road is a monastery complex built by Pugin’s son for Benedictines which, since 2014, has been run by Catholic priests of the Vincentian Congregation from India. This site encapsulates Pugin’s idea of a perfect medieval society, and is the only place where his vision – which inspired great architectural and social change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – was achieved.
Fr Marcus Holden, Rector of the Shrine, said, “We are deeply privileged that Cardinal Burke has made a journey to Ramsgate. It is a great honour to our volunteers and supporters, many of whom were here today, that such a man should come and greet us all here. His Eminence’s visit is also a very important event in the life of the shrine – a visit from Rome to honour Augustine, the Apostle of the English, who was in his turn sent from Rome.”
John Coverdale, Centre Manager at St Augustine’s, said, “There are so many stories to be told at this site, and the coming of St Augustine – the catalyst for our written English laws, English music, English art and culture, all tied up with our strong European and worldwide links – is a major story. It enhances our cultural awareness and participation and I hope many more people will come to learn about this important living history.”