Ss Peter and Paul for the Romans, St James for the Spanish, St Patrick for the Irish, St Boniface for the Germans, Ss Cyril and Methodius for the Slavic peoples, who for the English? The countries of continental Europe invariably celebrate their founding saints with feasts, shrines and sacred stories. When it comes to the Christianisation of the English few recall the events which brought the faith and even fewer know where to celebrate them. There is a gapping hole in the national consciousness of Christian roots.
In England’s Catholic days things were different – Canterbury hosted the shrine of St Augustine, first missionary to the Anglo-Saxons. Pilgrims annually celebrated his feast. The story of his being sent by the Pope Gregory, his preaching to King Ethelbert and his miracles were immortalised by St Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. With the Reformation, however, the shrine of Augustine was destroyed and his cult diminished.
One man who was acutely aware of the need for England to rediscover its Catholicity was the convert architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852). When Pugin looked in awe at the great churches dotted across England he began to ask what produced them. He found the answer in the Catholic faith. It was medieval architecture that brought him into the Church in 1835. He realised that these great edifices were made for the Mass and to honour precisely those saints who produced our national Christian story.
Pugin had a particular fascination with St Augustine after whom he was named. In 1843 Pugin bought a cliff side property in Ramsgate by Ebbsfleet, as he wrote, ‘close to the spot where blessed Austin landed’. He first built a family home, ‘the Grange’, and then a personal church dedicated to Augustine. The church was constructed between 1845-1852 according to his ‘true principles of Christian architecture’. He described it as ‘my own child’ and it was to be the place of his burial. Pugin wrote to the Earl of Shrewsbury, “My whole soul is devoted to building this church here”. He spared nothing in the construction using only the finest material and workmen. He wrote to his son Edward, ‘I am giving you the best architectural lessons I can; watch the church, there shall not be a single true principle broken’. Even before a parish was formed in Ramsgate the church provided mass for local Catholics, visitors and foreign sailors. In 1848 it was the venue for the first High Mass on Thanet since the Reformation.
The church’s exterior is stone covered with hardy flint to withstand the weather. Its interior is lined with Whitby stone reminiscent of St Hilda’s sea-side Anglo-Saxon church. There is exquisite decoration with stone and wood carvings throughout, highly original statues, stained glass and ornate tiles. Pugin’s team for the church included other well known figures: George Myers for construction; John Hardman Powell for the metalwork and stained glass; Herbert Minton for tiles. John Gregory Crace was contributed to church decoration and included the church’s baptistery, amongst other things, in his medieval court at the great exhibition. Pugin died in 1852 having bequeathed the still unfinished church to the Southwark diocese. The work was continued until 1893 by his sons Edward Pugin (1834-75) and Peter Paul Pugin (1851-1904) and many of the original associates.
The church stands as a symbol of the Catholic revival of the 19th century epitomised by Pugin’s own life and conversion. It is also an integral part of Pugin’s own medieval Gothic revival which inspired the nation at large. It was being constructed at the same time that Pugin was designing the new Palace of Westminster and ‘Big Ben’.
St Augustine’s was consecrated in 1884 and Grade-1 listed in 1988. From the 1860s until 2010 the church was home to the Benedictine monks of St Augustine’s Abbey (constructed opposite the church by Edward Pugin). In 2010 the Benedictines withdrew from the church and it returned to the jurisdiction of Southwark Archdiocese.
On 1st March 2012, Pugin’s bi-centenary day, the Archbishop of Southwark decreed that the founder’s church would now be the official shrine commemorating St Augustine’s and the arrival of the Gospel for the English people.
A rare surviving relic of St Augustine’s body, donated by the Fathers of the Oxford Oratory, was placed in the reliquary in the church by the Archbishop at the shrine inauguration on 20th may 2012. Many pilgrimages have since followed A rare surviving relic of St Augustine’s body, donated by the Fathers of the Oxford Oratory, was placed in the reliquary in the church by the Archbishop at the shrine inauguration on 20th may 2012. Many pilgrimages have since followed.
The need for England to rediscover its Christian roots is greater than ever in a secular age. In recent times there has been a revival of interest in the Augustinian mission. The ruins of Augustine’s monastery in Canterbury are now a World Heritage Site and celebrations surrounding the 1400th anniversary of the Augustine landing in 1997 wetted the appetite of the faithful for more. Now there is a clear opportunity to promote Pugin’s church, to compliment his own vision, and provide a fitting place for England’s foundational Christian narrative to be re-told and celebrated at the place where it all began.
The beginning of restoration at St Augustine’s has cheered Catholics on Thanet and beyond but still requires more support. There had been serious worries about the church being closed, lost or turned into a museum. It is now hoped that the church, as well as being a local mass centre and a site of vast architectural and artistic significance, it will be a shrine to the evangelisation of England, a place of modern pilgrimage.
Each year the people of Ramsgate are host a St Augustine Week of Catholic History and Culture which leads up to his solemn feast on 27th May. Masses, devotions, processions, tours and lectures are part of this pilgrimage week. For further details about this and the restoration process see www.augustinefriends.co.uk