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Westminster Cathedral

View of the inside of Westminster Cathedral

The site that Westminster Cathedral is now built on was originally known as Bulinga Fen and formed part of the marsh around Westminster. It was reclaimed by the Benedictine monks, who were the builders and owners of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently used as a market and fairground. After the reformation the land was used, in turn, as a maze, a pleasure garden and as a ring for bull-baiting but it remained largely waste ground.

In the 17th century a part of the land was sold by the Abbey for the construction of the Tothill Fields’ Bridewell prison which was demolished and replaced by an enlarged prison complex in 1834.

After the re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales by Pope Pius IX in 1850, the newly emancipated Catholics wanted to build a suitable place of worship in London. The prison site was acquired by the Catholic Church in 1884 by the second Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. After two false starts in 1867 (under architect Henry Clutton) and 1892 (with architect Baron von Herstel) respectively, construction started in 1895 under Manning's successor, the third Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan with John Francis Bentley as architect.

John Francis Bentley was considered the most influential 19th Century Roman Catholic architect in Britain after A. W. N. Pugin. He trained in the office of Henry Clutton, who made the first designs for Westminster Cathedral for Cardinal Manning. Bentley spent five months in Italy working on Westminster Cathedral’s design, which was to be completed in the early Christian Byzantine style, drawing on St Mark in Venice, St Sophia in Constantinople and San Vitale in Ravenna for inspiration.

The foundation stone of the Cathedral Church of Westminster, which is dedicated to The Most Precious Blood, was laid in 1895 and the fabric of the building was completed eight years later. Westminster Cathedral opened fully in 1903, almost two years after Bentley's death. For reasons of economy, the decoration of the interior had hardly been started and, even today, much remains to be completed.

Under the laws of the Catholic Church at the time, 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 28 June, 1910.

The interior of the Cathedral, although incomplete, contains fine marble-work and mosaics. A mosaic of St David, the patron saint of Wales, is currently being designed and is due to be completed and unveiled by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain in September 2010. The fourteen Stations of the Cross which were produced by the sculptor Eric Gill, and unveiled in 1918, are world renowned.

The 30-metre wide piazza outside the front entrance of Westminster Cathedral was created by a re-development of the area in the early 1970s. Before, the façade of the Cathedral had been hidden behind rows of shops on the main road in front of it, Victoria Street. For special occasions, such as the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux to London, the piazza acts as an area of overspill for the congregation. Westminster Council, which is responsible for maintaining the piazza, is currently drawing up designs for a revamp of the area.

On 28 May 1982, the first day of his six-day visit to the United Kingdom, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Cathedral. On 30 November 1995, at the invitation of Cardinal Basil Hume, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Westminster Cathedral to attend an ecumenical service. Her Majesty’s visit was highly symbolic because it was the first time a reigning monarch of the United Kingdom had stepped inside a Catholic Church in Britain since the Reformation.

In 2005, the body of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan – the Cardinal who saw out the designing and building of the Cathedral – was re-interred in the Chapel of St Thomas. Today, Westminster Cathedral is a Grade 1 listed building where Mass is celebrated over 40 times a week.

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