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On the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, June 3, His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols inaugurated the Diocesan Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament at the newly restored Corpus Christi Church, Maiden Lane, during a Pontifical Mass.

Cardinal Nichols said: “It is my privilege to be here today to declare this newly and beautifully renovated church to be our Diocesan Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.”

Remarking on the beauty of the renovated church, the cardinal explained that “it is surely right that we lavish all that is best of our skill and endeavour, for one reason only: in order to express our love for the Lord. The extravagant beauty of this shrine is an outpouring of that love. In ways beyond words, that beauty will call people into this sanctuary, into this glimpse of heaven, and speak to their hearts with its message of eternal comfort and calm, in a world so often lacking in both.”

Recalling that his predecessor Cardinal Manning, who, on visiting the newly-opened church in 1874, proclaimed it to be a “sanctuary to be specifically devoted to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” he added: “Here, he knew, disciples of the Lord could come to meet him, in that most simple and direct manner: being before him in the Blessed Sacrament in an intimacy of gaze and heart that both refreshes the soul and stirs it into action.”

“The Blessed Sacrament is the source of our mission,” Cardinal Nichols affirmed. “From this holy shrine, we are sent out. We are not to linger too long in its embrace, but rather, strengthened here, we leave in order to fulfil our share in this great gift. This was the hope of Cardinal Manning, too.”

After Holy Mass, the Cardinal led the Blessed Sacrament Procession around Covent Garden in an act of witness accompanied by the faithful, with visitors and tourists looking on.

The Mass was the climax of a weeklong celebration of solemn ceremonies for the re-opening of the church following five years’ renovation and restoration work.

Corpus Christi Church is situated between the Covent Garden Market and the Strand. The church stands on Maiden Lane; this was originally a path running along the southern edge of the “Covent Garden”: that is, the Convent Garden, belonging to the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey.

In the past, Maiden Lane attracted many notable residents: Louis Napoleon, Benjamin Disraeli and Voltaire to name but a few. The artist J.M.W. Turner was born on the street. Woven into the history of the area is another story, however. This is one of a continuous Catholic presence in and around Covent Garden. St. Philip Howard, the Earl of Arundel; the Jesuit missioner St. Robert Southwell; Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the Sisters of Loreto; St. Claude de la Colombière (who introduced devotion to the Sacred Heart to England); Charles I’s architect Inigo Jones; the poet John Dryden; and the composer of “Rule Britannia,”Thomas Arne – all were Catholics with a local connection. Alongside these were many ordinary Catholics working in Covent Garden and living in nearby Drury Lane or the slums of St. Giles’, Holborn and Saffron Hill. 

Before Catholic worship was made legal in 1791, Holy Mass was celebrated for the fashionable and wealthy in the chapels of foreign embassies, Sardinian, Bavarian, Spanish, Venetian: and for the poor, in taverns and private homes. 

Twenty years after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the future Cardinal Newman sent Fr. Faber to found the London Oratory in nearby King William Street, Charing Cross. Faber bought what had been a dance hall and converted it into a church. In 1854, however, the Oratorians left for the Brompton Road in West London. In 1872, Archbishop Manning sent Fr. Cornelius Keens to lease a piece of land in the area from the Bedford Estates, with the intention of building a new church upon it.

The foundation stone of today’s Corpus Christi Church was laid on Aug. 5, 1873. It would be the first church in England since the Reformation to be given the dedication of Corpus Christi, and Fr. Keens appealed widely for contributions toward the £8,000 cost, calling it an act of reparation “for the sacrileges committed at that sad time against the Divine Sacrament.” 

The church finally opened on Oct. 20, 1874. In his sermon to mark the occasion, Cardinal Manning said: “A sanctuary has been opened to be specifically devoted to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.” This choice of dedication was deliberately intended to be a re-affirmation of the teaching of the Church on the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fr. Francis Stanfield was parish priest at Corpus Christi in the early 1880s. He wrote two famous hymns that are well-known throughout the Catholic Church: Sweet Sacrament Divineand O Sacred Heart.

From the official opening in 1874 it took another 82 years before the original debt was paid off and, as a result, the church was consecrated on Oct. 18, 1956.

Now 60 years later, Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, has once more been fashioned anew. In concluding his sermon, Cardinal Nichols said: “May this Shrine to the Most Blessed Sacrament, not least through its Sodality, enrich the life of faith in our time and bring to many the joy and consolation of the Lord's presence.”