Victorian London - Religion - Catholic - Mission Churches

    There are six Catholic mission churches in this part of London, one of which is, indeed, situated in Limehouse, a little to the east of the limits laid down, but the district it serves in­cludes the notorious London Street in Ratcliff, and it shares with the other churches on the river front the religious care of the rough Irish who work at the docks and wharves. The ministrations of these churches touch the poorest, and to give freely in charity is the rule of their religion, yet it is these poor people whose contributions support the church. A penny is paid on Sunday by those who attend Mass, which it is the duty of all to do. The priests make it their business to look up such as fail in this duty, and all have the opportunity given them of subscribing to the schools and other church expenses. Except the priests’ stipends, which are of the smallest, the charges are mainly borne by the congregation. At the Limehouse mission there is an organized school collection from house to house every Sunday afternoon. Six men undertake this, having each a district, and the priest accom­panies each in turn to stir up any who are backward.
The church of SS. Mary and Michael in Commercial Road was the original mission church in East London, and the population still left to it indudes eight or nine thousand Catholics. The schools are endowed, but the church is supported by its people, who are mostly poor Irish labourers. This church has a powerful organization. The regular paid staff consists of five priests, but there are generally two young priests in addition who come here to learn their work; and a large number of Sisters undertake teaching, nursing and visiting. These belong to two convents. There is also a small settlement of ladies from the West End who come here to work. At these churches 10 o’clock Mass is the most crowded, and is attended by the poorest people. The priests complain of irregularity at Mass and of indifference to religious duties, but no one passing from Protestant churches to theirs would take that view. They have a higher standard. Moreover, the attendance is unmistakably due to genuine religious feeling and a belief in the divine authority of the Church and its priesthood, Of support purchased by ordinary material benefits there is no trace. The children come to the schools and the schools are full, al­though the attendance leaves, it is said, something to be desired. “Deplorable lack of parental authority” is referred to as the cause.
St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Wapping serves a similar class of people. The priest in charge has been there for many years, and reports an increase of crowding and poverty due to the pressure of the Jews, who are driving poor Christians out of St. George’s. He has a Roman Catholic population of 2500; all are Irish or of Irish descent, with the exception of a small colony of Italians who work at Gatti’s ice wharf. There are nearly six hundred children on the school register, but otherwise, save a small club for girls, nothing is done outside of the services and sacraments of the Church. The church has no money to spend, being poor and heavily in debt for its schools. It has no visitors to work for it, but the priest knows all his people, and is able to visit them himself, living, as they do, within so small an area. Nothing is given. The contrast in this respect with St. Peter’s, their High Church neighbour, is great.
The fourth of these riverside churches is that of the English Martyrs in Great Prescott Street. It is architecturally a rather remarkable building, and offers also the attraction of beautiful music. The bulk of the Catholic population still are poor dock labourers, but there are also tailors and other tradesmen; and here a branch of the Catholic Social Union, with the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle at its head, works in co-operation with the priests. The church itself “gives nothing” and claims the greater influence thereby, but it is not likely that this can be said of the members of the Social Union. Against them complaints of reli­gious bribery are made.
The priests all refer to the difficulty experienced in retaining the young men. Girls’ clubs are successful, but boys after school age cannot be controlled and are apt to drift into indifference. They may, perhaps, be picked up again at marriage, but if a man marries a Protestant he may be entirely lost. Hence the great danger, from the Catholic point of view, of mixed marriages, which otherwise might rather tend to strengthen the Church. The poor Irish, who form the bulk of the Catholic population, are careless, but are naturally devout. They are rough-mannered and fight amongst themselves, or with the police at times, and they drink a good deal. It is not possible to trace any persistent improvement, either moral or material, in their lives, and if a religion which does not secure improvement fails, then success cannot be claimed for these churches. But, from day to day, these poor people are greatly helped by their connection with the Church; restrained, controlled and blessed in their rough lives by its care.
The German Catholics have a special church in Union Street, near St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, which is filled every Sunday morn­ing and evening with a very devout congregation, drawn largely from the working classes. The remarkable feature of this church is the bachelors’ club which is connected with it, or with which it is connected, for the backbone of the mission seems to be the club. The full members are all unmarried men, mostly young. A married man can only be an honorary member; a rule made to avoid all chance of petticoat government. The club, which adjoins the church, is open every evening, but its activities are greatest on Sunday. On that day it opens at 10 A.M., closing at 11 o’clock for Mass; and after the service the members enjoy a glass of Munich beer. Then some dine at the club, but the greater part go home. At 4 o’clock, when the priest gives a short address to the members, the club is again full, and amusements, billiards, &c., fill the time till 7, when the club again closes for the evening service. After­wards ladies are admitted. The entertainments of the club include lectures, concerts, and dramatic performances. The priest is its president. Perfect order is maintained. It is not a solitary institution, but to be found, we are told, wherever there are many German Catholics. More than a thousand of such clubs exist in various parts of the globe, affiliated in such fashion that to be a member of one is to be welcome at any other, wherever it may be. Amongst the members there is, no doubt, something of that mixture of class which seems to be always practicable under Catholicism.
There is also a church of this faith to serve the Irish Colony of Mile End Old Town. The Irish there are giving place to Jews, but the church still gathers a considerable congregation.
On the whole, among the various religious elements of this district, Roman Catholicism plays an important and satisfactory part. It makes no attempt at proselytizing. “We have,” said one of the priests, “more than enough to do in looking after our own people.”

Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903