This famous Roman Catholic church was built between 1880 and 1884. It is the church of a community of priests called "The Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri" or Oratorians.
St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) founded his Congregation in Rome and it has spread throughout the world, now numbering some seventy houses, and some five hundred priests.
Soon after converting to Catholicism in 1845, John Henry Newman became an Oratorian and brought St. Philip's Oratory from Rome to England. The first English foundation was in Birmingham, then a further group of converts, including Father Wilfrid Faber, founded the London Oratory. The adjacent house was built first, with a temporary church on the present site. The present neo-baroque building was consecrated on the 16th April 1884.
The architectural style and the atmosphere of the church were deliberately Italianate, in order to bring St. Philip's romanità to nineteenth century London. The present church was restored and redecorated to celebrate its centenary in 1984.
An Oratory is first and foremost a place of prayer. St. Philip attached great importance to the beauty of divine worship and the power of sacred music to raise our hearts to God, and the Fathers of the London Oratory try to maintain this tradition.
St. Philip was particularly devoted to Our Lady. He used to say "My sons, be devoted to the Madonna." This is why the founding Fathers of the London Oratory wanted their new church to be dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
St. Philip spent his whole priestly life in Rome, working tirelessly to help people of all types and all backgrounds to come closer to God. He devoted much time to helping the poor and the sick, both spiritually and materially. He became known as "the apostle of Rome". May his prayers prosper his continuing work in London.
Philip spent nearly all his life in Rome, and came to be known as the second apostle of that city.
Filippo Romolo Neri was born in the city of Florence on 22nd July 1515, and like every Florentine child of his day, he was baptized in the great baptistery adjacent to the cathedral. Philip's family was a close and loving one, and though his mother died soon after his birth, a kind stepmother replaced her. He was also close to his two sisters. His father was a notary, so the family ranked as noble, although it was certainly not wealthy. The bad state of the family's fortunes was partly due to the political situation in Florence, centred on the struggle between the supporters of the relatively new Medici princes and those, such as Philip's father, who wished to maintain the republic. The city in which young Philip Neri grew up was in a constant state of political turmoil and instability.
One hero of Philip's family must have been the great reformer and opponent of Medici tyranny, the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola's hatred of vanity and love of freedom were to influence Philip and leave him with a deep admiration for the man, even if he always disapproved of Savonarola's disobedience to the pope which led to him being burnt in 1498. The Dominicans also influenced Philip's early life in more gentle ways. They were the ones who taught him the rudiments of grammar, and also his love of art, including the paintings of Fra Angelico. Here, too, he must have learnt the simple vernacular hymns or lodi, that he was to take with him to Rome. The popular local devotion to Our Lady, to whom the governance of the city had been entrusted by the Medici opponents, also became part of the young saint's own life. Amidst all the troubles of civic life, Philip found happiness and an inner peace amongst the beauty of this great Renaissance city.
Fire at the family home, combined with political troubles, meant that at about the age of sixteen, he had to set out to help regain the family fortunes. This trip to a wealthier cousin at San Germano was to be his definitive parting with Florence. His stay at San Germano probably only lasted from 1532 to '33. Certainly he had arrived in Rome by 1533, having renounced his cousin's inheritance. We do not know the details of this change of mind, but doubtless some spiritual insight lay behind it. The Rome he came to was one barely recovered from the great sack of 1527, and as yet little had begun by way of its much-needed reform.
Father Wilfrid Faber(1814-1863) was the founder, under Newman, of the London Oratory. Faber and a small group of Newman's disciples came from Birmingham to London in 1849. They began their community in premises variously described as a whisky-store, a gin-shop, a dance-hall, in King Willam Street (now Willam IV Street) just off the Strand. After three years there a better property was found in a small village called Brompton, on the outskirts of London. The present Oratory house was built first. The present church was consecrated on the 16th April 1884.
Faber the preacher, Faber the hymn-writer, Faber the spiritual author, must all give way to Faber the founder and first Provost of the London Oratory. Father Faber bacame an influential figure in the London of his day. His enthusiastic and, some might say, faintly famboyant personality might lend itself to unsympathetic treatment by those who do not understand him. and by those who do not read his books. In the words of his early biographer, Fr. John Bowden, Faber's life was "from first to last religious". His character was not something fixed or static. His letters display a growing maturity of outlook. In this he may be fairly said to exemplify the wise insight of Newman himself who said that to be human is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Faber described Newman as "the greatest scholar since St. Augustine" and referred to Newman as the one "who taught me all the good I know".
Faber's early religious training may have had a Calvinistic bias, but all his Catholicism was drawn from Italian source. He felt natually at home with the Italian temperament, and might perhaps have lived happily in Italy were it not for his burining zeal to save souls in England. The spiritual depths of this great servant of God may be glimpsed in his "Notes on Community Life in the Oratory". In 1849, Faber wrote of his vocation to the Oratory as follows:
"Why did I come here? Not to spend a lazy life, not to have pleasant companions, congenial duties, or a home without temptations. All these things I turned my back upon, when I turned my back upon the world. I came here that I might love God fervently, and nothing but God - to rehearse now what I hope will be my blessed occupation in heaven for all eternity - to learn to mortify myself by continual mortifications and incessant prayer - to sanctify myself first of all, and then to try and save souls for Jesus."
"Holiness is a very spacious thing, and God always fills in all hearts all the room which is left Him there"
Fr F W Faber