Restoring a sacred space

I have never found the Sacred Heart Chapel in Roehampton to be aesthetically pleasing; it always felt too garish and "in your face" for my liking. I can appreciate the relevance and symbolism of the various statues, but that doesn't mean I have found them easy on my eye or my spirit! And yet, I have often been drawn to pray in there. This wasn't only because it is the final resting place of Janet Stuart, Mabel Digby, Joseph Varin and Marie Lataste, although their presence - especially that of Janet Stuart - has often made it a compelling place of pilgrimage for so many. Rather, what has drawn me has been the tangible sense that the very walls are saturated with the prayers and spirits of several generations of RSCJ, students, families and friends, from the last 150 years. For me, as for so many others, it has long been a sacred space.

However, since September 2010, when a large chunk of ceiling fell down, the chapel has been off-limits, swathed in scaffolding and safety measures. That chunk of ceiling had led to the discovery of more structural damage, largely caused by a 1940 German bomb which exploded only yards away. And over time, that essential repair job had morphed into a loving, reverent act of restoration and renewal.

And in the process it has been transformed! Yesterday, at its re-opening and rededication, light flooded in through a glass wall (replacing a thick dusty curtain) and a beautifully restored rose window - something I had barely noticed before. Everything had been cleaned; previously grey angels sparkled brightly from on high, thanks also to a new lighting system. The ugly old cumbersome radiators have been replaced by something more discreet, adding to the sense of space and clean lines. Miraculously, the garish statues appeared softer, and the ornate tabernacle simply looks lovely.

The little chapel space next door, for too long a kind of extra sacristy-cum-repository, has now been turned into an extra prayer space. We marvelled at the hitherto hidden altar, with its beautiful carvings, at a newly-installed stained glass window, and, again, at the whole sense of light and simplicity.

The re-dedication was a simple, informal affair, bringing together a delicious cocktail of people. I perched on a radiator with the architect, while a couple of restorers stood beside us. Elsewhere, RSCJ, university and college staff, chaplains, students, a bishop and others crowded in, alongside electricians, glaziers and craftspersons.

The architect spoke lovingly and reverently about the work he had done, especially in uncovering some previously hidden aspects of the chapel. These included some exquisite wall paintings which had been painted over after the War, and some of which have now been painstakingly uncovered. One of the team who had worked on this, a young man, spoke with great pride and enthusiasm about their work, and exhorted us to uncover more if we ever win the lottery and can afford to! The rose window team spoke just as lovingly about what they had done. Later, during refreshments, I chatted with the young man who had installed the new stained glass, and heard more quiet pride and satisfaction.

It's not often I find myself in a roomful of craftspersons displaying such obvious enthusiasm for the work of their hands. This wasn't just a job, all in a days' work for them; it was a labour of love, and of reverence. The experience was both uplifting and humbling. The chapel is still permeated by the spirits of all those who have gone before us, but they have now been joined by the spirits of dedication, loving labour, creativity and job satisfaction, which oversaw this remarkable work of restoration. It has become and will continue to be even more of a sacred space...

We ended our re-dedication with a prayer, in which I'm sure all those spirits heartily joined in, which you can read and pray with us here...