Church of the Holy Cross, Camden, WC1: Pearls, Pacific islanders, prostitutes — and the Moon

When Fr Chris Cawrse came to Holy Cross 13 years ago, King’s Cross was seen as ‘a dark place’. Its image was of “dead land, full of old sheds and warehouses. The sort of place where, if there was a murder, you’d find the body.”

Renewed interest of developers north of the Euston Road have burnished the area’s image. There is still council housing up and down Cromer St. Opposite Holy Cross is a laundrette with a decades-old sign depicting the waves of the sea, ‘Casa Tua’, offering ‘Italian wine and gastronomy’, and a studio for yoga and osteopathy. 

Fr Chris points out where the carvings in the war memorials have worn away; soft yellow stone weathered by acid rain. In the corner of the church, by a closed door, is a favourite spot for rough sleepers. St Mungo’s, the homeless charity, runs a residence nearby. 

There has been a resurgence in church membership, which, Fr Chris concedes, “seems a miracle from this odd setting.” The members represent 15 nationalities; Sunday attendance is 50, including many travellers staying in hotels nearby. “It’s refreshing,” he says, “every Sunday there’s a subtle change in the energy.”

As we are talking, a lady named Paula comes in and makes us a cup of tea from a kettle plugged into the floor. The steam rises like incense; air from the heating vents shimmering. There are fresh flowers next to the icons, which are brightly painted, with satin garments and bejewelled crowns. 

 

The building itself is Victorian, its weathered brick blending unobtrusively with the high residential blocks and trees of the surrounding street. It was built in 1888 in memory of James Goodenough, who was fatally shot with a poisoned arrow by the inhabitants of the South Pacific island Santa Cruz, where he had landed aboard his ship HMS Pearl. 

In the 1980s Camden Council built a community garden adjacent to the church, attaching a mural-covered wall to the eastern end of the building. It’s this wall, poorly founded, that’s now collapsing: pulling away the side of the building. Fr Chris shows me through a side room filled with articles of devotion: a container with burnt ends of incense, palm fronds stacked in a corner, a pair of forceps on a tray.

We continue to the vestry, which is painted a postbox red and smells faintly of candle wax and cloves; there is an ancient TV on a stand and an ecclesiastical calendar open on the desk. Long cracks are visible in the walls and floor; a stained glass window had to be removed for safekeeping. 

Jonathan, the church architect, happens to come in whilst we are talking. They are planning a full refurbishment after 130 years; connecting the crypt below with the main church in the manner of St Martin-in-the-fields. This will allow festivals and events; performances of words and music. Nevertheless, it is important that, in between, the church returns to the calm that “envelops and settles you.” 

The crypt is already busy with construction: it’s been rented to a drama school for disadvantaged students, which will finally give the commercial income needed to refurbish as well as fix the subsidence issues in the vestry. But Fr Chris is keen that work on the building doesn’t drain energy. “We don’t want to become bogged down in maintenance, and lose focus on the mission.”

They want to be, “a church turned inside out,” offering the spiritual energy that comes from worship back out to the community. On Saturday they will have one a series of meetings with local people, discovering their wants and needs. “People normally inhabit commercial buildings, like Starbucks —  not buildings designed for contemplation.” 

Still, the Christian faith, for some, can prove a barrier. A large portion of parish residents are Muslim. In autumn 2019, the church welcomed the artwork Museum of the Moon: a seven-metre-diameter scale model of the moon, by artist Luke Jerram. Fr Chris describes how two Muslim women who had lived in the area for 40 years had come to the church for the first time to see it. 

“The moon proved that people will come that wouldn’t normally.” He speaks about depression and loneliness in the modern age, how the congregation has welcomed some agnostics. “Everyone is looking for a path to inner fulfilment.”

The church has long been a place of sanctuary. They made national news in the 1980s when the English Collective of Prostitutes took up residence for two weeks in protest at police violence and harassment. “The church managed to say that their lives really matter, and they couldn’t stay — but then they came back, because they had made friends.” He pauses. “There isn’t a year that goes by when someone doesn’t tell me that story.”

“It takes some effort to keep buildings emphatically as churches,” Fr Chris says, speaking of their future plans. There is a meeting space downstairs for breakfast clubs and an African Women’s Group; plans for a dementia cafe. But they are wary of becoming simply a venue. “We do not want it to become a bland place.”

Later, when I am leaving, Fr Chris has gone to a chapel to take small-group prayer; a string quartet are setting up for rehearsal; people are coming and going, whispering and laughing. A large Christ on the cross hangs from the ceiling, flanked by the two Marys. The lighting casts a cruciform shadow. There is a sound of drilling from the street. Outside, they are digging up the road opposite a halal grocer’s to install fibre-optic broadband. No-one notices me leave. 

 

 

 

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