With the influx of Italian and Irish folk to the Clerkenwell area of London, it soon became clear that a new Catholic church was needed to cater for religious needs. The nearest Catholic place of worship was the Royal Sardinian Chapel in the area of Lincolns Inn (now demolished).
A priest by the name of Vincent Palloti founded the society of the Pallatine Fathers in 1835. He was born in Rome in 1795. In the late 1840’s Palloti was commissioned by Cardinal Wiseman to find a site for a new place of worship in London.
The Irish architect Sir John Miller-Bryson was instructed to draw up the plans, that were to be based on the grand Basilica of San Crisogono in Trastevere in Rome. The church was to designed to hold up to 3,400 people and it’s main entrance and portico was to have been from Little Saffron Hill.
In 1853, the foundation stone for the new “Church of All Nations” was ceremoniously laid and its construction began with the help of both Irish and Italian labourers, some working voluntarily on the project. However before too long, due to a shortage of funds, the building work came to a halt. Vincent Palloti travelled back to Rome in an effort to secure more money, and to request the architect, Bryson, to make some amendments to the plans, such as reducing the nave length by one-third and lower the church capacity to 2000 worshippers. The idea of an entrance from Little Saffron Hill was abandoned when the new thoroughfare of Clerkenwell Road was opened.
The Church of St. Peter of all Nations was consecrated on 16 April 1863. It was to become better known as St Peter’s Italian Church. It was the first church in Britain to have been built in the style of a Roman basilica. There was a Polish chapel in the crypt which was accessed via Back Hill. The presbytery was completed in 1865-66. The campanile, new entrance and loggia on Clerkenwell Road were designed by Francis Tasker and completed in 1891.
From the outside the church does not look very imposing as it seems somewhat hemmed in between the buildings flanking it, however the initial perception is deceiving.
The façade of the church consists of a loggia and a large porch area with two arches, above which are three alcoves. The central alcove contains a statue of Christ, whilst the side alcoves contain statues of St. Bede and St. George. Between the alcoves are two large mosaics depicting the miracle of the fishes and Jesus giving the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to St. Peter. A flight of steps lead up to the main door.
In the porch there are two memorials, one to Italian / British soldiers who died in the First World War.
The other memorial is dedicated to the Victims of the Arandora Star.
“In Memoria dei periti nell'affondamento dell'Arandora star
2 luglio 1940
. . . . . il ricordo che é vivo nel cuore
dei parenti, dei superstiti
e colonia italiana
4 Novembre 1960”
“In memory of those who perished in
the sinking of the Arandora Star,
2 July 1940
. . . Their memory lives on in the hearts of their relatives, the survivors
and the Italian colony.
4 November 1960”
Once inside, one is presented with a spacious, bright and lofty interior. The spacious nave and aisles are divided by ionic marble-like columns, above which is another tier, consisting of an upper gallery. Towards the front of the church there are two grand arches, one of which frames the High Altar which is positioned under an ornate canopy (baldochino) that is supported by four black marble columns. To either side of the altar is a wide transept which houses the Chapel of St Vincent Palloti, and the Chapel of St Joseph. The interior of the church is beautifully decorated throughout with ornate plaster work, gilding and inlaid marbles. It is adorned with rich frescoes, mosaics, and paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. Around the church there are small chapels dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St Lucia, the Sacred Heart, and other alcoves housing statues of various Saints. On the walls of the nave are the Stations of the Cross.
Above the façade is a 33-metre-high bell tower, built in 1891, which houses a huge bell.
It was cast in 1862, by Naylor Vickers of Sheffield - It is known as "The Steel Monster"
and it is one of the largest in Britain, weighing four tons. It was exhibited at the International Exhibition. More information
At the back of the church is a wonderful pipe organ dating back to 1886, crafted by the Belgium Anneesen. It was regarded as one of the finest in Britain at the time of its installation. A gallery at the back of the church houses the choir. The choir became renowned for the quality of its music. Concerts were regularly held featuring distinguished opera stars who were performing at Covent Garden.
Performers (at the church) included the tenor Enrico Carusso who was much loved by the Italians. Other singers included:
Luisa Tettrazini; Tamagno; Dame Nellie Melba; Adelina Patti and of course Gigli.
The Christmas season features a beautiful life-size Nativity Scene.
St Peter’s Italian Church remains an important focal point for the Italian community in London even though many Italians have now moved away from Clerkenwell. However, many still regularly attend Sunday Mass, and continue to celebrate other important events in the church’s calendar such as Christmas, Easter, The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July, and First Communions celebrations among other celebrations. Here thankfully many Italians are still able to celebrate their faith, culture and traditions.