Archbishop Fulton Sheen celebrated Mass and preached there regularly for decades, as does Australia's Cardinal George Pell when he visits London. St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, in the heart of central London, has been a spiritual sanctuary in one of the most colourful and unforgettable parishes in the world for more than 200 years.
In an era where much of Europe has plummeted into a post-Christian malaise and many Church leaders seem unsure of how to help their flocks emerge from it, St Patrick's parish priest, Father Alexander Sherbrooke, 47, has set a blistering pace, and the results are beginning to show.
Father Alexander, who comes from Britain's beautiful county of Dorset where his family has lived for generations, attended Eton College and the University of Edinburgh, then studied for the priesthood in Rome. His first parish was at Twickenham, but in three-and-a-half years he has adapted to Soho as if he had grown up in and around its exciting streets.
Christ, His Real Presence and the sacraments are very much at the heart of the generous, outreaching community Father Sherbrooke leads, a community that excludes no-one while exuding a potent and orthodox Catholicism. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed every week day from 11am to 6pm, confessions are heard for 30 minutes before the daily weekday Mass at lunch time, and at weekends, Masses are celebrated for the Brazilian, Chinese and Latin American communities as well as in English.
Most striking in all of this is the close, comfortable relationship Father Alexander has with his God. "Don't forget to say good-bye to Him,'' Father reminded me one day while leaving his presbytery which adjoins and shares a common foyer with the Church. The first time I met him, after a special Mass on St Patrick's night 2003, he gave me memorial cards for his late parents who had died recently and asked for prayers for their souls. This striking act of faith was a major change from the "everyone goes straight to Heaven" assumptions so prevalent in much of the Catholic world.
This is an intensely devoted and serious-minded priest who lives and breathes his vocation 24/7, despite a ready wit and good sense of humour (which is hopefully going to be sorely tested during the coming Ashes series in Britain.)
The feature that sets St Patrick's apart from other faithful parishes is its School of Mission, which Father Alexander established in 2002. The nine-month full-time residential school, paid for by the students or partially funded by donations, runs from October to June. It caters to young people aged 20 to 30 and is a year of prayer, study, evangelisation, helping the less fortunate and discernment of the participants' future careers, and in a few cases, priestly or religious vocations.
"Giving nine months to God allows time and space for spiritual growth,'' Father Alexander said. "This can only happen as we open our heart and mind to all that God has to offer.''
Students in the School of Mission come from around Britain and Europe as well as from more distant countries. Budi Nahiba, 30, from Indonesia, came to London two years ago and found out about the School when he dropped into the church for a visit one day. He belonged to several prayer groups, but joined the School after he found he was unable to answer questions concerning the Catholic faith when asked in English. "Now that I am here in the School I have adopted the motto: non scholae sed vitae discimus (we study not for school but for life),'' Budi said.
Sebastian Rawski, 24, from Poland, who is seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood, said his experience in the School had helped his faith come alive. Katarina Furiuska, 28, from Slovakia, found her faith at university, where she received her First Holy Communion. For her the School of Mission is an "opportunity to learn more about the Catholic Faith, to have time to reflect and to deepen my personal relationship with God and to recognise what plans He has for me.''
Under the direction of Father Alexander and the Director of the School of Mission, the students attend daily Mass, recite the Divine Office and rosary and spend an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The academic program consists of 12 to 15 hours of weekly lectures on theology and philosophy, spirituality, human development and related skills such as psychology, counselling, anger management, time management and evangelisation skills.
Students complete a detailed, paragraph by paragraph, examination of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and spend time on vocational discernment, covering religious life, priesthood, celibacy and chastity, marriage, lay movements, singleness, sexuality and community life. The program includes a monthly one-day retreat to allow time for reflection, three-day retreats near the opening and closing stages and a seven-day retreat, generally mid-year.
The outreach and evangelisation side of the program sees the students serving dinner to and praying with anything from 30 to 50 homeless men and women during Open House every Tuesday night and spending several hours a week on the surrounding streets evangelising those working in and visiting the Soho area. In Father Alexander's words, this involves "sharing their love and zeal for God with those they encounter."
Importantly, the students learn that the most effective way to evangelise is to "live a life of love centred around Christ." At special times of the year, such as Christmas, the students set up "welcome points" in the area greeting clubbers with carol singing, hot drinks and mince pies, invitations to events in the church and leaflets explaining what the Catholic faith is all about.
An ongoing outreach of the program and the parish is the SOS Prayerline, operating at the top of the church's Victorian tower, in which the School of Mission students take the time to pray with and for the callers. The telephone line is open from 7pm to 11pm seven days a week (0011-44-20- 7434 92111). It is not a counselling service but rather a service that helps callers offer their prayers and petitions of all kinds to God, who is exposed in the Blessed Sacrament in the room where the telephones are answered.
Another move that met an important need in London was the 2003 opening of St Patrick's London Fertility Care Centre, offering expert help to individuals and couples seeking alternatives to artificial contraception and artificial reproductive technologies.
The practical work of the School of Mission program and of St Patrick's itself, Father Sherbrooke explains, is inspired by Pope John Paul II's call for parishes to be "intra ad extra" - contemplative at heart with a missionary outreach. And despite being just a street or two away from some of the world's best theatres near Leicester Square and Shaftsbury Avenue, and around the corner from the great bookshops and vibrancy of Charing Cross Road, St Patrick's stands in an area where thousands of people are in desperate need of love and comfort.
For example, the local needle exchange handles more than 1,000 addicts, there are more than 60 brothels within the small geographic boundaries of the parish and the area has more than its fair share of homeless around the grimy backstreets near Tottenham Court Road tube station and the less salubrious end of Oxford Street.
"It's an area of great contrasts - wealth and success alongside poverty and despair," Father Sherbrooke says. Exorbitant West End rents have priced all but a few local residents out of the market, and most of the buildings around Soho Square these days are offices, including that of Bloomsbury Publishing, the company with the wit and foresight a few years ago to take on an unknown children's book character named Harry Potter after larger publishers had turned him down.
Despite St Patrick's large Sunday congregations, the parish's resident Catholic population is fewer than 100, which poses severe financial stringencies, especially in coping with a beautiful, devotional church that is decaying with age and in desperate need for on-going maintenance and restoration.
The church, in all its Victorian Italianate splendour and funded by public subscription (mainly by London's Irish working class Catholics) was opened on St Patrick's Day 1893 with a tall, square tower and an anti- chapel.
Its side altars and walls are dedicated to and adorned by an impressive range of statues which instantly make visitors from all parts of the world feel as though they are on familiar ground - St Anthony of Padua, the Pietà, St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John Bosco, the Sacred Heart, St Joseph, the Infant of Prague, Saints Martha and Mary, St Patrick, St Anne, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saints Thomas More and John Fisher and a more recent addition of a picture of St Maximillian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz.
St Patrick's functioned as a spiritual oasis for a century before this church was built, however. In 1789 an Irish Capuchin friar, Father Arthur O'Leary, came to London from Cork as chaplain in the Spanish embassy. His wit and reputation as a raconteur soon opened the doors of society to him. He enjoyed the confidence of Edmund Burke; he even became the occasional guest of the Prince of Wales in his Brighton Pavilion.
In June 1791 an Act was passed in Parliament which meant the religious worship of Catholics was to be at least tolerated, and before the end of that year, Fr O'Leary had formed a Confraternity of St Patrick "to consider the most effectual means of establishing a chapel to be called St Patrick's on a liberal and permanent foundation".
The following year, the Confraternity took a lease on a set of rooms facing Soho Square from an Austrian actress turned society lady named Mrs Cornelys - purportedly a former mistress of Casanova in Venice - whose "the Circe of Soho" was a hub for entertaining fashionable London society.
St Patrick's Chapel opened on the site in 1792 - almost 30 years before the Catholic Emancipation Act made it legal to be a Catholic in Britain. The freehold of St Patrick's was bought for the church for £9,000 in 1865 by Fr Thomas Barge, the then parish priest, an Englishman trained for the priesthood in Lisbon, who had begun his priestly ministry at St Patrick's in 1847 when he was known as "the handsome curate". He was still there forty years later, when he died after serving 25 years as parish priest, with his funeral drawing a crowd that packed out the Square and surrounding streets.
Each parish priest of St Patrick's is remembered today on a plaque at the back of the church reminding visitors, "One Spirit and one faith was in them, Pray for them."
Like Tyburn Convent opposite Hyde Park, Brompton Oratory in all its liturgical splendour, Spanish Place with its intense stillness and St Ethelreda's, the oldest surviving Catholic chapel in London, St Patrick's has a compelling spirit that means once discovered, a lunch time Mass or visit to the Blessed Sacrament becomes an absolute must during any break or business trip to London.
For many of us from the new world, spending an hour or two in a place like St Patrick's, and perhaps making a contribution to help it along, can feel akin to a mini-retreat, pulling the mind and heart back to the mysteries and truths central to the Catholic faith and the sacrifices of so many over the centuries to ensure its light continues to burn bright.
Undoubtedly this is because, in Father Alexander's words: "Everything we do is aimed at leading people to the exposed Blessed Sacrament. That is the heart of all our work."
Tess Livingstone is a journalist with the Brisbane 'Courier-Mail' and author of the biography 'George Pell'.
Father Sherbrooke can be contacted via the parish website, http://www.stpatricks.uk.com or at 21a Soho Square, London W1D 4NR.