The 20th Century
During the First World War, because the Catholic Chapel of America’s West Point Military Academy was modelled on St Etheldreda’s, the latter found a special place in the hearts of American servicemen on their way to and from the battlefields of the Western Front.
In 1925, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments recommended St Etheldreda’s especially worthy of preservation and it was scheduled as an ancient monument. Even at that time, Ely Place was still like an independent state, under the jurisdiction of Ely, Cambridge, and not part of London. Beadles guarded the entrance and closed the gates to all strangers. Even the police had to ask permission to enter. And Beadles’ voices could be heard throughout the hours of darkness, calling out:
Eleven o’clock and all’s well….. twelve o’clock and all’s well
During the German bombing Blitz on London in World War Two, St Etheldreda’s found itself in the centre of devastation. Father Baines was the parish priest at the time and he kept a parish diary of those years. In November 1940, he wrote:
During the last half of the year night raids became frequent and much damage was done to property with considerable loss of life. The building opposite St Etheldreda’s suffered a direct hit
An entry in the diary of May 10th and 11th of the following year says:
On Saturday night another long disastrous raid. St Etheldreda’s was hit by an explosive bomb which tore a hole in the original roof about six feet in diameter, stripped a good part of the tiling off the roof and sent three beams hurtling to the floor of the Church. The explosion also blew out what was left of the stained glass windows …a number of people were in the Crypt when the bomb fell but mercifully no one was injured
A new thriving London rose on the bomb sites surrounding St Etheldreda’s. Seven years were needed to repair the bomb damage to the ancient Chapel. The great East window made by Joseph Edward (Eddie) Nuttgens and completed in 1952 reflects all the original medieval splendour:
Christ is enthroned as King, watched by his mother Mary and St Joseph. The Dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and at the apex God the Father completes the Trinity. St. Etheldreda, the Church Patron, and St Brighid, Patron for the First Mission to the Poor Irish, stand at each side. The four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John look down on them all
There is also the scene of the Last Supper and high in the main traceries are the nine choirs of angels, breathtaking in their magnificence. The work is still going on. In the early 1990s, when parts of the ancient stonework were found to be crumbling, £300,000 had to be spent on yet more restoration. Archaeologists, digging in the area of the pantry, uncovered colourful Flemish tiles hidden for hundreds of years. They had stumbled across the original 13th century cloister. St Etheldreda’s is a busy parish, much used for baptisms, weddings and funerals. But it is not an empty relic. It is part of our national heritage and is used daily for the purpose for which it was built over 700 years ago.