The Church Exterior
Before entering the church, you will see the imposing west end exterior, built of Kentish ragstone with Bath stone dressing. In the frontal buttress is a fine seven-foot ancaster stone stone statue of St Thomas of Canterbury flanked by two angels. The bell turret which surmounts the buttress which contains one bell. On a wall to the right of the bell tower is a large stone relief depicting Pope St Gregory the Great and an Anglian slave in the Roman forum, which meeting inspired the Pope to send a Mission, led by St Augustine of Canterbury (before 601-604), to the largely pagan English. The relief was blessed on Tuesday, 27th May, 1997, the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, by the Most Reverend Michael G. Bowen, Archbishop of Southwark and Metropolitan (1977-2003), to mark the 1,400th anniversary of that significant event.The site of the church was in the middle age a chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen. The tower of the mediaeval church, St Mary Magdalen’s Tower, still stands in front of St Thomas’ Church.
The Church Interior
As you enter the church through the north-west porchway, you will see the original 1875 early decorated Gothic style church in front of you; the clerestory windows (suggested by Edward Pugin (1834-1875), the son of the illustrious Victorian architect, Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852)), which provide the light for the nave; the original high altar typical of the period at the east end. The composite architecture of the building has changed considerably over the past forty years, with structural changes in 1962/63.
The small windowed room on your immediate right before you enter into the nave has been inserted as a confessional. Turn right you will see the entrance to the sacristies. Before the 1963 reconstructions there were four chapels here; one of them was the chapel of St Mary Magdalen, a dedication commemorating the mediaeval church of that name which, until its demolition in 1870, stood on the site of the present church. The tower of the mediaeval church, St Mary Magdalen’s Tower, still stands in front of St Thomas’ Church.
In the right-hand aisle in front of the sacristies are statues of the Sacred Heart and Pope St Gregory the Great. Also in the same aisle is a mosaic depicting St Augustine of Canterbury. This mosaic was erected and blessed by Archbishop Bowen on 27th May, 1997 as part of the celebrations marking the 1,400th anniversary of the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD.
At the west end of this aisle you will see the pieta which was originally in the chapel at Hales Place and was bought by Canon Sheppard (Parish Priest 1905 – 1942) for ten guineas (£10.50) when the house, which became St Mary’s College, was sold by the Jesuits in 1928.
The Martyrs’ Chapel
The chapel at the south-west end of the aisle is the Martyrs’ Chapel and contains the shrine with the relics of St Thomas of Canterbury. The reliquary before 1953 contained two relics of our patron: a piece of St Thomas’ vestment and a piece of bone from his body. These came from Gubbio in Umbria, Italy, and were presented to St Thomas’ Church by Mary Hales over one hundred years ago. The pedigree of the relics is well authenticated.
On Tuesday, 7th July, 1220, the body of St Thomas, which had been kept in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral since the saint’s martyrdom on Tuesday, 29th December, 1170, was translated to an imposing new shrine behind the high altar of the cathedral where it remained until its complete destruction by King Henry VIII (1491-1547)in 1538. On the occasion of the Translation in 1220, some Cardinals from Rome were present as witnesses, and they took the opportunity of removing some small relics which accompanied them back to Italy. Two of these relics were presented to St Thomas’ in the 19th century, and a third, a piece of the saint’s finger, in 1953 by the Prior of Chevetogne, Father Thomas Becquet, a colateral descendant of the martyred archbishop.
Two statues on plinths each side of the altar, above which is the reliqary containing the three relics of St Thomas, depict St John Fisher (1469-1535), Cardinal Bishop of Rochester, and St Thomas More (1478-1535), both of whom suffered for denying Henry VIII’s claim to be Head of the Church in England, and were martyred in July 1535. Both were canonised exactly four hundred years later in 1935.
Of the two stained-glass windows, one shows the martyrdom of St Thomas and the other Pope St Gregory the Great with slave children in the Roman Forum. The other light in this window depicts St Augustine of Canterbury, and, below, the scene with him preaching to King Ethelbert.
To the left of the windows in a reliquary set in the wall are some of the Mass vestments which belonged to Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980), Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered whilst celebrating Mass in 1980. These vestments were presented to St Thomas’ Church in 1997 in appreciation of the gift of a relic of St Thomas of Canterbury (given to St Thomas’ Church in 1995 and presented to San Salvador Cathedral in 1996).
The cast statue on the west wall of the Martyrs’ Chapel is of St John Stone (d1539), the Augustinian Friar, who spoke out for the Pope’s supremacy in the Church against Henry VIII’s usurpation of it. True to his Catholic beliefs, he was hanged, drawn and quartered in Dane John in 1539 and was canonised as a martyr in 1970. The statue was made by Mother Concordia of Minster Abbey, Thanet, Kent.
The Chapel of St Joseph is adjacent to the Martyrs’ Chapel. Although the altar has been removed, there is another fine cast statue on the wall, also by Mother Concordia. She has depicted St Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church, holding in his arms a replica of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
As you walk across the centre of the nave you will see the sanctuary and you will get the finest all-round view of the building as a whole.
Looking eastward at the original ornate high altar, designed by London architect A. E. Purdie, you will see that the front of the altar has three panels; the centre one containing an Agnus Dei in stone, flanked by two adoring angels with thuribles. The gradine is more elaborately carved, and the reredos in which it terminates has two panels in alto relievo, one showing the martyrdom of St Thomas, and the other King Henry II (1133-1189) doing public penance for being the cause of Becket’s murder. He received absolution from the pope, but part of his penance was to take his physical punishment by demeaning himself and receiving a whipping from each member of the community of the Priory of Christchurch. Stripped of his royal robes at St Dunstan’s Church outside Westgate (he had walked from Harbledown), he walked the “holy mile” barefoot through the city to the tomb of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral.
The tabernacle, rising in front of the reredos into a tapering pinnacle, is made of alabaster and surrounded by the usual crockets and finials. Four marble columns support the canopy.
Above the altar is a double rose window with floriated tracery worked in under a plain gothic arch. Although the window was uncoloured when the church was opened in 1875, there were several benefactors who contributed the stained-glass. Despite this disparity, the unity of the window, both in style and theme, make it one of the outstanding artistic contributions to the building. The central roundel represents the pie pelicane (the holy pelican which, in the Middle Ages, symbolised Christ, the Redeemer, who feeds us with His own Body and Blood – cf the hymn Adoro te devote by St Thomas Aquinas). The theme of the windows is the life of St Thomas. From the top right segment: The Baptism of Thomas (“God loveth the Giver” reads the inscription), St. Thomas attendance at Mass, His teaching in Archbishop Theobald’s household, Hhis chancellorship, The seventh segment when the knight, having murdered him, is escaping (“Beatus est magis dare quam acceptere” says the inscription, echoing his Baptism). The last medallion shows Thomas’ reception into heaven. In the six point light in the roundel at the apex of the window is a representation of Christ in Glory.
The original Victorian High Altar is no longer used for the celebration of Mass. In the 1980s the interior of the church was dramatically altered to accommodate the liturgical changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. A new octagonal altar in Lepine limestone , designed by Mr Daniel Rikh, is now used for all celebrations. The Mass altar is supported by eight pillars whose shafts are of Italian green marble, following the Early English style of the pillars of the nave of the church.
The Baptismal font, built in 1865 by George Horan, a local stonemason, was placed in its present position in the sanctuary in the 1980s.
The Lady Chapel
Immediately to the left of the sanctuary and at the end of the north aisle is the Lady Chapel. The Altar is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and you will see the pieta (similar to the one brought from Hales Place) depicted in the central panel of the altar. The altar was given by Eva Minna Billington in 1905 in memory of her mother. Our Lady and Child are flanked by St Constance (the name of Miss Billington’s mother) and St George. The designer of the Lady Altar was A. E. Purdie who had created the high altar forty years earlier.
As you leave the church you will see the organ loft at the west end which contains a two manual and pedal organ, rebuilt in 1990 by Brownes of Ash.
The Stations of the Cross on the north and south walls were originally in Westminster Cathedral before the outstanding sculptures of Eric Gill replaced them. They were given to St Thomas’ Church by Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, who had formerly been Bishop of Southwark.
As you leave the church it is worth examining the outside plaque on the right of the main door. This is a reproduction of a bas-relief of St Thomas in Godmersham Church. The original, in purbeck marble, is the earliest English representation in sculpture of St Thomas of Canterbury, dating, as it does, before 1200.