The Catholic Church traces its origins back to Our Lord himself and his commissioning of the apostles. Christianity was originally undivided, and slowly spread across South East England from about 600 AD onwards. What is now East Finchley would have been woodland and then small farms. However, it was close to London and grew slowly over the centuries by serving travellers on the toll road and growing food for the city. Toll gates and inns looked after the travellers; market gardens, and pig farms fed the city. East Finchley came under the parish of St Mary-at-Finchley, up the road from us on Hendon Lane, in Finchley Church end. There has been a church on that site since around 1100 and possibly earlier, and most of the present church was built in the 15th century.
During the Reformation era, from 1532 onwards, there was a struggle between Catholics and Protestants, in which both sides committed acts that we now find repugnant. The result, however, was a separation of the Church of England from the wider Catholic Church in communion with the Pope. The medieval church in Finchley became Anglican, and for two centuries it was illegal to be a Catholic. Small Catholic congregations met in secret in a few safe houses in the City, and in a handful of country houses where the owners maintained the old faith.
East Finchley began its suburban growth early in the 19th century, a process of change which gathered speed with the development of public transport. Overground rail lines connected with central London from 1867, tram lines opened in 1914 and in 1939 the overground was folded into the Tube network and built a new station at East Finchley. From the late 18th century onwards it became possible to practice the Catholic faith openly again. The Catholic population grew rapidly. The site on the hill had been popular with religious orders who opened schools and homes. Three orders of religious sisters opened large institutions locally: the Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice, the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and the Good Shepherd Sisters. This must have attracted Catholics to the area. Local industries also attracted workers from Ireland and elsewhere. What is now the Grange Estate was the location of Simms Motor Industries, manufacturing car components in a large factory that covered 300,000 square feet, and which subsequently became part of Lucas Industries before closing down.
The parish of St Mary’s, East Finchley, was formally organised in 1898, when a building on the corner of the High Road and Chapel Street was re-opened as a church (it was near the present Chapel Place, opposite where Bedford Road joins the High Road). On ther 15th November 1940 the building was badly damaged in an air raid. For a short while Mass was celebrated in Our Lady of Lourdes School, until a large wooden hut was moved on to the present site of the church. The present site was at that point a villa called Bewley, which served as the presbytery. The wooden church was used until the present building was opened by Cardinal Griffin on 18th May 1952. Although there would have been government funds available under the War Damages programme, it would not have covered the full cost and the building of a church here represented tremendous courage and generosity by the people who made it possible.
Since then the area has continued to be home to people from an increasing variety of backgrounds. We are the Catholic Church, people of many walks of life, with diverse ethnic origins. We are young, middle-aged and old. There are some 500 families on the parish registers.
With the writer of the letter to the Church in Ephesus, we find our unity as we proclaim:
‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (Eph. 4:5-6).
Father Terry Tastard
To find out more about the history of Finchley: