28 September 2023, The Tablet

Why we are appealing for help in saving our beautiful cathedral window

by James McAuley

Why we are appealing for help in saving our beautiful cathedral window

The West Window at Portsmouth Catholic Cathedral.
Diocese of Portsmouth.

On the night of 10 January 1941, ominous air raid sirens began to wail, signalling the start of one of the most devastating raids in World War Two’s history. Fifteen people, attached to St John’s Cathedral Portsmouth, headed towards the cathedral shelter nestled underneath Bishop’s House- among them were three priests along with twelve members of cathedral staff.

In the terrifying hours that followed, Bishop’s House was reduced to rubble thanks to three highly explosive bombs, which killed three of those who were sheltering underneath after the inner wall collapsed. The cathedral’s administrator, Fr JP O’Neill, scrambled out and ran to the nearest public shelter, appealing for help to rescue those who were still trapped. Thanks to the courage of volunteers, and seven hours of rescue work, eight people were saved but by 3am it had become clear that the remaining six people still trapped were unreachable and had perished.

This dramatic episode illuminates how much history is attached to St John’s Cathedral, where I am Cathedral Dean and how vital it is that this historic and architectural gem is protected and preserved.  The Cathedral first opened for Mass back in August 1882, designed by architects, JS Hanson and John Crawley and has been the Mother Church of our diocese ever since. Although parts of the cathedral were badly damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, the cathedral on the whole managed to survive.

Among the architectural treasures which did not perish is the Cathedral’s striking West Window which was first installed in 1906 and covers a total area of 228 square feet or 70 square metres and contains approximately 9,700 panes of glass. It exquisitely depicts six adored Catholic saints, St Swithun, St John the Evangelist, St Mary Immaculate, St Edmund, St John the Baptist, and St Wilfred.

However, I was celebrating Mass in January of this year, when I looked up and noticed something was wrong. The lead work on the window had deteriorated so much that two holes had emerged as a result of the window beginning to collapse. We managed to secure the window with scaffolding as a temporary measure and, in July, specialist contractors removed the beautiful stained glass which is currently being restored.

We have since discovered that the total cost of restoring the window will cost in excess of £100,000 which is far beyond the means of the cathedral parish, situated in one of the poorest parts of Portsmouth diocese. The cost of restoring the image of each saint alone runs to £5,000.

Any amount, how big or small, will be gratefully received but we appreciate that for some people right now, financial donations are impossible. I ask then for your prayers for this project which are even more valuable than money. St John’s Cathedral, like many of our churches, is so much more than a building. Architectural and historic considerations aside, St John’s is a community, a place of worship, a refuge for so many people- especially the poor and lonely.

Please support us in preserving this beautiful and historic sanctuary of faith, in any way which you feel able to.

Fr James McAuley is Dean of St John’s Catholic Cathedral, Portsmouth.

If you would like to donate any amount, perhaps in memory of a loved one, to help with the cost of the restoration, please send your donation either by cheque to the cathedral or directly to the cathedral parish bank account- all the information is on the cathedral’s website (www.portsmouthcatholiccathedral.org.uk/westwindow) The names of donors will be recorded in a special commemorative book.



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