[stmartin2]The sun beams down on Trafalgar Square in London, as I emerge from the Underground Station at Charing Cross. It is midmorning; people flutter by with hurried expressions planted firmly on their focused faces. Ahead of me, a black iron fence surrounds a stone church with a large steeple rising up from its top. The map in my pocket tells me I’ve found St. Martin’s-in-the-Field.
St. Martin’s has been called one of the most influential churches ever to be built. Its architectural style, with its Corinthian portico and six columns at its entrance, has influenced the colonial style of churches found throughout the United States.
This building wasn’t the first version of the church, however. The church was first recorded in the 13th century but was most recently rebuilt in 1721 by James Gibbs. In between, it had been rebuilt by King Henry II, whose new residence at York Place blocked the direct path for transporting the dead to St. Martin’s burial grounds. The King, fearing plague, ordered the parish’s boundaries to be redrawn. The little church could not fit the larger congregation, so the church had to be rebuilt in 1542.
As I approach the steps of the church, I pass a souvenir booth. A young man is hungrily eating his lunch on the steps, while an older lady is taking a rest from her ventures. I suddenly become quite aware of these people and the shops at the base of the church, a far cry from its isolated roots.
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, as the same suggests, was once in the midst of the fields that stretched between Westminster and the City of London. Now it stands in London’s most popular square, which was laid out in the 1830s. Centuries before, monks used to roam the church yard planting vegetables, while animals grazed in the nearby pastures. Today, construction workers and buses take their place.
Once I step inside the entranceway, the noise from the street filters into the background, as soft organ music draws me further inside. The names of every vicar of the church are displayed on the nearby staircase, dating back to 1352 when St. Martin’s became one of the 43 parishes of the Church of England. Its territory includes Buckingham Palace, and a special section of the balcony is reserved for royalty.
[church]”Technically both the Queen and the Prime Minster should come here,” Liz Russell, one of the six clergy at St. Martin’s, tells me. She smiles and adds, “But they don’t.” I find Russell standing at the front of the chapel this morning, eager to talk about her church with any one who wanted to listen.
“It’s the fifth most visited Church of England,” she boasts. More than 600,000 people pass through the church’s doors each year, including the fans of classical music attending the popular evening concerts held at the church, which are broadcast on radio stations worldwide. The church offers, on average, six concerts a week. Three free performances are held at lunchtime in the cafe, featuring up-and-coming or younger musicians. Three evening concerts, which cost money, feature professional musicians, including soloists, choirs and ensembles performing Bach, Beethoven and other classical favorites. Three services a week are aimed at visitors to London, performed in song by the choir from the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. These ceremonies, says Russell, offer travelers who do not speak English a chance to enjoy worship through song. Including these three services, there are 25 ceremonies offered weekly at the traditional Anglican Church. Because of its close proximity to Chinatown, the church has one Chinese clergy and a separate service in Chinese. They also offer a Chinese Day Center.
After talking with Russell, I venture down the stairs where advertisements for Jazz Night and Salsa dancing on the wall leading down into the crypt remind me I have not left the 21st century at the church’s steps. A low hum of conversation grows into moderate roar as I enter the Cafe in the Crypt. A gift shop, stocked with books and souvenirs invites the hungry and the fed alike. Around the corner, I find myself in the gallery. Today’s exhibit is titled “Angels and Dreams,” displaying paintings and photographs from artists Nurettin Erkan and Kadir Aktay.
As I peruse the collection, I pass a father and his daughter leaning over a table, making a brass rubbing of some medieval figure. The brass rubbing center is at the far end of the gallery where other visitors of all ages are working vigorously at their art. “Take home a knight!” reads the sign over the entranceway. I nearly laugh.
It seems almost laughable to me that a crypt, the burial site for people such as King Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwyn, and famous painters and artisans, has been transformed into a place to hold a family outing. In fact, the Crypt Cafe was listed in London’s Independent newspaper as one of the 50 best places to meet in London last year.
Next, I head to the market, at the opposite end of the church. About a dozen booths are set up in the courtyard, selling both t-shirts of pop bands and wooden crafts, to name a few items.
One woman in a booth informs me that the market will be closing soon, due to changes in the church. ”It is important that St. Martin’s renovates,” she says, adding she has been at this market for 12 years. The vendors are looking for a new place to relocate, she adds.
After visiting the market, I visit the Social Care Unit across the street. In remembrance of St. Martin, the saint known for giving half his cloak to a beggar, the church has been actively involved in serving the homeless. This tradition began in 1916 when Dick Sheppard, the vicar at the time, opened the church overnight for soldiers stranded during World War I. It remained open for soldiers through 1919 but also invited the unemployed and homeless to take refuge, as well. From 1919 to 1939, the crypt came to be known as the “Ever Open Door” and was run as a night shelter. In 1939, the doors closed to the three dozen homeless people still seeking shelter in the church, to be reopened as a bomb shelter during World War II.
Today, the Social Care Unit offers both day and night programs for the homeless and “rough sleepers.” In April 2003, the unit merged with The London Connection, a program that offered services to young people in need of accommodations and basic amenities such as laundry and advice. Now called The Connection at St. Martin’s, the organization provides support for the homeless and roofless of all ages and provides showers, advice, education and training, sports and other activities. So far the center has helped over 700 people to find accommodations and locate treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.
The building is uninviting and almost unapproachable. To get there, I must walk around large scaffolding and closed sidewalks. Finally, I find myself standing at a large, steel door. It’s locked. I ring the bell and tell the unenthused woman at the other end of the intercom that I wish to speak with someone about their facility.
The door buzzes open. I walk down a flight of rickety stairs and into a waiting room tucked in the basement. A few bodies occupy seats and watch me carefully. The secretary tells me there is no one available to speak with. I walk back up the stairs with only a pamphlet. I hope others fare better than I when they come to visit in need of clothing, rather than just answers.
The Connection is not the only charity the church sponsors. The Vicar Relief Fund, funded by donations, gives help to many people all over England who have what Russell calls, “urgent, small needs.” Social workers can contact the church regarding people needing aid, and the money is turned-over in a matter of days. “If they want to look for us for help, we have a responsibility for every person in England,” Russell says, adding, “Which most people ignore.”
Walking back across the street toward the Underground, brochure stuffed into my pocket, I look back at the church. More people line the steps, workers taking their mid-morning break. Some just enjoy the view. If I squint, I can almost see the peasants flocking to worship within St. Martin’s walls. But, for me, the spirituality lies in the walls themselves, standing in the midst of a large metropolitan city, against the changing world that surrounds them. While the future of this historic building remains uncertain, as the drills and bulldozers grow uncomfortably close to the gate and consumerism is slowly creeping up the crypt’s stairs, the church greets the new day with the same outwardly defiance of change as it has for hundreds of years.

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