Why is one of the oldest charities in England building seven new bedrooms for people to stay in for Reflection or Retreat? This is an intriguing question made all the more tantalising when you find out these rooms are in the heart of the East End of London. They are not on a mountain top in Wales or in a valley full of golden corn waving in a gentle, summer breeze. They are in a very urban setting, in a city that never sleeps, where finding silence is a real challenge. What is this all about? In order to understand the answer, you need a little bit of history.
The Royal Foundation of St Katharine was founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda as a religious community and medieval hospital for poor infirm people next to the Tower of London.
For over 670 years, the Foundation carried on its work in East London. It grew to be a village on the banks of the River Thames outside the east walls of the Tower of London offering sanctuary to immigrants and to the poor. Alas, in 1825 commercial pressure for larger docks caused St Katharine’s with its 14th & 15th century buildings, and with some 3,000 inhabitants, to be demolished. The Foundation moved to Regents Park and became a residential alms-house for 125 years.
In 1948, St. Katharine’s returned to East London to its present location in Limehouse, a mile from its original site and became a retreat house with Father St. John Groser as Master and Members of the Community of the Resurrection from Mirfield providing worship and service in the locality. The Foundation remained under the care of this Community for some 45 years until 1993.
Its current facilities are focussed on the Chapel, which was built on the site of the original parish church of St James Radcliffe which had been bombed during the war. The space, light and architectural beauty of this building inspires thoughtfulness and tranquility. The Chapel embodies the very spirit which St Katharine’s strive to create.
Throughout its history, St Katharine’s has had three interwoven strands which are Worship, Hospitality and Service. Over recent years, there has been a renewal of the worship part of this trinity of themes. St Katharine’s religious life is based around its chapel but is not a parish church and so has chosen to develop its spiritual life around reflection and retreat rather than creating a Sunday congregation. Although located in the East End, with a background hum of London life, the stillness of the chapel, the calm garden shaded by a huge plane tree and the peaceful atmosphere of the rooms creates an environment most commonly described as an “oasis”.
There is also a full range of conference rooms from small rooms in which to read or write to rooms capable of taking upwards of fifty people. This is all completed by a relaxed dining room and forty bedrooms located around a garden. Many people come to stay just to enjoy this oasis. Church and “not-for-profit” organisations can come, at subsidised rates, for days or longer residential sessions. This side of St Katharine’s life reveals the way in which it fulfils the other two of its historic themes-Hospitality and Service.