All Saints' Anglican Church, Rome
A growing Christian community in the heart of Rome finding and following Jesus in worship,
fellowship, study and service.
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Listen to some organ music, played by Titular Organist, Gabriele Catalucci Listen to some organ music, played by Titular Organist, Gabriele Catalucci

History - Foundations Laid


Once the ruined convent had been handed over, its site could be dug down for crypts. This major work was begun in summer 1880. Nineteen feet below the future threshold of the church's main door, objects from the first century A D were discovered by the excavators. The Athenaeum Magazine of 3rd October 1883 reported that these were two bronze heads and a mask of Nero. A Signor Scalandrini bought them, since the Municipality made no claim on them; and presented them to the Capitoline Museum in Rome. A head of Agrippina the Elder was found in another part of the site. What needs no further investigation is the fact that a villa stood once on the site of our English Church, and that it belonged to Sextus Africanus - a colleague of Osterius Scapula, who became Governor of Britain in 50 A D.

The contractor was instructed to go down as deep as necessary to make secure foundations. Since a massive pumping operation had to be mounted to eliminate standing water, in addition to digging thirty feet down, "it was soon found that the cost would be most enormous", and the Clerk of the Works stopped the works. A lawsuit followed (not to be the last on the site) and after much delay, Mr Street sent out from London his own Clerk of Works. This did not guarantee that everything would henceforward go smoothly; but the record of the seven years' building of All Saints' is chiefly a story of financial crises.

Despite the lamented death of the architect, only in his late fifties, the previous year, Easter Day, 10th April 1882, offered a brief interlude of joy and fresh hope as the foundation stone was laid. Three o'clock Evensong in the old chapel was terminated after the third collect, and the congregation moved through the gate, across the piazza del Popolo and down via del Babuino to the building site. At least fourteen Anglican clergy (including the American Rector and two other Episcopalian priests) gathered on the site, and were joined from "a robing tent at the west end" by Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador and personnel from the British Embassy.

The choir, augmented by several brass trumpets,

"sang the Old hundreth psalm as the procession moved toward the platform. The day was fine and the sun very powerful".

"English (sic), American and Italian flags decorated the site, and the ground was strewn with evergreens. About one thousand people were assembled and many Italians took a great interest in the proceedings and contributed to the collection made after the service. The singing and the responses were very hearty".

The contemporary account goes on:

"The Honourable Mrs Walpole had placed in a cavity in the stone a bottle containing a sovereign of 1882, a twenty-lire gold piece, paper money then in circulation, and a list of the committee and subscribers."

The inscription on the granite stone reads:

+ IN NOMINE PATRIS +
+ ET FILII ET SPIRITYS SANCTI +
A. D.
1882
V. ID. APR.
HVIVS ECCLESIAE FVNDAMENTA
POSITA SUNT

Five whole years were to elapse before the church would be ready to be opened for use.

While no building as large as this can be erected in a trice, All Saints' birth pangs were long-drawn-out and must have been a source of great anxiety at many points along the way. One important reason for the delay was the difficulty in finding the different marbles which had been specified. Those ordered from Greece could not be obtained, as the quarry was exhausted. Some of the Italian varieties were difficult to cut perfectly in such large volume as was required.

The problems with the marble, and with special bricks and stone brought long distances, were nothing compared with the really serious financial strain. Thanks partly to the extent of the initial excavations, and also to the quality of materials demanded throughout, the cost appears to have been at least three times what had been mentioned when the first plans (for converting the old chapel) had been aired in 1876.
Stalemate was eventually reached. In 1883, the Building Fund was empty, and SPG in London wanted to have all work stopped. This is where the Chaplain stepped in with the first of his personal, unsecured loans, which were to total, it seems, no less than 5,000 pounds Sterling between now and 1886 -a considerable fortune to lend at a moderate 5%. Much of the debt to him was outstanding when he died, and All Saints' only surfaced from its long period "in the red" in 1920.

By July 1885, the chancel end was finished and roofed, the tower was up to one third of its height, and the vestry, library above, and organ chamber adjacent had been completed. Nearly a year later there was still no roof on the nave and aisles, and Canon Wasse saw no option but to lend the remaining sum required, or the church would never open, he feared, for worship.

After a very wet Good Friday, 1887, the chairs from the old building were all moved to the new, and Easter Day turned out to be "a very lovely day". The first service was Holy Communion at 7 am, celebrated by the Revd V H Palmer: 150 communicated. The next drew 200 communicants, at 8.30, when the celebrant was the Bishop of Carlisle, the Right Revd Harvey Goodwin, previously Dean of Ely. He also gave the address at Evensong at 3 pm. As a member of the Building Committee in London, he must have taken some satisfaction in seeing the eventual result of all the discussions they had had so far, too far, away. A Sung Eucharist at 11 am (with a further 250 communicants) was celebrated by the Bishop of Gibraltar, the Right Revd Charles Sandford. He preached what was afterwards described as "a fine straight sermon" on "The Work and Message of our church in Rome". He had performed a similar duty at the opening of Mr Street's other church in via Nazionale on 27th March 1876 - presumably a different sermon!
So began, on Easter Day 1887, on its new site in the heart of "English" Rome, the stable ministry and worship of All Saints' Anglican Church, which has continued now for nearly a further century.
Mrs Wasse, wife of the chaplain, Henry Wasse, made brave efforts (and offers) to have the unfinished tower completed, but there was so much prevarication that the spire was added only in time for the jubilee in 1937. How much the more costly for the long delay, and how munificent of the anonymous donor who was finally responsible for our unique landmark in brilliant white travertine! Many eventful years later, in about 1960, Pope John XXIII confided to the then Chaplain in private audience that when he sometimes felt rather lonely at night, he would take up his binoculars and look at all the churches in Rome. "When I do that," he said, "there is your little spire right in the middle of my window." It remains true, in this capital city almost unique in its insistence that no building exceed six storeys, that All Saints' white spire advertises our presence from all the celebrated vantage points.

We have jumped a long way ahead - and to an era in relations with the Papacy which could not have been foreseen in the late nineteenth century when new obstacles to Anglican-Roman Catholic unity were being raised. The promulgation of papal infallibility in 1870 had put up a new hurdle, and the bull Apostolicae Curae, against the validity of Anglican Orders, was to raise another.

The new Chaplain, the Revd Frank Nutcombe Oxenham, came in May 1891, sufficiently a scholar to have been for some years Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, in the Scottish Episcopal Church. One of his published works was entitled The Validity of the Papal Claims, and it had apparently been serious enough to elicit a sharp rejoinder from the pen of the famous Cardinal Merry del Val, who called his reply The Truth of the Papal Claims. Few, however, could attempt bridge-building in the direction of the Summus Pontifex in this idiosyncratic way; and the claims and counter-claims were often abrasive rather than eirenical.

The Bishop of Gibraltar wished only to keep the record straight, and he called his chaplains from Europe to a conference at Church House, Westminster, in July 1894, when he delivered a paper on "the duty of members of the Church of England on the Continent to maintain and make manifest the true position of the Church of England as an integral portion of the Catholic Church, and not as a Protestant sect".
At a lower level of importance, but well worth noting, All Saints' began the use of eucharistic vestments, as traditionally understood, on Easter Day 1898. If further evidence were required that we were brought into the mainstream of Tractarian practice, old photographs and the furnishings still in use bear out the fact; while the registers show how well the weekday Communion services were maintained when the Anglican "constituency" was in its heyday, up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

In July 1885, the question was first raised that a plot of some 100 square yards, neighbouring the east end of the church in via del Babuino, might well be bought. At least it would be a safeguard against the intrusion of unsuitable future building close to Mr Street's tower and apse. Yet not until a minute of 1908 do we find the name of the contractor who will start work on the "Church House." His copper-plate accounts are still in our hands, showing a final cost of exactly 100,000 lire (nowadays approximately £50 Sterling!).


This text was adapted from the history of All Saints' Church, Rome by David Palmer (Rome. July 1978, Augusts of 1979, 1980 & 1981

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