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 +
V. ID. APR.
HVIVS ECCLESIAE FVNDAMENTA
Five whole years were to elapse before the church would be ready to be opened for
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