Alexander Raphael and a History of the Church

St. Raphael Roman Catholic Parish Church, Kingston upon Thames.

This beautiful church was designed by the eminent architect Charles Parker in an Italianate style, with early Christian, Armenian and Renaissance influences, and was built by John Dickson. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the famous writer on the history of art and architecture, described St Raphael’s as ‘the most interesting church in Kingston’.

It was commissioned in 1846 by Alexander Raphael, who was born in India of Armenian heritage, a great philanthropist and entrepreneur, and was completed two years later in 1848. Alexander Raphael was born in 1775 in Madras, the son of Edward Raphael, an Armenian Uniat Catholic merchant of Persian origin (modern-day Iran). By 1745 the family had moved to India where Alexander’s father was involved in the administration of Madras and was one of the co-founders of the Carnactic Bank in 1788. In 1791, following the death of his wife Mary, Edward decided to take some of his children to England to complete their education. He set sail on the Prince William Henry, but sadly died aboard ship during the voyage.

By 1811, Alexander was living in Upper Berkeley Street, London. He also owned Ditton Lodge, an estate in Thames Ditton. In 1831 he was appointed Bailiff of Kingston.

In 1834 he was elected Sheriff of London, the first Roman Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation. He was then living next door to Lord Palmerston in Great Stanhope Street, off Park Lane. 

Around this time, Alexander acquired The Surbiton Park Estate from the former Lord Mayor John Garratt. On the Estate stood a house which was built for William Roffee, a wealthy distiller, at the south-eastern end of Surbiton Street, now known as Surbiton Road, close to the junction with Maple Road. The house was known at different times as Surbiton Place, Surbiton House and Surbiton Hall. It was built in the mid-eighteenth century and is mentioned by Horace Walpole in one of his letters. When Roffee died, the estate was bought by Thomas Fassett, who extended both the house and the grounds. He sold the house to Henry Paget, who became Earl of Uxbridge. His son, also Henry Paget, inherited it in 1812. This Henry was the Earl of Uxbridge who distinguished himself at Waterloo. Not long after the battle, he became the first Marquess of Anglesey. After his mother died in 1817, Anglesey sold the house to John Garratt. It was in the parkland surrounding the house that Alexander eventually built this church. 

In 1835 Alexander decided to stand for Parliament. He was a candidate for Pontefract but lost by twenty votes to John Savile, Viscount Pollington, who later became the 4th Earl of Mexborough. John Savile married Agnes Raphael (Alexander’s niece) who later inherited Alexander’s estate. Later that year, Alexander tried again for Parliament, this time at Carlow, Ireland. He won the seat, but was removed, as it later turned out he had been involved in a financial deal with Daniel O’Connell, having paid him £2,000 for the seat. Daniel O’Connell is then supposed to have enquired if Alexander would like to be made a baronet to which he replied: ‘that he would be very proud of the honour when he got back his £2,000!’ The matter caused a scandal and he was satirised by a cartoon in the magazine H. B. Political Sketches. The cartoon of him with Daniel O’Connell is in fact the only known likeness of Alexander. Eventually, in 1847, he won the seat for St Albans, which he held until his death.

Tradition says that in the mid 1840s, during a serious illness, Alexander made a vow to Our Lady that if he recovered he would build a church. He did recover and the story goes that he refused to pay his doctor on the grounds that his recovery was due to Our Lady and not Dr Roots, his physician. True to his word, he built the church.

There is a further story that Alexander had a dream that when the church was finished he would die; he therefore delayed the opening as long as possible. The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper, commented: ‘the admirable church and adjoining house were left uninhabited with paper falling off the walls and other signs of decay visible’. It appears he cancelled several appointments with Dr Wiseman, the then Vicar Apostolic (later Cardinal Wiseman), to come and bless the church. However, in 1850 it seems he overlooked an appointment and the bishop arrived with his secretary and chaplain to find the church locked and Alexander away. We are told that the frustrated bishop obtained the keys from the butler at the house and proceeded to bless the church with just his secretary and chaplain in attendance. Alexander returned home and was furious. He died shortly afterwards on 17th November 1850, aged 75. He was buried in the family vault beneath the high altar, where other members of the Raphael and Savile families were later laid to rest.

A memorial tablet to Alexander Raphael was placed over the main door, leading from the porch to the main body of the church.  Written in Latin, it testifies to his generosity, unswerving faith and deep integrity.  It also refers to the honours bestowed upon him, because of his great merits, by Pope Pius IX.

Obituaries appeared in The Times, The Illustrated London News, The Gentleman’s Magazine and The Tablet, describing him as a ‘magnificent benefactor whose liberality in the cause of religion and education has been conspicuous for many years, not only in England, but also in Germany and Italy…poor schools both in Vienna and Transylvania have been founded and kept in action by his means.’ He gave over £100,000 to Catholic causes; a few months before his death he was made a papal knight of the Order of StSylvester by Blessed Pope Pius lX, in recognition of his charitable work.Sadly, the corporation of Kingston upon Thames did not seem to have shown their appreciation. Three days after his death an address was sent to Queen Victoria expressing indignation ‘at the insidious attempts of the Papal See to establish its spiritual dominion in the county’, and asking Her Majesty ‘that measures be adopted effectively to secure Her Dominions against the aggression and encroaching policy of the Bishop of Rome’. The address was ordered to be placed in The Times and The Morning Herald. The curate of All Saints parish church was similarly incensed by the Pope’s appointment of Bishop Wiseman as Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. 

Following Alexander’s death, the estate passed to his nephew Edward who, in accordance with Alexander’s wishes, opened the church to the public as the first Catholic place of worship in Kingston since the Reformation. 

Parish priests since 1850

In 1850 the first chaplain was Fr Jeremiah Donovan. At that time it would seem that the church was open only on Sunday mornings. 

In 1853, Fr Donovan was succeeded by Fr Henry Clark who in turn -was followed by Fr James Doyle in 1854. Both Fr Clark and Fr Doyle served as military chaplains in the Crimean War and both suffered poor health as a consequence.  Shortly after he returned to Kingston, Fr Doyle died of a heart attack on the 29thJuly 1855.  A report of his death in the Surrey Comet, a local newspaper, said that his “life was a constant practical exemplification of real Christian virtue”.

The Morning Advertiser newspaper of 31stJuly 1855 reported that, having just returned from the Crimea “to recruit his health”, Fr. Doyle, after saying Mass, had died, possible on church premises, from Asiatic cholera. However the Surrey Comet of 4thAugust 1855 also reported his death but emphasised that he had suffered a heart attack. Examination of his death certificate showed that Fr. Doyle died from a heart attack.   The newspaper article went on to address fears of a local outbreak of cholera by stating that the deceased had no symptom “approaching in the slightest degree to that fatal disease.”     

List of Parish Priests

The Morning Advertiser reported that Fr Doyle was much beloved by all the soldiers in his camp for his amiable and kind disposition.  The Surrey Cometnoted that he had been indefatigable in his attention to the sick and the dying. The author of the Surrey Comet report, probably Thomas Philpott, the founder of the newspaper, pointed out that although Fr Doyle and he differed greatly in matters of religion, it was necessary to pay tribute to the memory of one whose life was a constant practical exemplification of real Christian virtue. Philpott was a man of deep Protestant religious conviction and strong social commitment. The report concluded that the sudden death of Fr Doyle had deprived the poor of a friend and his church of the services of a faithful and self-denying minister.  This was indeed a great accolade for Fr Doyle and an example of the sense of fairness and independence of Thomas Philpott, considering that the Surrey Cometcirculated in Kingston, an area where anti-Catholic prejudice abounded and whose council had reacted strongly to the re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in September 1850.

Following Fr Doyles’s death, Fr John Ainsworth was appointed as then fourth chaplain. During his time a small school for underprivileged children was opened next to the church. In 1874 Edward Raphaelcommissioned Christopher George Wray to construct the Lady Altar and to redecorate the church, changing Parkers’ simplicity to a sumptuous interior more appealing to late-Victorian taste. He also replaced the benches with those seen in the centre of the nave today and installed the six statues made by Mayer & Co. of Munich, which can be seen above Our Lady’s altar and the sacristy door. Fr. Ainsworth served the parish until his death in 1880. He is buried in crypt under the High Altar in the Church.

Following Edward’s death in 1889, the estate passed to his sister Anne Raphael, who died in October of the same year, and then to her sister Agnes. Through Agnes’s marriage to the Earl of Mexborough, the church passed into the hands of the Savile family, who continued to live at Ditton Lodge.  Both the fourth and the sixth earls are interred in the crypt. 

Agnes’s daughter, Anne, married Prince Ludwig von Löwenstein-Wertheim, who was killed fighting in the Philippine-American War in 1899. After being a widow for nearly thirty years, Anne decided to attempt to be the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic. She bought a single-engine monoplane, which was blessed by the Bishop of Cardiff and named ‘St Raphael’. The plane took off on the 31 August 1927 at 7.30 a.m. The 61-year-old Princess was seated in a wicker chair at the back of the plane, surrounded by eight tanks of petrol and two hatboxes. At 9.44 p.m. it was spotted flying westward across the Atlantic. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward Vlll) and Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) were on a state visit to Canada and delayed their journey to meet her, but she was never seen again. A plaque in the church commemorates her and a Foundation Mass is offered for the repose of her soul each year on or around the 31 August.

Royal Wedding – Illustrated London News
A plaque commemorating the death of Princess Anne von Löwenstein-Wertheim

Following the 1848 Revolution in France, which led to the creation of the Second French Republic, the French royal family were forced into exile. Queen Victoria offered them a home at Claremont in Esher. Many members of the family worshipped here at St Raphael’s. The first entry in the church’s book of confirmations is that of the Duc d’Alencon in 1856. A license for weddings was granted to the church in 1863; later that year, the marriage of King Louis Philippe’s second grandson, the Duc de Chartres to his cousin, Princess Françoise d’Orléans, took place here. Large numbers of Kingston’s residents turned out to witness their arrival at the church and the children from St Raphael’s school stood by a specially constructed covered way with baskets of rose petals to strew on the bridal path. In 1864 the king’s eldest grandson, Louis Philippe Albert, Comte de Paris, married his cousin, the Infanta Marie Isabelle of Spain. The French dowager queen and the sister of the Spanish queen were amongst a select group of royal and aristocratic guests. The bridal party took the river route to Claremont, which was decorated with arches, flags and flowers, and crowds cheered them along the way. The Prince and Princess of Wales drove by carriage to greet the couple at Claremont, but did not attend the marriage service. Twenty-five years later the French royal couple celebrated their silver wedding at the church. In 1895, the marriage of their daughter, Princess Hélène d’Orléans to the Duc d’Aosta, heir to the King of Savoy, took place at the church. Fifty members of European royalty attended, including the Prince and Princess of Wales and their daughters. The French royal family was extremely popular and crowds lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the carriage procession from Orléans House, Twickenham, to Kingston. Streets were decked out with bunting in the colours of the different royal houses and three triumphal arches with ‘Welcome’ on them had been erected at Kingston Bridge, Clattern Bridge and along the Portsmouth Road. The Coronation Stone in Kingston was festooned with flowers and the railways even provided extra trains from London to accommodate sightseers. In 1899, there was a fourth royal wedding when Jean Pierre Clément Marie, Duc de Guise (whose parents had wed in 1863) married Isabelle Marie Laure d’Orléans (her parents had married in 1864).

Emperor Napoleon lll’s widow, the Empress Eugenie, lived at Coombe Cottage in Coombe Lane West during 1881. She worshipped at the church while a home was being prepared for her at Farnborough. She was also very popular locally and The Surrey Cometreported one of her visits to the church: ‘The Empress looked careworn and sad, but pleasantly acknowledged the respect shown to her as she entered her carriage.’

In 1896 Agnes, Countess of Mexborough, appears to have had a disagreement with Fr Morley, the then chaplain who succeeded Fr Ainsworth in 1880.It is believed that the disagreement centred on the running expenses of the church and the recent royal weddings. This resulted in her closing the church on the grounds that repairs were needed. The church remained closed for nearly three years and it was thought likely that it would never open again. The diocese began looking for a possible site to build a new church. During this time Fr Morley rented St James Hall in St James Rd, Kingston, for mass. Eventually, an agreement between the Countess and the bishop resolved the situation and the diocese took out a ten-year lease on the church. However, at the Countess’ request, Fr Morley was replaced as chaplain. Fr Morley, for the sake of his people, resigned in 1899 and died aged 73 in 1903. 

Fr Morley was succeeded by Fr Emile du Plerny as sixth chaplain to St Raphael’s and the latter remained until 1907. In 1905 he invited a French order of nuns, Les Dames de La Mère de Dieu, to take up residence in a house in The Avenue, Surbiton, which became known as the Manor House Convent. The sisters ran a school there until it eventually closed in 1983. 

The estate later passed to Captain the Hon. George Savile, brother of the 6th Earl of Mexborough. He is commemorated on a beautiful memorial in the church in the form of a mosaic of the Nativity. He is also credited with paying for the high altar in Westminster Cathedral, a 12-ton block of Cornish granite. Following the Second World War, the Catholic diocese of Southwark purchased the church from the Mexborough family for the sum of £1000.

Dr Herbert Calnan, the then chaplain, became the first parish priest. Dr Calnan, was ordained in Rome in 1910. He held the posts of Diocesan Censor and Diocesan Synodal Examiner. He was also vice-chairman of the Catholic Truth Society, a former director of the Southwark Catholic Rescue Society (later the Southwark Catholic Children’s Society) and county vice-president of the British Legion. He worked on many educational committees and he also served as a military chaplain from 1918 to 1921. During his time at St Raphael’s, the old Tiffin’s Boys School on the Fairfield was purchased and re-named St Joseph’s Primary School. Dr Calnan worked hard to raise funds to pay off the debt this incurred on the parish. 

Memorial to the Raphael and Mexborough family

Dr Calnan retired to Cornwall in 1955 and was succeeded by Fr Bernard Grady (later Canon). During his time it was realised that the church was too small for the large congregation and also lacked a suitable hall. In 1957 Claremont Hall in Maple Road was purchased. This was to be used as a parish hall and also a mass centre on Sundays. Sunday Mass was also said at St Joseph’s School and the Manor House Convent. 

On 1 September 1963, Canon Grady announced his intention to build a new church on the corner of Maple Road and Grove Road in Surbiton, next to the site of the presbytery at 102–104 Maple Road and close to Claremont Hall. This new church would seat 500 people and would also have included a much-needed car park. However, it would have meant the sale and probable demolition of the present church. By 1968, the site had been purchased and the plans drawn up, but in 1969, following a long campaign in the local and national press, the plans were abandoned. The church was then given a Grade II* listing and recognised as a building of local and national architectural interest and was regarded as one of the finest examples of Victorian Italianate architecture in the country. 

Canon Grady retired due to ill health in 1986 and died in 1992. He was buried in the vault under the church. His long-time assistant priest, Fr Dominic O’Sullivan, succeeded him. Fr Dominic was ordained to the priesthood on 12 June 1952 at St Thomas of Canterbury Church in Sevenoaks, Kent, by Archbishop Cowderoy. He was appointed to St Raphael’s in January 1971. Fr Dominic is remembered for his great enthusiasm for the youth of the parish. He ran a Youth Club, and encouraged the very popular Folk Masses. He also used to play football with the children at St Joseph’s School. During his time in the parish he married hundreds of couples and baptized thousands of babies. Fr Dominic was a much-loved parish priest. He had a natural affinity for people and stood by them through difficult times. Parishioners will always remember him as a most caring and loving shepherd of his flock who wanted to be with them to the end of his life. Fr Dominic retired in 2002, shortly after his Golden Jubilee as a priest. Following retirement, he continued to live in the parish and, until his health began to fail, to come to the church daily and concelebrate mass with Fr Vincent. He died on the 10thFebruary 2008 and was buried in Waterville, Ireland, from where his family came.

In 2002, Fr Vincent Flynn succeeded Fr O’Sullivan as fourth parish priest. Soon after his arrival he began looking at ways to restore the church and to provide much-needed modern facilities for the parish.

In 2007 a major programme of building and restoration began. In January 2009 scaffolding was erected on the outside of the church and the external stonework was cleaned and repaired. This work was carried out by P.A.Y.E. Stone Masons; at the same time the cross on the tower was gilded. In March 2010, work began on the new parish centre, named Alexander House, which incorporated parts of the old school. This provided a new hall, kitchen, library, toilets and meeting rooms. At the same time, the old caretaker’s cottage was extended to provide accommodation for the parish clergy. The design of these new buildings carefully complemented the style of the church and did not alter the appearance of the frontage. The work was carried out by the builders Lampard & Sons.

Read more about the restoration of St Raphael’s

Archbishop Peter Smith visited the parish in October 2010 and blessed the nearly completed buildings. The new parish centre was officially opened by Bishop Paul Hendericks on the 27 May 2011, the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury.  

In July 2011, scaffolding was erected inside the church and the firm Clough Harris began work on the restoration of the internal fabric. Careful investigation revealed the decorative scheme produced by Christopher Wray in 1874. The decision was made to replicate this on the sanctuary, and the artist Peter Stoff was commissioned to carry this out. The rest of the church was painted in cream and off-white, and the original gilding was restored, as were the statues. At the same time the stained-glass windows were restored in memory of Fr Dominic O’Sullivan, £50,000 being raised by parishioners for this. The whole project was completed in early 2012 and was funded by the sale of Claremont Hall and the presbytery in Maple Road, and by the generosity of the parishioners who raised many thousands of pounds. In 2013 The Kingston upon Thames Society awarded the church The Tony Leitch Townscape Award in recognition of the standard of work carried out. The whole of the project was overseen by Mr Nick Inskip from Synergy Construction and Property Consultants in Guildford. 

The church was finally consecrated on the 28 September 2012 by The Most Reverend Peter Smith, Metropolitan Archbishop of Southwark. Fr Flynn was succeeded by Fr Kevin Stokes in 2013 who became the fifth parish priest.

Fr. Stokes was succeed by Fr. Michael Lovell in 2017.