Atina in the Val di Comino

Our Own Italian Church in The Heart of Clerkenwell’s Little Italy

St Peter’s Italian church played a huge role in the life of our Italian community, being centred right in the beating heart of Il Quartiere Italiano. The church was the focal gathering point and its spiritual home. It was ministered by an army of Italian priests belonging to the Palotine Fathers, the church having been founded by San Vincenzo Pallotti back in 1863.  Some of the Italian priests I can remember are Father Cristianelli, Father Antonilli, Father Crescitelli and Father Chiaponcelli.

During WWII the Italian priests were interned so a group of Irish priests came to serve the congregation’s needs.  This included  Father Haines,  Father Kelly, Father Hedderman and Father Gough.  In 1953 it was eventually returned to the guardianship of the Italian priests.

As we made our way into the church we would bless ourselves with holy water by the entrance, and then we would reverently genuflect and cross ourselves when passing in front of the golden crucifix.  Inside the church it was like entering a different world, you could find a peaceful sanctuary from the bustle of the busy, grey London streets.   We would light candles for our loved ones, both the living and the deceased, while whispering prayers in the flickering soft light.

It was mainly the women who attended church regularly, many were white haired, their heads covered with black scarves or mantillas. They came tightly clutching their rosaries.

On Sundays the various services would take up most of our day. The huge doleful bell known as the “Steel Monster” would summon the faithful to the various services. Masses, conducted in Italian, would start early in the morning, and would continue at regular intervals.  High Sung Mass was held at 11 o’clock.  Everyone wore their Sunday best, however it was the habit of certain young ladies to arrive late, seriously interrupting the concentration of the congregation as they filed past like mannequins in their latest outfits.  One day in exasperation the priest scolded them by shouting out “This is not a fashion parade!” The next Mass was the 12 o’clock.  Then later, at 3 o’clock, there was children’s Catechism. This was followed by an Italian service at 4 o’clock. Finally at 7 o’clock in the evening there were Vespers, and Benediction at 8 pm.

Mr Driscoll was in charge of the altar servers. I can recall: Charlie Nolan; Albert and Peter Tanasso; Joe Bacuzzi; Lou and Pip Terroni; Italo Servini; George Seymour; Vin and Leo Fackler.

Mr Henry would wash the altar servers’ cottas and altar linen.  There were many helpers in the church such as Patsy Hearn, Mr Fackler and Mrs Faccini.  The Laurati family held a piety stall at the top of the steps of the church. Mrs Bruschini collected for St Antony’s masses, Mary Cappoci collected for church flowers and Mr Casey organised collections in church.

The church was constantly trying to raise money.  The building was in need of restoration, and a collection of funds was organised with the aid of some special cards which were printed in the shape of a crucifix, made up of small squares.  For every penny collected the donor would prick a little hole in the card with a pin.

Every third Sunday of the month within the church there was the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. I can remember my friend Emmi Malangone taking the lead, carrying the symbol of the Immaculate Conception followed by a group of girls, each dressed in white wearing a pretty wreath of fresh flowers on their heads.

Next in line were the Conserelle del Sacro Cuore, a confraternity of women who each wore black dresses and around their neck a gold medallion attached to a red silk ribbon.

Then came the altar servers wearing rich red coloured cassocks and white surplices followed by a priest who swung a chained incense burner filling the church with smokey aromatic fragrances.  Next were a group of younger flower girls who carried baskets from which they took handfuls of rose petals, which they kissed, before lightly scattering them in the path of the priests who followed them reverently carrying the Blessed Sacrament.

One of the priests dressed in ceremonial robes, would wear an embroidered wrap around  his shoulders which he used to grasp the “monstrance” displaying the consecrated host, so as not to actually touch it with his hands. Above him there was a decorative canopy supported by four staff bearers, who were members of  the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament, dressed in their white robes and red capes, and each wearing their own special medallion. As the procession wound its way around the church, the congregation sang hymns, accompanied by the magnificent church organ. I always longed to be one of the petal carrying girls, but sadly I was never selected for this role – perhaps it was because I limped. 

The church had an outstanding choir, it was renowned for its excellent musical ability. 

Regular concerts were held, featuring distinguished soloists and orchestras. Over the years operatic stars appearing at Covent Garden would come to sing at St. Peter’s such as Caruso, Francesco Tamagno, Luisa Tetrazzini, Dame Nellie Melba and Adelina Patti.  

The organist was Mr Stephens and here is a list of some of the choir members:  Luigi Sartori, Ronald Britton, Vera Britton, John Tracy, Maude Donelly, Bernard Toglionini, Maria Di Lucca, Hetty Maynard, Albert Barbieri, Aldo Barbieri, Mary Smith, D. Molinari, Tom Curtis, Emilia Caira, Pat Dillon, Ivo Cardetti, … Servini.  When I was old enough I also used to sing regularly in the Choir.

Next to the church was a convent run by the Sisters of Charity.  The nuns worked  tirelessly  within the church, the school and throughout the community, and were known  to frequently hand out food and hot drinks to the local beggars and vagrants.

The photograph on the right shows one of the nuns sweeping the pavement outside St. Peter’s Italian Church.

My First Communion

Our Catholic childhood was marked by certain important religious milestones, such as our first Confession, our First Communion, and our Confirmation.  Preparing for our First Communion was a particularly important event in our lives, when we were instructed to dutifully attend Mass, and study the Catechism from our little red books.

First Communicants traditionally were dressed all in white. however this year the headmistress, Sister Margaret, who was in charge of proceedings, got a bee in her bonnet and instructed us children to wear black stockings and shoes. Her excuse was that she thought these would be cheaper for our families to buy.  Mamma thought this was a ridiculous idea, and said that I would be dressed all in white and that was that!  One of my friends, Assunta, decided to follow suit.

On the day of my First Communion Mamma carefully laid out my outfit on the bed.  It consisted of a pretty little white dress, brand new white shoes and socks, even new knickers which I seem to remember were starched and rather scratchy.  Mamma lovingly helped me to get dressed, fussing and smoothing my dress, carefully combing and arranging my black curls to frame my dark eyes and pretty face.  Finally she gently fixed the white veil in place with a little crown of white silken roses. Everything had to be just perfect.  Yes, I was a poor little Italian girl, however on this special day I was to be treated like a beautiful Princess.

My friend and I arrived at the church in our gleaming white outfits.  When St Margaret caught sight of us she went into a fit of rage.  She said that if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the Day of our First Communion, she would have sent us both back home.  Meanwhile our proud parents and relatives excitedly assembled in the church for High Mass.

     Me on my First Communion day

In a feeble attempt to conceal us, Sister Margaret stuck us right at the very back of the line of children.  As we all slowly filed down the aisle towards the altar,  Mamma at last caught sight of me and Assunta and commented quite out loud how beautiful we looked – “Che Belle!  After the service we were ushered to the school hall where a celebration breakfast had been laid on for us, and we were presented with commemorative certificates, medals and holy pictures.  I also received presents from my family and relations, a pearly white rosary, a gold cross and chain and a bible bound in white leather.

I, like many other children, were brought to the local photographer’s to get commemorative photographs taken.

The photos below are of my cousins Lino and Lina on their First Communion Day, with Zia Marietta.

Lina and Lino’s First Communion

Lina and Lino’s First Communion

Italian Heart

Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.  Images marked * are in the Public Domain. 

Photos marked with  are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.

All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself –  © Louise Shapcott