Called the “Apostle to the English,” Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who died in 604, was a monk in Rome at the monastery of Saint Andrew near the Coliseum. The monastery was found by Saint Gregory the Great on his family’s land. Gregory later became Pope and exerted a tremendous influence in the entire church, earning him the title, “the Great.” Among his many writings was the first documented life of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Saint Gregory was a promoter of monastic life and religious chant, today called “Gregorian” in his honor.
It was in 596 that Pope Gregory commissioned one his monks, Augustine (not to be confused with Saint Augustine of Hippo!), to lead a band of monks to Britain in order to evangelize King Ethelbert and his Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. King Ethelbert was married to a Christian, named Bertha, daughter of Charibert, a Merovingian king of the Franks.
There were already Christians in Kent before the arrival of Augustine, descendents of Christians who had settled in Britain in the later Roman Empire. Relatively few in number and not well organized in Great Britain, change took place with the arrival of Augustine and his fellow monks. Many converts were made and gradually dioceses were established in what is now England, Scotland and Wales.
Before all that occurred, though, Augustine and the other monastic missionaries Pope Gregory had sent to Britain became discouraged on the way. The pope wrote and urged the band on, and they finally arrived on the Isle of Thanet in Kent in 597. They proceeded on to Canterbury, not far away, as their monastic and missionary center. Outside the city walls of Canterbury a monastery was established, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Eventually Augustine became the first bishop of Canterbury in Kent. The gradual organizing of the Church in Britain over the course of the centuries was clearly rooted in the work of Augustine and his monks who had come from Rome.
The monastery Augustine founded, later named Saint Augustine’s in honor of the founder, remained open until the time of King Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. At that time the monastery was closed its shrine dedicated to Saint Augustine was destroyed.
After the Protestant Reformation no shrine existed to the memory of Saint Augustine of Canterbury. Only in the present century, in 2012 was a shrine dedicated to the “Apostle to the English,” re-established at the former abbey church of Saint Augustine in Ramsgate, Kent. This church in Ramsgate had been used by Benedictine monks of our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation from 1856 until 2011.
In 2011 the Ramsgate monks moved out of their far too large monastery and transferred to a former Franciscan friary they had purchased, at Chilworth in Surrey, England, in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
The Ramsgate buildings the Benedictines left were acquired by Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala, India. The church, however, designed by the famous English architect, Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52), belonging to the Archdiocese of Southwark, has become the “Shrine of Saint Augustine and the National Pugin Center.” Besides buildings at Ramsgae, Augustus Pugin was also the architect of such historic landmarks as the buildings of Parliament in London and the tower of Big Ben.
Apart from its historical and cultural importance, the Pugin-designed church at Ramsgate is also where I was ordained a transitional deacon on the Saturday of the Easter Octave in 1988. I was a student in Rome at the time and the monks of Ramsgate had not yet moved to Chilworth. It was a real joy and honor to return to Ramsgate this June while in Great Britain, and to see the restored interior of the Pugin church and the recently completed visitors’ center. Congratulations to all involved!
Augustus Pugin originally built the Ramsgate church for the Catholics of the town and as a memorial to the landing of Saint Augustine in nearby Thanet in 597. Since 1844 Pugin had his home in Ramsgate, called “the Grange,” which he also designed, located next to the church.
Monks from Subiaco Abbey, Italy, arrived at Ramsgate in 1856 and built their abbey across the street from the Pugin church, which became their place of worship. It never seems to have been a felicitous arrangement, though, especially when the street between the church and the abbey became a rather busy thoroughfare for traffic heading to France and Belgium across the nearby English Channel.
Pugin called Saint Augustine’s his “ideal church,” and his “own child.” It was built at his personal expense, beginning in 1846, after his home next door, called “The Grange,” had been completed. Pugin died in 1852 before the church was even finished. He was only forty years old. His son, Edward Pugin, eventually built the cloisters at the church, though to this day a tower and spire are absent from the church.
The design of the church is called “Gothic Revival,” derived from the “heaven-pointed architecture,” as it is sometimes called, of the Middle Ages. Augustus Pugin was the principal proponent of Gothic Revivial in 19th century England. His buildings in central London are of the same style. People sometimes think Parliament and Big Ben are from the Middle Ages, but in fact they are only from the 19th century. Pugin’s sons Edward and Peter Paul were also important in the overall interest in Gothic Revival in Britain at that time.
The beautiful stained glass windows in Saint Augustine’s church add to the Gothic “feel” of the relatively small church. Along with rest of the interior the stained glass windows have been cleaned and now look as good as new.
Augustus Pugin is buried in the Ramsgate church with other members of his family. In the cemetery outside the church are the moral remains of laity and many monks of Ramsgate, some of whom I knew, such as our late Abbot President Gilbert Jones.
For his churches Pugin always built “rood screens,” which divide the sanctuary (altar area) from the congregation, emphasizing the mystery and holiness of the Mass. This is a usual feature of English Gothic churches. The rood screen in the Ramsgate church was moved in 1970, in an attempted “modernization” of the building, to the Lady Chapel, to the right of the sanctuary. In 2016 it was fittingly moved back to where it had originally been, at the high altar area.
Mass is celebrated in the church, now known as the “Shrine of Saint Augustine,” each day at noon. On Sundays there are two Masses, one at 8:30 am and one at noon. Sung Vespers are prayed in the church once a month.
Though “off the beaten path,” and a long way from Rome, Ramsgate by the sea is close to Canterbury and has strong links to the city of Rome. Plan to visit for pilgrimage and prayer at both Canterbury and Ramsgate on your next visit to Great Britain.
Also near to Ramsgate is the historic monastery of Minster, where Benedictine nuns reside, and a mile or so away, the “Saint Augustine Cross,” at Pegwell Bay, a modest but important memorial to the landing of Augustine and his monks on the Isle of Thanet in 597.