London churches welcome Olympic visitors

MANCHESTER, England - The peal of church bells across London for three minutes beginning at 8:12 a.m., July 27 signified that after seven years of intense preparation the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had at last reached England's capital.

The mass bell-ringing was an initiative in which all of the city's churches were invited to take part. Even "Edward," the massive bell of the Catholic Westminster Cathedral, was among those that rang out to herald the arrival of the games.

Big Ben, the bell of St. Stephen's Tower at the Houses of Parliament, rang for three minutes for the first time since the funeral of King George VI in 1952.

But as the bell tolling ended and the focus switched with anticipation to the opening ceremony later that day, three Catholic churches in particular understood that the chimes signaled the start of a very busy time.

The churches are serving as hospitality centers for visitors to the games, which run July 27-Aug. 12.

One parish, St. Francis of Assisi, stands just a quarter-mile east of the Olympic Park. Two large marquees have been erected and fitted with big screen televisions in the church parking lot to broadcast all events live. Free refreshments were to be offered 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

"It is a very casual hospitality suite," Frank van Velzen, assistant Catholic coordinator for the games, told CNS July 26.

"We have got table tennis and badminton and games for the youngsters to play but there is also a quiet prayer garden for people to get away from the noise," he said.

St. Franciscan parish will see its clergy increase more than threefold as local pastors are joined by friars from Italy and Portugal so confessions can be heard in several languages and Mass and Benediction can be celebrated with unusual frequency.

The church was to be open around the clock for eucharistic adoration.

On July 29, athletes and their families were expected to pack the church when Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was to celebrate Mass for the Puerto Rican national team.

The hospitality effort not only was to provide spiritual comfort to visitors but to make the churches better known to the wider London community.

Father Michael Dunne, the pastor of Our Lady and St. Catherine of Sienna Parish, also hosting a hospitality center, is aware of the witness the church would give to people who pass by during the games.

The church is situated on one of the main thoroughfares running west from the Olympic Park to central London and thousands of people will walk past its doors each day.

"We are very excited and want to share the faith," Father Dunne said.

"It is very important that we witness to Christ among us," he explained. "This is faith-sharing on the maximum scale."

Parishioners and volunteers were planning to stand on outside the church, offering visitors free bottles of water and votive candles and inviting them into the church. Sporting events were to be shown on a big screen television in the church hall. The parish garden, with 48 varieties of roses and a large statue of Mary, will be open for prayer.

The hospitality center that was to be burning the midnight oil, however, was at Notre Dame de France Parish, situated off Leicester Square in the heart of the West End entertainment, shopping and dining district.

As part of its attempt to offer hospitality, the Marist-run parish, was planning a "Praise Marathon" from 3 p.m., Aug. 4 and running through Aug. 5.

Anne-Marie Salgo, the parish's evangelization project coordinator, said the West End was often busiest in the early hours of the morning and that the parish wanted to offer a "welcoming service centering on the games."

"We believe that welcome is a very special charism of the Catholic Church in our location," she told CNS in a July 26 telephone interview.

"The Church of Notre Dame de France is an oasis of peace and a chance for people to get away from all the noise and to reflect on the deeper things in life."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970