A modern octagonal brick building. The parish website says it was consecrated in 1967. Above the front door there is a sign saying ‘Welcome to St David's’ and this appears to be the only decoration. Beyond the porch, the church opens out into one large space with some niches for statutes and a small shop selling rosaries and cards and other Catholic knick-knacks.
The congregation appear to be very international, which may reflect the opportunities provided by the airport and the associated industries. There are several parish groups that (quoting from their website) ‘meet for prayer, social action, sacramental preparation, youth work and the support of others.’ There is one mass each Sunday plus the Saturday vigil, and weekday mass every day except Thursday.
The village of Stanwell is only one-half mile from Heathrow Airport. The name is thought by some to be a contraction of ‘St Anne’s Well’ – indeed, there is a spring feeding a small pool that attracts visitors and is said to have healing properties. The land was given over to orchards until the latter part of the 19th century, when housing began to take root. When the airport was built, the village lost some of its land to it. Stanwell Place, once a grand manor house, was sold to King Faisal II of Iraq in 1947. The king owned it until 1958, when he was assassinated, after which it became derelict and was finally demolished. The Stanwell Hotel advertises itself as ‘a friendly hotel … an ideal base for visitors to the many attractions which are nearby.’ The church is situated in a residential area adjacent to Heathrow Airport and very close to the M25 motorway.
The priest celebrated mass and preached.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Vigil Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
How full was the building?
The church was about one-third full. There were a good number of family groups hugging seats near the walls, probably to benefit from the heaters on the walls.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The darkness, the pouring rain and large puddles in the car park meant the arriving crowd greeted each other as people do when they have just experienced adversity together. A young man held the door open as we hurried inside out of the bleak mid-winter.
Was your pew comfortable?
The best seats were around the edges near the heaters. I installed myself with my back to the hot air on a reasonably comfortable wooden pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We sat relatively quietly and people quietly greeted each other behind us. I could see through to the sacristy, where the priest was grappling with his microphone.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
As Father arrived at his seat: ‘Can you hear me? What about at the back?’ We raised our thumbs to show we could hear him. Mass started with ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No hymns, so no hymn books. A lady near the door offered us a mass card if we needed it.
What musical instruments were played?
No music during mass. Afterwards, it appeared that Father had arranged a recording of ‘Adeste Fideles,’ which was playing in the porch. That gave us a little Christmassy boost as we prepared to tackle the inclement weather.
Did anything distract you?
Wondering why it was a church dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, who doesn't get to be the patron of many churches in the east of England. There was a statue at the back of the church that may have been of St David, but I couldn't find an explanation of his interest in the Stanwell area.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A quiet Saturday evening mass. The celebrant led the prayers reverently and with conviction.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — I've only given a 7, as the priest started the sermon with a long story about an Indian taxi driver driving very slowly and infuriating his Japanese passenger who was in a hurry. Then it turned out that his fare meter had been working very quickly, so the slow journey cost a great deal. I wondered how this was going to fit with the readings. We had had Isaiah's prophesy to Ahaz (‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son …’); the first verses of St Paul's letter to the Romans; and Matthew's gospel account of Joseph's dream. I couldn't see a connection, and I don't think Father managed to link them convincingly. Maybe he just saw an opportunity to share the joke.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The wait is nearly over. Christmas is nearly here. We should ask Mary's help to prepare for Jesus' birth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon gained an extra point for the maybe rather obvious argument that Jesus wasn't born on Christmas so that we could enjoy a day of celebration and feasting. He came to save us. Not a new idea, but one that is worth remembering in the week leading up to Christmas.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Despite that, though, Father seemed keen to arrange for the church to be decorated and talked about getting a big tree as in previous years. A reminder of the evening’s brutal weather was the sound of waterproof jackets and leggings rustling every time we stood up or knelt down. The offertory procession added some extra crackle and swishing of plastic coats. This rose to a crescendo when everyone walked up to receive holy communion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was busy sorting out Christmas and getting back into any waterproofs they had removed. ‘What are the mass times on Christmas Day?’ ‘Will there be a midnight mass?’ ‘Oh, perhaps I’ll go to the earlier children’s mass rather than venturing out so late at night.’ And so on. There was a table with Christmas cards on it bearing parishioners’ names; people busied themselves sorting through those looking for a card addressed to them. I had a browse of the little shop but there was no salesperson to take my money. I didn't get to chat to anyone as we gave each other a cheery shrug when we headed outside and realised the rain was getting worse.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No refreshments, which didn't surprise me, as it was the vigil mass. People are there for convenience, not for staying to drink coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — I would be very happy to go to mass here if I was in the area. I was travelling and needed to find a mass to accommodate my early Sunday morning flight. I was surprised that it didn't appear that there were other travellers in the congregation or that the parishioners didn't appear to be on the lookout for strangers.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it was good to join a local community worshipping and preparing for Christmas.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Jesus wasn't born on Christmas Day to provide us with a day of celebration and feasting. He came to save us.