As Islington landmarks go, one stands considerably taller than the rest. Arsenal is the borough’s football club and St Mary’s, halfway along Upper Street, is the borough’s church, its spire dominating Islington’s skyline. There’s been a church on the site since the 12th century. New church buildings were dedicated in the 1480s and again in 1754.
St Mary’s has always been of imposing proportions; into the 19th century, with Islington still a leafy outskirt of London, the parish it served stretched as far as Highgate.
On the third night of the blitz, September 9, 1940, St Mary’s took a direct hit from a German bomb and was left in ruins, all but its tower and spire. The Church Hall, set further back from Upper Street, was undamaged; religious services and the life of St Mary’s continued through the War and beyond. In 1946, a rebuilding fund was set up to raise the £25,000 needed to restore the church as a place of worship.
St Mary’s as it now is was re-dedicated in 1956. Arsenal’s contribution to the rebuilding of St Mary’s can still be seen today. Picked out by the natural light which floods through the present church’s huge, clear glass windows, is lettering on one of thirty pews which commemorate particular donations: THIS PEW WAS THE GIFT OF THE ARSENAL FOOTBALL CLUB.
1956 was a year for re-building across Islington. That year, the roof over the North Bank – destroyed, like St Mary’s during the blitz – was replaced. The Arsenal connection remains strong, one way or another. The current vicar at St Mary’s, the Rev Simon Harvey, grew up in Wolverhampton, in a family with no London connections.
Nonetheless, in 1969 his parents – ‘not football people at all!’ – announced that their sons would get football shirts for Christmas and asked them which ones they’d like. Although he’d never seen the Club play, the call of the red and white was strong, it seems, and seven year old Simon asked for an Arsenal shirt and got it. Just in time, he recalls, ‘to enjoy the glory of the 1970/71 double season as a long-distance supporter’.
Every summer, the church puts on a week of community events under the banner ‘Soul in the City’, with a penalty shootout competition put on by Arsenal in the Community coaches a Saturday afternoon highlight. And all year round, of course, St Mary’s ministers to Arsenal supporters from across the borough.
Generations of supporters have had their births, marriages and deaths marked on the premises, even though the parish now covers a much smaller geographical area between Liverpool Road and Essex Road. Just last year St Mary’s witnessed a particularly poignant testament to the connection between church and football club in local people’s lives. Islington youngster Sonny Anderson, just 11, died from cancer and his funeral was held at St Mary’s. Sonny had been a lifelong Arsenal fan and the church was hung with scarves donated by the Club for his funeral. Afterwards, Sonny’s funeral cortege travelled along Upper Street to pause outside the Emirates, where a family friend had left sunflowers on one of the cannons.
St Mary’s and Arsenal will continue to leave their marks on the borough. The church tower, like much of Highbury, survived the blitz. After St Mary’s had rebuilt its former home, it became possible once again to climb up inside the spire.
You can still get up there now and enjoy the best view in Islington, taking in the new home the borough’s football club built itself in 2006.
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