A NATIVITY SCENE Underneath the arches

We talk with Father Michael Cooley at Our Lady of La Salette and St Joseph Church about the history of local traditions by Owen Rice

church records are one way to trace your family back though the years. There are few local registers as comprehensive and illuminating as the extensive archives at La Salette church on Melior street. The church was built in 1861 giving a home to the Webbe Street Catholic Mission and its records go all the way back to that time.

Father Cooley La Salette

Father Michael Cooley seems to know a story from every family that has lived locally over the decades. Every street reveals yet another story and links across the 12 villages that used to make up SE1. Marriages mostly stayed within these small clusters of community and through the years of records held at the church, Father Michael is able to share insights into almost every street, window and family.

It was not uncommon 100 years ago for couples to marry on Christmas Day avoiding the expense of two large festive meals for the hosts and families bringing gifts. The middle of the cold and dark winter has always been a time for a festival. Surprisingly it was only in AD 336 that 25th December was selected as the birth of Christ (just after the shortest day of the year) adopting the winter festival of the ‘Unconquered Sun’.

“They came at last to London Bridge, As the snow began to fall

Another insight into the past way of life in Bermondsey is a pre-war procession through the streets and an Italian tradition of making an altarpiece in the window for a priest to bless. The Procession began in Weston Street and moved along Snowsfields, down Bermondsey Street, along Long Lane, Kipling Street, Guys Street and back to the church via Weston Street again.
La Salette Map London Bridge St Joseph Church

Father Michael was also able to share with us another seasonal and local gem: a nativity carol set in the streets and tunnels just south of the river. The desperate livelihood that people dug out for themselves from living and working along the river echoes through the carol, featured in the parish Christmas magazine in 1936.


I saw a ship come sailing in
across the wintry sea
I saw a ship come sailing in
as gaily as could be,
And Joseph stood upon the bridge
Asteering her was he,
And Mary sat on the Quarter Deck
With a Child upon her knee.

They sailed into London town
On a tide both strong and deep,
They sought a lodging far and wide
That was both clean and cheap.
They sought in court they sought in hall
They sought in every street,
But they could find no room at all
For folks were all asleep.

They came at last to London Bridge
As the snow began to fall,
They crossed the river full and deep
And saw the Arches tall.
“A cave, a stall, some hay and all!”
At once St. Joseph said,
And there Our Lady laid her Child
While the trains roared overhead.

The simple hope and symbolism of the carol gives a real sense of a local writer. There’s also a poetry and meaning to these biblical stories that historical facts don’t have.
La Salette Altar Window Sepia Old Photo

As Father Michael says, ‘For those who can see it, the birth of a child, the coming of light, life and love is magic, something to ponder every day and permanently. Hence every generation continues to produce its own artistic representations and carols.’

Our Lady of Salette & St Joseph Catholic Church
14 Melior Street
London SE1 3QP
t: 020 7407 1948
w: www.rc.net/southwark/londonbridge-lasalette

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