St Paul's Within the Walls celebrates 140th anniversary

St Paul's Within the Walls, the American Episcopal Church of Rome, celebrates its 140th anniversary on Friday 25 January, on the festival of the conversion of St Paul. On the same day in 1873 the cornerstone of the church was laid at the top of Via Nazionale in the city centre. It was the first non-Roman Catholic church to be built inside the city’s walls, and the historic moment was captured by the first rector of the American Congregation in Rome, the Rev. William Chauncey Langdon, two days after construction began:

"Several of the Roman papers of yesterday or today give more or less detailed accounts of an event which must have awakened unwonted reflections in the mind of many a thoughtful Roman; the first stone has been freely, formally, and openly laid, of a church which is designed to rise toward heaven, a solemn witness, in this papal city, of a faith which is Catholic without being papal, and Protestant without ceasing to be Catholic. If the completed church arrests the attention of Italians in any proportion to the effect of this laying of its cornerstone, the Festival of St Paul, 1873, will be an epoch, not merely as a friend said to me, in the history of our Church, but in that of the Church of Italy as well.”

The church's foundation dates back to 1870, the year that the city of Rome ceased being governed by the Vatican. For about ten years before this a growing number of American Christians of various non-Catholic denominations worshipped "outside the walls", in line with the prevailing laws. However Italy’s new constitution in 1870 allowed freedom of worship and the construction of non-Roman Catholic churches within the city walls. Funds were raised to build a church “within the walls" and the site on Via Nazionale was purchased for $18,000 in 1872.

Designed by leading English architect George Edmund Street (who also designed Rome’s All Saints’ Anglican Church on Via del Babuino), the completed church was consecrated four years later. Its architecture is a mixture of Romanesque and Victorian Gothic but it is the building’s mosaics that are of particular importance. The 19th-century British pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones devoted 26 years to decorating the apse and the choir. His mosaics – which include likenesses to Giuseppe Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln among other recognisable figures – are of such artistic value that the building was designated a national monument by the Italian government.

These days Rev. Austin Keith Rios is the 15th rector of the church which welcomes a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural congregation and is also home to the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. Over the past number of years the building has undergone a comprehensive restoration project.

St Paul's Within the Walls, Via Napoli 58 (corner Via Nazionale), tel. 064883339.

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