Finding Catholic Community While Studying Abroad
Second-year student Saara Fikree looks back on how she connected with other Catholics in October 2022, her first month abroad in England.
I am currently at Royal Holloway, University of London for a year of studying abroad. Going to England was something I have wanted to do for years, and I decided to study abroad as an opportunity to be able to come here. There have been a few ups and downs, but I have been loving the experience so far.
Before heading off to the school, which is located about an hour outside of London, I spent a few days in London itself exploring the city and doing some sight-seeing. I went to places like Kensington Palace—where members of the royal family such as King William and Queen Mary had lived—Hyde Park, and Westminster Abbey. Everywhere was very different from usual due to the queen’s recent passing. There were flowers everywhere for her, and Westminster Abbey was closed to tourists as the queen’s funeral was going to be held there.
After my few days in London, I went to Egham, where Royal Holloway is located. I participated in something called the “New to the UK Programme” where I learned things about visas, schooling in the UK, and the nearby town. I also got to meet other international students and started to make some friends.
Coming to a different school, I knew I wanted to join the Catholic community here as that is where I eventually found my good friends at the University of Florida. Luckily, my first day in Egham was a Wednesday, which is when the Catholic Society at this university usually meets to have dinner together. It is always at the chaplain’s flat located behind the nearby Catholic Church. All of the people there were really nice, and I was excited to join the community.
That next Sunday was my first time going to Mass in England. There is a chapel located inside of the building I live in, Founder’s Building, and they have Catholic Mass there every Sunday at 7:30 PM and every Friday at 12:30 PM. Two things that struck me as unfamiliar about Mass here were the chapel itself and the Creed we said. The chapel looked to be fashioned after the inside of Westminster Abbey. The floor was black and white checkered, and the pews lined the side of the walls and faced the aisle rather than the altar. Also, there was no tabernacle behind the altar, but this is because the chapel is used by multiple different religions, not just Catholics. For the Creed, we did the Apostles’ Creed rather than the Nicene Creed, which was strange to me because in every Mass I had been to before, we always did the Nicene Creed.
I got everything else I needed for my dorm and my classes, tried out some different clubs and societies the school has, and got acquainted with the area. That week, I went to Wednesday dinner with the people from the Catholic Society for the second time. During this time, I learned that most of the people in the society were not originally from England, which made sense as most Christians in England are Anglicans and because the English used to persecute Catholics.
That Friday, I went to the Mass in the chapel. Once the Mass had concluded, I let Father John know that I was happy to sacristan if he needed someone to, as I had done it before at St. Augustine. He gladly took me up on the offer and started to show me where everything went.
Usually before Mass on Sundays, there is a service that starts at 6:00 p.m. that is open to anyone, where Christianity is talked about in reference to some other topic such as the environment or the government. One of my friends from the Catholic Society invited me to go with her to one of these services, and it was there that I learned that there is a sort of Bible Study that the Anglican Chaplain, Orion, leads. It is made up of mostly Anglicans, but anyone, including Catholics, is welcome to join. I had really enjoyed being in a Bible Study back at UF, so I decided to join this.
The Bible Study starts at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays with something called Evensong. It is kind of like Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, and it is based on Jewish worship that Jesus did. It has been in its current form since 1549. Catholic Evening Prayer and Anglican Evensong both have the Our Father, Intercessions, the Canticle of Mary (also known as the Magnificat), a reading from the Bible, and a psalm. Evensong also includes the Apostles’ Creed, which I find a little ironic as they include the part that says, “I believe… in the holy Catholic Church…”
One girl that I met there invited me to Compline, which is another name for Catholic Night Prayer. It was sung by a few members of the chapel choir, and they sounded beautiful. While I spent time in prayer at the end, I decided that I did not want to come to Compline again as it made me miss doing Night Prayer with my friends in the Hurley Chapel or on a call together. I’ve chosen to just stick to doing Night Prayer on my own or with other Catholics while I am abroad.
During the same Sunday where I learned about this Bible Study, Father John asked me to help altar serve as the chapel choir, who sounds stunning, would be singing for the Mass, and he wanted to have the cross carried down with incense at the beginning and end of Mass. It was my first time altar serving, and I had to have Orion and a visiting priest help me figure out how to tie the rope around my waist.
The following Friday, I went on a short pilgrimage to London with other members of the Catholic society. We took a train to London and first went to Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral located near Westminster Abbey. It has many different chapels within it, including ones for the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, England and its martyrs, Ireland and its martyrs, Wales and its martyrs, Saint Joseph, and English martyrs. Many past Cardinals are also buried in the cathedral. Westminster Cathedral is unfinished, though, as it was to be decorated using mosaic patterns, and it would take way too much time to completely do that. Of the finished mosaics, my favorite is the one in the chapel for the English martyrs. Within the cathedral, there is also a statue of Saint Peter, and many Catholics rub his toe for good luck like they do in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The overall trip to the cathedral was made even better by the fact that Father John was so knowledgeable about everything there (he had known a few of the Cardinals that are buried there), so I was able to learn a lot about the place.
After spending time at the cathedral, we went to Westminster Abbey for Evensong, which wasn’t too far from the cathedral. This was my first time inside of Westminster Abbey, and it was gorgeous. When I first walked into the abbey, I was absolutely blown away. The singers were also amazing, and I was so glad that I was able to go. I was sitting just a few feet away from where the queen’s tomb had been a few weeks prior for the funeral!
I am so glad and thankful that I have been able to find such a great Catholic community here, and I cannot wait to spend more time with these people and get to learn and experience more things.