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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of Our Lady and the English Martyrs

What is Our Lady and the English Martyrs?

Our Lady and the English Martyrs, full name Our Lady of The Assumption and The English Martyrs, is the second Catholic church built in Cambridge after the English Reformation.



Our Lady and the English Martyrs History

The church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs (known by the acronym OLEM) is a historic Catholic church with a remarkable history. As the second-tallest building in Cambridge with a 65-metre-high spire, it’s one of the first great buildings of the city that visitors encounter on their journey from the station. It’s also one of the largest Catholic churches in the United Kingdom and is designed in a traditional cruciform (or cross) layout, in an ornate and imposing Gothic Revival style. Construction began in 1885 and the church was completed five years later, but what it may lack in terms of age compared to other buildings in the city, it makes up for with its storied history.


This large, impressive church was the second post-Reformation Catholic church to be constructed in a city that is very closely linked with the English Reformation (when England slowly reformed from a Catholic to a Protestant country). Cambridge is considered by many to have been the cradle of the movement. As a result, the construction of this Catholic church engendered no small amount of controversy. Both Anglican and university officials objected not only to the building but to the name of the church itself, given that it references religious conflicts within the country.


Securing funding for the construction of the church was difficult until significant donations were received from a retired French ballet dancer named Yolande Lyne-Stephens, who was said to be the richest woman in England. The first Mass held was attended by nearly all the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, and the church has successfully hosted a congregation ever since. During the Second World War, a bomb struck the sacristy (or priest’s room) and blew a hole in both the roof and a wall of the church, shattering most of its glass. Repairs were expensive but successful, and the church continues to be active to this day.


While the grand interior deserves a visit on its own merits, there’s one item of particular note on display there: an oak carving of the Virgin and Child dating from the mid-16th century that was given to the church by Emmanuel College. It was said to have stood in the Dominican priory that originally occupied the college site.


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