Back street churches tend to be a touch humdrum – cramped, anonymous, easily overlooked. That's not true of St Peter-in-Chains, a Catholic church in that tangle of streets where Crouch End shades into Stroud Green.

"We are kind of hid away from anything," says Father Sean Carroll, reflecting ruefully on his own difficulty finding the place when he first pitched up in the parish more than a decade ago.

The building itself is, in architectural terms, unremarkable. Compact certainly – though the church reported a year after it opened that its Sunday morning service attracted almost 500 worshippers – but with a typical steeply sloping roof which towers over the three-storeyed houses on either side.

Its real distinction is the new porch, completed as recently as 2019, and the glorious picture window with its depictions of modern-day saints and saints-to-be looking out on Womersley Road.

The monochrome images contrast wonderfully against the red brick of the original church and add an entirely new dimension to an ageing place of worship. And it offers drama and surprise to this otherwise pedestrian streetscape.

"The porch is a liminal space – where the sacred and secular meet," according to Father Sean.

Ham & High: The six saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch End, represent all five continentsThe six saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch End, represent all five continents (Image: Andrew Whitehead)

The saints on the window are "looking out to the world and looking in to where we pray and get our strength".

In the 1890s, the task of building this new parish was give to the Canons Regular of the Lateran, better known as the Augustinians.

The order follows the rule of the fifth century St Augustine of Hippo, whose youth was so dissolute – and whose father was so wayward – that his mother, St Monica, is the patron saint of difficult marriages and disappointing children as well as of victims of adultery and abuse.

The Augustinians took the lead in the parish for 120 years relinquishing that role only in 2004.

Augustinian priests initially based themselves in a couple of adjoining houses, numbers 10 and 12 Womersley Road, now just next to St Peter's. No 12 – still the presbytery – bears the inscription "Austin Canons" on the glass above the door. And it's here that the parish's first mass was celebrated in November 1894.

The church building was completed in 1902. St Peter-in-Chains was a dedication first used by a church in Rome built to house the relic of the chains that bound St Peter, the fisherman, when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem.

The church porch was of much later construction and as long ago as 2012, discussion started on a replacement.

"The delay was due," says the church's website, in a form of words which suggests a showdown of epic – almost Biblical – proportions, "to the difficulty, not to say impossibility, in reconciling the wishes of most parishioners with regards to the style of the new porch with what the planning department at Haringey Council would accept".

The porch almost wilfully doesn't fit in to the style of St Peter's but neither does it obscure the front of the church. It's elegant, modern and is intended – much like the window inside the church marking the centenary of the First World War – as an expression of a prayer for peace.

The windows are the stand-out aspect of the porch, with eye-catching life-size images of six inspiring twentieth century Catholics. They are designed to work just as well from the outside looking in as from the porch looking out. There are two layers of toughened glass and the images are digitally imprinted - those facing in being different in aspect and detail from those looking out.

Ham & High: Francis Van Thuan and Archbishop Oscar Romero, two of the six saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch EndFrancis Van Thuan and Archbishop Oscar Romero, two of the six saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch End (Image: Andrew Whitehead)

The St Peter's six are (from left to right):

  1. Josephine Bakhita, born in Sudan and enslaved as a child, who became a nun and spent much of her life as a woman religious in Italy where she died in 1947 – she is the patron saint of survivors of human trafficking.
  2. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who voluntarily changed places with a fellow detainee at Auschwitz who was about to be killed – he was canonised in 1982.
  3. Francis Van Thuan, a Vietnamese Cardinal who spent thirteen years in a re-education camp, nine of them in solitary confinement – he was named as Venerable, a step towards canonisation, in 2017.
  4. Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot dead while celebrating mass during El Salvador's civil war – he was made a saint in 2018.
  5. Dorothy Day, a New Yorker and political radical who co-founded the Catholic Worker – she is being investigated by the church for possible canonisation.
  6. Mother Teresa, instantly recognisable, who devoted her life to the destitute of Calcutta, founded the Missionaries of Charity and won the Nobel Peace Prize – and was canonised in 2016.

Ham & High: Josephine Bakhita and Maximilian Kolbe, two of the saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch EndJosephine Bakhita and Maximilian Kolbe, two of the saints at St Peter-in-Chains, Crouch End (Image: Andrew Whitehead)

Father Sean initiated conversations about the choice of figures – and was particularly keen to include Oscar Romero, a martyr who fought against injustice but, being aware that he was a potential target, bore no malice towards those who sought to kill him. The suggestion of Francis Van Thuan came from Vietnamese members of the congregation.

Someone pointed out that the porch was heading towards an all-male cast list. That prompted the decision to ensure equal numbers of men and women, and Father Sean is particularly pleased that they represent five continents – not least because his church says its members hail from 89 nations.

Dorothy Day is the most controversial of the choices. She supported the movement to organise seasonal farm labourers in California and is seen as bearing witness to the church's work among undocumented migrants. She also had an abortion when a young woman, before her conversion, and some felt that made her an inappropriate choice.

Father Sean is unrepentant: "I'm very happy with our new porch from a faith point-of-view."

Andrew Whitehead is the author of the recently published Curious Crouch End.