The arrival of the Oratorian movement in Barcelona as part of the Counter-Reformation led to a growth of spirituality in the city even as it suffered under economic and political decline. St. Philip Neri founded the Congregation of the Oratory in Rome in 1575, and the Oratorians quickly spread through much of Europe. For English-speaking readers, perhaps the most famous of the Oratories is that on Brompton Road, in the Kensington neighborhood of London, which is inextricably linked with Cardinal Newman.
In the Middle Ages the area where the Congregation now resides was just outside of the Call, Barcelona’s Jewish ghetto, and was the site of a Jewish cemetery. After the expulsion of the Jews from Barcelona, the property came into the hands of the Cabrera family, who built several properties on the site over the next three hundred years. In 1673, the Cabreras donated the land to the Oratorians, who moved in and began to establish their nascent community and a school, both of which are still in operation today.
The present church was built between 1748 and 1752 in a high baroque style, though as is often the case with Barcelona churches, its lavish decoration proved irresistible to destruction during the Civil War. However, the church bears witness to violence by both sides. Under the Leftists, many priests and religious were executed against the facade, since it was easy to close off access to the square. Then, on January 13, 1938, a bomb dropped by Franco’s forces fell in the small plaza occupied by the church and school, killing 42 people – the majority of them schoolchildren. The still-scarred facade bears witness to these events.
Today the peaceful square in front of the church with its fountain and tall trees is a haven amidst the narrow streets and busy shoppers of the Gothic Quarter. Children from the Oratory School still play here during their breaks, and a fashionable new hotel across from the church has a highly-regarded restaurant on the square. In addition to the Oratorians and their pupils, the church is also the home of the Coral Sant Jordi, the “St. George Choral Society”, which is popular throughout Catalonia for their eclectic concerts of everything from early classical music to choral re-interpretations of jazz standards.