Touring the Country Church At Hutt’s Gate | Sharon Henry
For a little bit of time travel and church tourism we’re showcasing St Helena churches in a series of blog posts. They make interesting places to visit and offer fascinating insights of our island heritage.
My earliest memory of St Matthew’s church is feeling like a princess at a family wedding. I was wearing a new dress, blue chiffon with tiny white flowers. The sprinkling of rice confetti at the happy occasion heightened the experience for me and my identically-dressed sister.
Fast forward a few years the flashback makes me smile as I pass through the lopsided churchyard of St Matthew’s and open the door to go inside.
Say A Little Prayer
It’s a typical St Helena winter’s day, the floor’s wet and buckets catch leaks as wind and rain lash the tin roof. But, despite the cold and damp, St Matthew’s offers a warming welcome through its open guest book and displayed information about the church’s history.
I say a quick prayer then get the camera out for a photo tour.
I have to admit, although this is my neighbourhood church, my most regular visits are for Harford School’s annual Nativity play when there’s always a full house.
Beautiful Stained-Glass Windows Of St Helena Churches
A fleeting ray of sunshine bursts through the flower window above the doorway, spilling red onto the floor tiles. Too quick for me to get a picture.
St Matthew’s is a musty country church that has a certain charm and some lovely features. The most striking are the stained-glass windows.
A few pews in, facing Hutt’s Gate Store, is a picture of Michael the Archangel, with colours so vibrant it’s mesmerising. According to the book by Edward Cannan, Churches of the South Atlantic Islands, it was dedicated to memory of the officers and men of the Deal Regiment of the Royal Marines who fell in Gallipoli in 1915. I’m not sure what the direct connection is.
The St Helena Boer Prisoner Guards
Deep, rich colours continue in the stained-glass above the altar showing the Crucifixion of Jesus on the cross with The Virgin and St John on either side.
There are two more of these backlit pictures inside the semi-domed apse, of St Matthew and St Peter, although they’re pretty much only visible at close range. They were donated by the soldiers stationed on St Helena in 1900-01 to guard the Boer prisoners held here during the Second Boer War. A footnote reads, ‘Colonel Earl Bathurst and Countess Bathurst and Officers of the 4th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment.’
Give Me Oil In My Lamp
Another lovely feature are the hanging brass oil lamps that I try to photograph from a few angles. They date back to 1933 and in this age of electricity, are no longer used but still look to be in good condition.
St Matthew’s Church was built in 1862 but it’s a surprise to learn, the building I’m standing in, is not the original. No, the first was a prefab made in England of corrugated iron with wood lining and erected on this very spot.
Unfortunately, after 53 years it succumbed to the elements and in 1915 was rebuilt in quite an ingenious way.
If These Walls Could Speak…
Thick stone walls were constructed four feet outside of the existing prefab ones, thus encasing the ruined structure. The original roof trusses, having survived the weather, were incorporated into the new building and are still intact.
Once all was done, the old prefab walls were removed and hey presto – a new church!
St Matthew’s sits on the Hutt’s Gate junction, joining Alarm Forest to Longwood and Levelwood. The area I’m told was full of activity during the 50s and 60s when there was a shop, school and a flax mill here.
At Step Back In Time With Larry
Larry Johnson, a former choir boy of St Matthew’s, joins me on my tour and paints such a vivid picture of parish life, I can almost hear the clopping of donkey hooves.
He grew up next door, at Hutt’s Gate Store, in the days when it was a functioning shop. Days when the parish priest taught local kids at Hutt’s Gate school. Days when it was normal to see packs of 30-40 laden donkeys transporting flax to the mill.
Larry is currently a churchwarden of St James but he began his church life at St Matthew’s, aged seven, as a choir boy. He later took on roles of altar server, sidesperson, secretary, churchwarden and bell ringer.
In fact, St Helena’s first island born Bishop, James Johnson, who served from 1985 to ‘91, is Larry’s brother.
There are two bells in the belfry and Larry treats me to a demonstration. Pulling both chords he produces a beautiful sound that calls to mind a Napoleon quote, “I always loved the sound of village bells.” There were no village bells nor church during his time at Longwood (1815-1821) but now they ring out every Sunday over Napoleon’s tomb a few hundred metres away.
The white marble font and one of the bells in the belfry are hand-me-downs from the Old Country church and the Cathedral.
Music and Dancing For The St Helena Churches
Using his love of making music Larry also had a church band that raised funds for St Matthew’s upkeep. “The roof has been replaced a number of times over the years,” Larry tells me. “We played the old dance stuff, folk and country music. It was quite popular.
“Those days people had very few vehicles but they came to church on a Sunday morning. On one occasion, as sidesperson, I counted up to 250.”
Parish life and church attendance might be different today but the weather certainly hasn’t changed throughout the life of St Matthew’s, old and new. Unfortunately, judging by the buckets and leaks a new roof or repairs will be required soon.
A Walk Through The Tombstones
I write an entry in the guest book before stepping out into the wintry day. The rain’s stopped so I linger to read inscriptions on the lichen-encrusted tombstones. St Matthew’s, St Helena And The Cross and St Paul’s are three of ten Anglican St Helena churches that have a graveyard.
It’s peaceful here and I find St Matthew’s is just as lovely on the outside as it is within.
St Matthew’s welcomes visitors and the doors are always open, as is the case with most St Helena churches.
Edward Cannan, Churches of the South Atlantic Islands, was a helpful resource in producing this story.