The Countryside Cathedral | Sharon Henry
Any Anglican priest serving at St Pauls Cathedral of St Helena is working at one of the most remote island churches in the world. Middle of the South Atlantic is pretty remote.
Famous churches have become tourist attractions as much as places of worship. Visiting churches can be inspiring, they’re like museums and are full of stories. St Paul’s Cathedral history makes interesting reading.
For a start, it’s an Anglican cathedral church situated outside an urban area, which is unusual. The Cathedral of St Helena is in the countryside, a few miles outside the island’s small city of Jamestown.
A traditional Anglican church graveyard surrounds the building, lines of cemetery headstones dutifully kept by surviving relatives and friends. Silk flowers are preferred, simply to thwart the nuisance of rabbits. The buzz of grass strimmers is a constant against the calming cooing of turtle doves.
Listening To The Church Organ Music Of Joy
Inside, an electric organ fills the church building with the music of ‘Angel Voices.’ Light filters through the church stained glass windows and lands on the well-thumbed hymn books lying on the backs of the choir pews.
There’s no choir or congregation just me and the church organist, Joy George, who’s practising. The newly acquired electric organ once belonged to our recently retired Bishop Richard Fenwick.
Joy has been playing church organ music in St Paul’s for 56 years but still considers herself an amateur. At age 17 with just a few lessons and basic music knowledge under her belt, Joy was cajoled into taking on the role by her father when their then organist abruptly left the island. “I used to try my best,” she smiles. “I’m self-taught, I developed myself as the years went by so I always say I’m an amateur.”
Besides being the church organist, Joy is also one of the cleaners and a Churchwarden. She’s what I define as a pillar of the community.
“My family are regular church goers, my Dad was the choirmaster and he got us involved, I was a chorister from 11 years old. The church still is very much a part of my life,” she tells me. Today Joy’s playing the role of cathedral tour guide.
Cathedral Of St Helena by Royal Appointment
Jamestown’s and St Paul’s respective city and cathedral status was bestowed by Queen Victoria in 1859 with Letters Patent to establish the island’s diocese. But, because the character of the garrison town had fallen into ‘disrepute’ the decision was taken to place the cathedral in the country. St Paul’s country church was given the seat of the Bishop and become a cathedral.
Unlike its famous London counterpart, it’s fair to say St Paul’s is not much of an example of architectural splendour. Even though it was designed in 1850 by Benjamin Ferrey Esq, a London architect who studied under the Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Pugin, famous for designing Big Ben’s clock tower.
The Building Of A Traditional Anglican Church
By local standards our St Paul’s is large and is one of the island’s grandest buildings whose presence commands a certain reverence – but it’s not fancy.
According to the book by Edward Cannon, Churches of the South Atlantic, Ferry’s design remit, under financial constraints was to have a 450 capacity, a chancel, tower, vestry and registry office and to favour the English style.
Much of the materials were shipped out from England; the roof, woodwork, ironwork, paving stones and hewn stone for the doors and windows.
Being the days of horse and cart, it took months for the cargo to be transported to the church site. Embargos were laid on every empty vehicle headed toward the church to help in the effort. The timbers and trusses were carried manually by Liberated Africans freed from a slave ship.
Inside The Upside Down Noah’s Ark
White ant eventually claimed the roof and in 1939 the cathedral was closed for six years for repairs.
“This roof is as old as I am,” Joy tells me. “When I was christened, February 3rd, 1945 my mummy told me the church was being re-roofed. A tourist came here once to see the font she was christened in as a toddler, she said, the church had no roof at the time.”
The vaulting of the new cathedral roof resembles an upturned ship’s hull, like the inside of Noah’s Ark. A lovely feature with large exposed wooden beams. “People always admire the wooden ceiling,” smiles Joy.
Religious Stained Glass Story Tellers
Two stained glass windows next to the pulpit represents St Peter and St Paul. St Peter on the left, shows the Cathedral, a man working the fields and a woman gathering corn. The other illustrates the survivors from the SS City of Cairo, that was sunk by torpedo during the Second World War, reaching St Helena after three weeks in open boats. These windows are dedicated in memory of Governor, William Bain-Gray, given by his wife Ursula.
I love learning about these aspects of St Helena history, there are so many stories.
The old mural wall tablets each tell personal stories of loss; infants who died at sea, people leaving behind ‘disconsolate’ family members, even a memorial to historian and author, Emily Jackson. Those that pre-date 1857 were inherited from the old country church that St Paul’s replaced.
The Story Of The Crucifixion
When Zulu Chief, Dinizulu was imprisoned on St Helena in 1890 he became a devout convert of Christianity. Two of his sons were baptised at St Paul’s and Dinizulu was a regular attendee of the Anglican church service.
The reredos too has a few stories to tell, it was made by Richard Constantine sometime in the early 20th century. “I’ve always admired that someone in that day and age made something as outstandingly beautiful,” Joy tells me. “But it’s only in the last few years I’ve fathomed what it’s about.
“This is St Paul with the ship behind, on the next side is our Patron Saint of St Helena finding the true cross. The other panels show the story of the Crucifixion, there’s the crown of thorns, the cloak, the tools; ladder, sponge and spear. They threw dice and cast lots for his garments. The hammer and pliers were used in the cross’ construction. It took me a long time to realise what it all meant!” smiles Joy.
The Power Of A Pound A Month
Fundraising is an important component of Joy’s work as churchwarden. “People mistakenly think that our clergy salaries are funded by the government or from somewhere – but they’re not. We have to find the money through collections and dedicated giving, but that is nowhere near enough.”
Congregation numbers have dwindled to an average of 55 regular church goers for Sunday services.
“Father Dale worked out once, that according to the census statistics, if all the island Anglicans paid £1 per month, we wouldn’t have to fund raise.”
A New Chapter In St Pauls Cathedral History?
The St Helena census of 2016 records 2,939 people registered under the Church of England faith, 72.8% of the population. A collection of one pound a month would raise the diocese £35,268 in a year.
“But that’s the way it is,” shrugs Joy.
This problem is not isolated to St Helena, many churches and cathedrals the world over are having to find new ways to survive by opening gift shops, cafes and charging admission fees. Some famous churches are even hosting fashion shows and corporate dinners.
Perhaps St Helena’s cathedral church is too far off-the-beaten-track to make such ventures viable. Although, maybe that could be the attraction? Food for thought for what could be the next chapter in St Paul’s cathedral history.