Those words were recently said to me by someone who contacted us to make a donation a few years ago and is now immersed in St Sampson’s Unlocked, the half a million-pound restoration project at St Sampson’s Church, South Hill, Cornwall. The more I thought about his words the more I realised what a profound statement this was.
A church restoration makes you realise the importance of things, temporal and spiritual. It makes you think about the faith of others and your own faith. It draws you into something deeper than bricks and mortar. It gives a sense of your place in history and the continuation of history. It provides a timeless stabilising effect on the fast pace of modern life. It makes you see the scope and size of a project which sounds so simple on the outside but is complicated and involves layers of expertise. It is a slow process. It demands working with others.
Being involved in a restoration project brings many opportunities, joys and challenges. It quite literally can change your life! There are discoveries to be made, skills to be learnt, people to get to know and never-ending excitement.
Churches are so much more than places of worship and give far more than they take. I have been surprised by the passion of the many skilled crafts people who care deeply about their skill, be it windows, bells or monuments. I have been inspired by the advice and help from other churches and professionals. I have made some very good friends as we work together, laugh together and sometimes cry together. The community values what is often one of the few remaining public places in a rural situation and can become wonderful advocates of ‘their’ church. Environmental and conservation groups have an interest in preserving habitats in church settings.
Church restoration often starts with the faith community wanting to ‘fix’ their building. For us this has had an amazing knock-on effect. We needed to think what we could do with the building and community consultation came up with over one hundred ideas. To do any of these we needed to make the building warm, dry and draught free, with works to the roof, ceiling, windows, floor and heating – and we needed to put in a toilet and kitchen. From the start we realised it was not a building project but an outreach project. An opportunity to open the church for all to use and for people to experience the awesome place which is St Sampson’s Church.
If you have an interest in history, churches have so much to discover. The research on our windows and the families they mention took me all over the world via face book and e mail. Our remote rural church now has contacts in Australia, Canada and the USA. The expertise of our stone mason and glazier have been more than illuminating!
There are so many links to past people to be discovered. Starting with St Sampson in the fifth century, we are connected to Trelawney, William Wilberforce, Sir Francis Drake and the Armada, the Knights of the Garter, Daphne Du Maurier and several of the old noble families of Cornwall! All have left their mark here. And our little church is unlikely to be unusual in having fascinating connections – churches like ours are a historian’s paradise.
When our bells were taken down for restoration it was an opportunity for volunteers from the community to help and for local bell enthusiasts to become involved. We were astonished and delighted by the number of people who came to help or just to watch and we were all surprised by the strength of feeling that our 1698 bells evoked in us. These bells had rung out at so many important events down the years but have not been fully heard for over fifty years. After being largely unknown or ignored for so long, the community now feels very strongly about restoring them so they can once again ring out across the parish of South Hill.
Like many churches, we have bats, including some regionally rare ones. Our bats started as a problem but have become a blessing. They too have brought us inspiring and knowledgeable enthusiasts and drawn new people to become involved. Conserving habitat and learning about our roof residents is another reason to be involved in church restoration. Without churches a high percentage of bats lose their homes.
Communities need public spaces, where better that a church! Churchyards can be wonderful wildlife havens and places of peace for humans. Church buildings are spacious but beautiful places for all sorts of events and activities. Some of the best places for cafes, concerts and contemplation are churches. They can be hubs of social engagement bringing communities together. Who would not want this, rather than an unused ruin, in their midst?
Close a church and you don’t lose a worshipping faith community, that will continue. What you lose is your shared heritage, your links with history, a piece of your community, a chance to thrive and grow together, a shared space, an undisturbed habitat and haven for wildlife.
Being part of a team or community restoring a precious church is life enhancing. It is fixing a special building but it is more than that. It is about the people that use it and support each other. There is a sense of preserving something for the future, a continuation of what those who have gone before have done. It gives an enormous sense of well-being, working together, making new friends, getting through the challenges together, fundraising and having fun, honouring past generations, and leaving something for the future.
At St Sampson’s we are slowly fulfilling our vision. It is a long journey, with many twists and turns. Along the way we have doubled our church attendance but more importantly the residents of our community know that we exist for them.
Restoring a church is achieving something great.
Everyone should definitely be involved in a church restoration project.
If you would like to find out more or help our restoration project, you can donate through just giving: St Sampsons Unlocked. Restore St Sampson’s Church – JustGiving