The Old Meeting House, Mansfield

I was pleased to get the chance in February to visit, for the first time, the Old Meeting House, Mansfield and to be shown around by the minister, the Rev Mária Pap. It’s a very attractive meeting house, dating from 1702, with a warm and comfortable interior that is more Victorian than anything else, but is situated in the middle of some of the dreariest late twentieth-century development that one could imagine. The meeting house, with its ancillary buildings, is marooned in the midst of car parks, underpasses, shopping centres and other buildings of the sort that give town planners a bad name.

Mansfield Exterior

Exterior, including the porch

Mansfield Interior looking towards chancel 02

Interior looking towards the chancel

The chapel is not really recognisable as an eighteenth-century meeting house. This is not just because of the Gothicised interior but also because of the porch added in 1940. The stone of the porch doesn’t quite match the original building and as The Unitarian Heritage points out it spoils the symmetry of the original frontage although it must add a useful meeting space for the congregation before and after worship.

Mansfield Halls

The congregation’s schools and halls

Mansfield parsonage crop

The nearby old parsonage, now let out to a charity

One reason I was interested in the building is because of its connection with the Rev Edgar Innes Fripp who was one of my predecessors in the ministry in Belfast. I blogged about him in connection with the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, that can be read here – Edgar Innes Fripp and William Shakespeare. He came from Mansfield to Belfast in 1891 (where he built All Souls’ Church in 1896) and left in 1900 to go back to Mansfield. He had a lot of input to the liturgical development of both places, compiling a version of the Prayer Book, using a robed choir, generally moving to what would be regarded as a more Anglican liturgy. He built a new church in Belfast and I had always assumed that he was responsible for adding a chancel to the originally square shaped meeting house in Mansfield. But Mansfield was ‘turned’ in 1870 and the chancel added in 1881, before E.I. Fripp was called to be minister, although the chancel was further enlarged in 1908, just after he left for the second time but probably modelled on his plans.

Re-orientating and refitting the interiors of old meeting houses was a common practice for many congregations in the second half of the nineteenth century, those that did not demolish and build anew. J. Harrop White’s book The Story of the Old Meeting House, Mansfield (1959) contains plans of the building before and after the various refurbishments:

Mansfield plan

The church possesses a number of interesting stained glass windows including three Burne-Jones windows made by William Morris & Co. These depict ‘Truth and Sincerity’, ‘Justice and Humility’ and ‘Mary Magdalene and Jesus’.

The late nineteenth century woodwork in the church is very impressive.

Mansfield doorcase crop

Oak door case dating from 1890

I was pleased to see the chapel and see the evident good work that is being done there by the congregation under their new minister, the Rev Mária Pap, not only the first woman minister to the congregation but the first minister to come to Mansfield from the Hungarian Unitarian Church, bringing insight and a deep spirituality from that ancient church which dates from the Reformation.

Mansfield Pulpit

The Rev Mária Pap in the pulpit at Mansfield

The regal heads of Mountpottinger

On my History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland blog I have been gradually posting two images of every church in the denomination together with a short description of the building. My aim is to include every active church plus as many of the former churches for which images survive. You can view them here:

https://nonsubscribingpresbyterian.wordpress.com/blog/

I have amassed a large database of images in various formats over the years but passing near the Mountpottinger church in Belfast recently I decided to stop to take an up to date view.

Mountpottinger front 03 2017

Looking at the church close up I noticed something that I had never seen before, namely that there are four corbel heads at the base of the main entrance arches which depict crowned heads. I know I am not alone in having previously missed this intriguing detail but close up you can see four regal faces, two of them male and two female:

 

 

Who are they meant to represent? Biblical figures? Historical? Shakespearean perhaps? Or are they purely decorative? It seems clear that they were added when the church was extended in 1899. The foundation stone for the original church was laid in 1874 but the young congregation was very successful and in 1899 they extended the building.

Adrian Moir, the congregational treasurer and representative elder, has sent me the follwing interesting photograph of the original building as it looked before 1899. Standing in front, he thinks, is the Rev William Jenkin Davies minister from 1896 – 1903 who was married to the niece of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence who donated the new schoolroom as a memorial to her following her death:

MountpottingerChurchpre1899 01AMcropped

Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was a major Unitarian benefactor, an MP who declared the Unitarian College, Manchester open when it moved to Summerville in 1905, a friend of the Rev Alexander Gordon and the leading proponent of the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually the work of Francis Bacon!

A comparison of the new buildings of 1899 with the old one shows how they added a schoolroom and ancillary rooms on both sides of the original church with a common frontage uniting all the structures. In very recent times a disabled ramp was added to the church.

Belfast Mountpottinger 1907

A view of the church published in 1907, showing the new additions to the building

But it would be interesting to know the identity of the four regal heads who adorn the outside wall of Mountpottinger church.

Edgar Innes Fripp and William Shakespeare

The current celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare prompt me to think about the Rev Edgar Innes Fripp. His is not a name widely remembered today but I was very aware of him when I was minister of All Souls’ Church in Belfast as a very distinguished predecessor in that pulpit, indeed the minister under whose leadership that church was built in 1896.

 

E.I. Fripp didn’t really get the attention he deserved in the congregation, although I wrote and spoke about him on a number of occasions. If the congregation looked to anyone as an historical exemplar it was A.L. Agnew whose own particular heroic story in the course of a 54 year ministry was partly based on an undoing of the achievements of his predecessor Fripp. He did away with the ‘Fripperies’ that remained from early in the century even to the extent – or so I was told – of having a bonfire of old service books along with assorted hassocks, communion table cloths and pulpit hangings. Fripp had introduced an edited version of the prayer book to the church, a robed choir and a much more devotional style of worship than had been the case before. More than that he had built the church, a little medieval English parish church in suburban Belfast. It was his vision in achieving this that had enabled the church to survive. Without this move it would have been unlikely to have lasted in Rosemary Street, and although there may have been a falling off in attendances between the wars it suited the narrative of the later arrival of Dr Agnew and the York Street congregation following the blitz of 1941, to write off everything that had gone before. In fact the destruction of the York Street building made an eventual union of the two congregations inevitable but without the intervention of the German Luftwaffe even that probably would not have taken place.

 

AllSoulsexterior

All Souls’ in 1900

 

By the time I was minister at All Souls’ a large majority of the congregation had belonged to York Street or were descendants of that congregation. The Second Congregation families, the original All Souls’ people, were a minority yet there were a few who remembered Edgar Innes Fripp. This wasn’t because they were extraordinarily old, because although he had built the church in 1896 and left in 1900 he had returned at the start of the 1920s for a few years. In the 1990s there were some people who had childhood memories of Fripp and what they remembered in particular was his interest in Shakespeare. He was much given to quoting him and increasingly found inspiration in his writings for his sermons.

 

ShakespearesStratford

The title page of Shakespeare’s Stratford

 

In Belfast he had been innovative, imaginative and creative. He was a genuine scholar, he had been a Hibbert Scholar in Germany before entering the ministry, and was a caring and effective pastor. All this can be seen in his Kalendar, the first monthly magazine to be distributed within a church of the Non-Subscribing tradition in Ireland. Before he had arrived the Second Congregation had left the presbyterian structures to pursue their own course although they were rooted in the Free Christian theological traditions exemplified by James Martineau.

 

Early in his ministry he had produced an account of the composition of the book of Genesis, by the end of his ministry he was completely absorbed in Shakespearean studies. He published a number of works on Shakespeare, and his life and times, and became a trustee of Shakespeare’s birthplace. Indeed it is interesting to see that today the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a short video examining E.I. Fripp’s analysis of Iago:

http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/shakespeares-villains-iago

 

At the end of his life Fripp’s funeral took place in Shakespeare’s church and he was buried in Stratford on Avon. But he produced a large amount of work on Shakespeare and I have often been tempted to seek out a contemporary Shakespearean scholar to give an assessment of how these works are regarded today for Faith and Freedom. There is and has long been a vast industry around Shakespeare and each age finds a different set of interpretations that reflect its own circumstances. It would be nice to know from the point of view of an English literature specialist what endures from Fripp’s writings. But if nothing else he had an enduring impact on the topography of South Belfast, something that continues to this day.

 

AllSouls02

The view of All Souls’ today from the Belfast City Hospital

Pictures of Harvest Festivals

Pictures of Harvest Festivals are amongst the most frequent early survivors of photographs of church or chapel interiors. The modern Harvest Festival, as it is known in churches today, was really invented by the Rev Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, in the 1840s. He was as colourful and eccentric as they come but devised the notion of a service in which the produce of the fields was brought into the church and used as decoration as an act of thanksgiving. The idea of the service quickly caught on and became a big part of the year for most churches, whether urban or rural. Harvest Festivals became and remain very popular with Unitarians, it would be interesting to study when and how they began to be incorporated into the cycle of services.

 

I don’t have any information to hand as to how harvest services spread and became popular but I see that in 1881, for instance, Alexander Gordon introduced the first Harvest Festival service to the First Presbyterian, Rosemary Street congregation in Belfast. This must be quite late, I would imagine. Was that something he had previously done over the preceding twenty years at Norwich, Hope Street, Liverpool, or Aberdeen? It would be an interesting avenue to pursue.

 

With the gradual development of photography as a medium, pictures were taken of churches and chapels. However, the difficulty – for all except the most skilled photographers – of taking good interior shots, and also, perhaps, a reluctance to take a picture of a scene that was so familiar as to be seen as hardly worth recording means that early shots of interiors of chapels and meetings houses are not that common. This seems to change when it comes to Harvest Festivals and a number of pictures that I have of now closed churches were taken to show off the harvest decoration that had been thoughtfully and faithfully put there by some parishioners.

 

In the recent posts about Nantwich Unitarian Chapel I asked if anyone had any photographs of the interior. Andrew Lamberton has again found a fascinating image. He has sent me this picture of the area around the organ decorated for harvest. There is no date on the picture and it is very difficult to be at all precise although I would guess it was taken probably in the first decade of the twentieth century.

 

I gather the organ was installed in the 1870s so the picture shows a decorated scene around the organ sometime after that date. As I have mentioned in previous posts the chapel of 1725-26 was rebuilt and ‘turned’ in 1846-49 and this picture would appear to show the area on the plan between the windows and marked as ‘former site of Pulpit’ in Christopher Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England:

 

Inventory Nantwich
Plan from Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England

 

It’s hard to make out too much detail in the photograph but it confirms the description also found in Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England (page 28) that the pews which incorporated original features from the 1720s were laid out in tiers:

“Seating: against E and W walls, two tiers of pews, partly reconstructed, include much early 18th-century fielded panelling, fronts renewed. The centre pews also incorporate original material.”

It is not an easy thing to take a picture of what is a dark wood-panelled interior while including the main source of light from two large windows. The light floods in through the window and the dark areas remain dark. But for all its limitations we have in this print a rare and useful image of a long forgotten building.

Organ Harvest Festival
(Photo: Andrew Lamberton and Nantwich Museum Archives)

Nantwich Unitarian Chapel

Willaston School Nantwich was created through the will of Philip Barker who lived at the Grove, a house originally built by his brother in 1837. It’s clear also that Philip Barker and his brothers were the main supporters of the Unitarian Chapel, their vision – and financial contribution – seems to have been what maintained what was otherwise quite a weak cause.

 

Nantwich 1950s

The chapel and associated buildings, probably dating from the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Andrew Lamberton

 

I found myself in Nantwich once, almost by accident, and carried out an ineffective and inevitably fruitless search for anything left of the Chapel. If I had checked The Unitarian Heritage book first I would have known that it was long demolished (in 1969), eventually meeting, it would appear, quite a sad end. However, the town of Nantwich is fortunate in having a very active History Group (which published Willaston School Nantwich – see the two previous posts) and through the kind help of Andrew Lamberton – who supplied me with a number of fascinating images and other information –  I’ve been able to piece together something of the history of the congregation that was once served by Joseph Priestley.

 

The congregation dated from the ejection and registered a former malt-kiln on Pepper Street as a meeting house in 1689. Between 1725 and 1726 they built the Chapel on Hospital Street.

 

The lively painting of the interior on this page was painted in 1942 by George Hooper as part of the ‘Recording Britain’ series of images, held in the V & A which describes the scheme in the following way:

The ‘Recording Britain’ collection of topographical watercolours and drawings [was] made in the early 1940s during the Second World War. In 1940 the Committee for the Employment of Artists in Wartime, part of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, launched a scheme to employ artists to record the home front in Britain, funded by a grant from the Pilgrim Trust. It ran until 1943 and some of the country’s finest watercolour painters, such as John Piper, Sir William Russell Flint and Rowland Hilder, were commissioned to make paintings and drawings of buildings, scenes, and places which captured a sense of national identity. Their subjects were typically English: market towns and villages, churches and country estates, rural landscapes and industries, rivers and wild places, monuments and ruins. 

 

It’s an interesting choice of subject and shows the pulpit with memorials to Joseph Priestley and Philip Barker on either side. You probably wouldn’t guess from the painting but the interior had been completely re-ordered. The chapel had been turned through 180 degrees and the pulpit placed on a false wall with a vestibule and ancillary rooms located behind it. Andrew Lamberton has supplied me with this plan of the interior of the remodelled chapel (from the Cheshire Record Office):

 

Nantwich plan

Plan of the interior c.1850 (Cheshire Record Office)

Strangely this plan does not show the pulpit which would have been in the centre of the wall on the right hand side of the drawing as we look at it. Opposite it is an area described as ‘orchestra’ on the plan. Is this meant to imply some instrumental accompaniment for hymns or would it be the place for the choir? Philip Barker’s pew can be seen in the top left hand corner.

 

The major repairs that resulted in the re-ordering of the interior took place in 1846-49 according to Christoper Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England (1994). His plan of the interior can be compared with the one above. By 1850, however, it was not a large congregation as this subscription list, also supplied by Andrew Lamberton from the Cheshire Record Office, shows

 

Nantwich subscribers

Subscribers List 1850 (Cheshire Record Office)

The chapel was clearly very dependent on the Barker family and the Rev J Morley Mills, minister at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, recorded that it was known in those days as “Mr Barker’s Chapel”. By the time of the Second World War it was clearly at a very low ebb. Surviving photographs show the building in a very sorry state.

In 1896 a schoolroom had been built right in front of the chapel. This obscured the distinctive outline of the frontage with the Dutch style gables. However, Christopher Stell suggests this design may not have been original and could have been added in a rebuilding of 1870. Either way the Victorian schoolroom obscured the look of the chapel:

Nantwich 1960s

The chapel probably in the 1960s. Photo from Andrew Lamberton

Curiously The Unitarian Heritage carries a photograph of Nantwich chapel taken, presumably, after the school house had been demolished and showing the frontage as it had been built:

Nantwich UH

From The Unitarian Heritage

It seems a reasonable assumption to make that this photograph was taken at the start of the demolition process, after the Victorian school house had been taken down. However, if you compare this photograph and the previous one which dates from the 1960s it is clear that the two long windows are both intact and fully glazed and the stone work and frames around the window are no longer painted. Could this photograph actually date from a different period?

 

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has any more information and any additional photographs of the chapel, especially of the interior.

 

Andrew Lamberton has also sent me this newspaper cutting taken form the Nantwich Chronicle in about 1966 and indicating the sad end the chapel faced:

Nantwich Chronicle

From the Nantwich Chronicle c.1966

It is a shame that such a an unusual and interesting building was lost to the locality, one that had been thought significant enough to record for posterity during the  darkest years of the Second World War.

2012FG9670_2500

The Presbyterian Unitarian Chapel, Nantwich; Recording Britain; Chapel, Hospital Street, Nantwich. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chowbent Chapel

The building of Chowbent Chapel in 1722 speaks volumes for the determination of Lancastrian dissent in the early eighteenth century. Having retained possession of the chapel of ease after the ejections of 1662 it wasn’t until the 1720s that the local landlord managed to expel dissenters from the essentially Anglican chapel, allegedly because of the part played by the minister ‘General’ James Wood and his congregation in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

The eighteenth-century three decker pulpit
The eighteenth-century three decker pulpit

 

The new chapel was built on land owned by the Mort family who appear to have been generous supporters and benefactors and who had a great importance in Lancashire non-conformity in general. But the chapel, to me at least, always has something of the sense of a fortress about it – the solid, square walls, the ancient oak pillars, the studded door into the church, the large memorial to ‘General’ Wood above the pulpit.

But it is also full of interesting details that would be easy to miss. There is a large amount of stained glass but I had forgotten about the appearance of an image of the chapel itself in the window depicting Jesus and the children. The three decker pulpit is incredibly impressive and with the traditional pulpit cushions very much looks the part still. You can’t miss the pulpits and reading desk but you might miss the small section of panel cut out from behind the top pulpit. Here it was said they had to make space for the door to open wider in order to admit the well-fed frame of the Rev Thomas Belsham when he visited in the nineteenth century!

 

The Victorian stained glass window featuring the picture of the chapel
The Victorian stained glass window featuring the picture of the chapel

 

It has been some years since I was last at the chapel and I had a recollection of seeing the grave of the Rev John Taylor laid flat in the grounds of the chapel. John Taylor being the first Tutor in Divinity at the Warrington Academy. But this is not the case – John Taylor is certainly buried there but his gravestone was removed when the front of the church was extended to make way for the organ and vestibule in 1901. There is however, a touching memorial to him and his wife.

 

Memorial to John and Elizabeth Taylor
Memorial to John and Elizabeth Taylor

 

The reason for my visit in January was to be part of the congregation to celebrate 25 years of ministry by the Rev Brenda Catherall and I was delighted to play a small part in that special service. Brenda has been minister there since 2007 following ministries in Bank Street, Bolton and Monton and has given 25 years of devoted service to the Unitarian ministry and touched the lives of a great many people through her outstanding work. There is something so appropriate about her ministry in the congregation in which she grew up and which has always had a special place in her affections.

 

Rev Brenda Catherall in the pulpit
Rev Brenda Catherall in the pulpit

 

The chapel encapsulates the proud tradition of dissent and non-conformity in the town and it is so encouraging to see the congregation in such good heart and in such good hands.

 

The studded door from the vestry to the chapel
The studded door from the vestry to the chapel

Ordination and Induction at Ullet Road

It was a tremendous privilege and pleasure to take part in the induction and ordination of the Rev Philip Waldron as minister of Ullet Road Church, Southport and Wirral Unitarians as part of the Merseyside Partnership at Ullet Road on Saturday, 9th January.

 

Rev Phil Waldron in the chancel
Rev Phil Waldron in the chancel

 

It was an impressive service that drew on the traditions and ethos of Unitarianism on Merseyside and which resonated effectively with the august building that is Ullet Road Church. It is testimony to the high regard in which Phil is held by his colleagues that so many ministers took part and that so many people were present. The music supplied by the organ and the singing by the choir Liverpool Voices were also of a very high standard and added greatly to the service.

 

Refreshments after the service in the hall
Refreshments after the service in the hall

 

Ullet Road is certainly one of the most remarkable sets of buildings within the Unitarian tradition in England and ranks highly amongst all branches of dissent. The hall, designed by Percy Worthington and built slightly later than the Church at the start of the twentieth century, is a delight in itself. On occasions such as this (with appropriate winter decorations left over from a wedding) it really comes into its own with the feel of something like a medieval hall, not least because of the open fire that provides such a focus.

 

The fireplace in the hall which stands beneath the Arms of Sir John Brunner and Sir Henry Tate
The fireplace in the hall which stands beneath the Arms of Sir John Brunner and Sir Henry Tate

 

In the course of his own statement Phil quoted the Rev Stanley Mellor, the highly successful minister of Hope Street Church in the first half of the twentieth century, which encapsulates some of his own aspirations for ministry:

 

“[the purpose] of the Christian religion, is the awakening of the soul to the discovery of its own eternal character, the conversation of the heart to knowledge of its other-worldly destiny and duty.

 

The congregation are much blessed to possess such a building that reflects this quest so effectively and Merseyside District can look with satisfaction upon such an auspicious start to a new ministry.

Faith and Freedom, a journal of progressive religion

This latest issue of Faith and Freedom has a special cover. Taken from the above photograph by Márkó László it shows a scene from a Thanksgiving celebration at the Unitarian congregation in Oklánd, Hargita county, in Transylvania. This is a first for Faith and Freedom and ties in with a number of reviews in the Autumn and Winter 2015 issue which deal with the faith and practice of the Hungarian-speaking Unitarian churches in Romania. Márkó László’s photographs very effectively capture something of the cultural identity of the Unitarian folk there as well as their deeply held faith. There are more of his pictures in the 2016 Calendar.

The cover of the Autumn and Winter 2015 issue of 'Faith and Freedom', Vol. 68 Part 2, Number 181
The cover of the Autumn and Winter 2015 issue of ‘Faith and Freedom’, Vol. 68 Part 2, Number 181

 

Once again Faith and Freedom itself contains illustrations this time with a portrait of founding editor Eric Shirvell Price found inside and a photograph of the Rev Percival Godding, whose account of his time as a prisoner of war during the First World War also features.

An annual subscription costs £15 per annum (US $30 in the United States and Canada) and you can pay by post or online via PayPal. All details can be found on our website at:

http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/

The cover of the 2016 'Faith and Freedom' Calendar - 'Faith in the World'
The cover of the 2016 ‘Faith and Freedom’ Calendar – ‘Faith in the World’

 

If you are an individual subscriber you will also receive a copy of our 2016 Calendar. These are also being sold in aid of the Send a Child to Hucklow Fund. A £5 donation will have one wing its way to you. Again information about the Calendar (and a preview) can be found on our website.

 

Service of Thanksgiving, Oklánd church, Transylvania (Photo: Márkó László)
Service of Thanksgiving, Oklánd church, Transylvania (Photo: Márkó László)

 

St Mark, St Thomas and St Michael – a trinity of Unitarian saints?

In my previous post about Rev Porter Orr I mentioned St Thomas’ Unitarian Chapel in Ringwood, Hampshire. This particular meeting house (which closed in the mid-1970s) had the rare designation for a Unitarian chapel of being dedicated to (or at least named after) a saint. This is not unique – by far the most famous Unitarian church named after a saint is St Mark’s in Edinburgh – but it is worth giving some consideration to.

St Thomas' Unitarian Chapel Ringwood (from 'The Unitarian Heritage')
St Thomas’ Unitarian Chapel Ringwood (from ‘The Unitarian Heritage’)

Victorian Unitarian church builders could often be quite keen on saints, of course. In the era of gothic rebuilding in the nineteenth century decorative windows featuring Burne Jones saints were often inserted, as the above view of the chancel of Ullet Road Church shows.

Most Unitarian churches get very dull names, they usually get called after the street they are situated on or the district they are in although sometimes more interesting terminology can be applied such as ‘Great Meeting’ or ‘New Meeting’ (or indeed ‘Old Chapel’). What they tend not to be is named after saints.

That is not to say that Unitarians couldn’t be creative – and also very orthodox – in their church names when they wanted to be. A quick trawl through the invaluable Vestiges of Protestant Dissent published by George Eyre Evans in 1897 (which contains a list of all the Unitarian congregations at that time) reveals no less than eight congregations called ‘Christ Church’ ( I think Bridgwater may be the only survivor of this group). Not mentioned in Vestiges are most of the three churches that I can think of called ‘All Souls’’. This designation probably comes from a slightly later period (All Souls’, Belfast had just been built in 1896) and although to outsiders this probably comes across as a very high Anglican name it is really a more typically Unitarian name in the twentieth century than Christ Church, although the use of this name in England, at least, has ceased I think.

Other popular nineteenth-century Unitarian names (none of them still in use so far as I know) were ‘Church of the Saviour’, which was used by three congregations, and the ‘Church of the Messiah’ and the ‘Church of our Father’ which each had a single use. More overtly Unitarian names were ‘Unity’, which had five takers in 1897 some of them still continuing today, and one ‘Church of the Divine Unity’.

What Unitarians have tended not to do is name churches after individuals –saints in the sense of the people of God – but there are three examples of this that I can think of – Matthew Henry, John Pounds and Edmund Kell, who all have their congregational memorials.

Methodist Unitarians were very keen on Biblical names for their churches – ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Nazareth’ being the best-known examples of this. In Vestiges there is also one obscure ‘Salem’ founded as a break away from Calvinistic Baptists in King’s Lynn in 1811.

But naming a Unitarian church after a saint is something that does raise questions. How and why did the congregation select that saint? Which saint of that name did they actually mean? Was there ever any suggestion of the congregation being directly inspired by that saint?

It is often thought that St Mark’s Church is a unique example of the naming of a Unitarian church after a saint but clearly that is not so. What is curious about Ringwood is that the chapel (which is now an interpretative centre for local history) was built in 1727 but only started using the name of St Thomas some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. Why this was so is anybody’s guess. The name was certainly used for a long time, the Rev John Midgely has found instances of it being used in advertisements in the Inquirer in the 1930s, although it seems to have been dropped before it closed in 1975. What is different about St Mark’s in Edinburgh is that this was the name chosen at the time of its building in 1835 and in use ever since. The Rev Andrew Hill has suggested that no one knows why the name was chosen, but presumably the gospel writer was regarded with favour by the Edinburgh people.

The interior of St Thomas' Chapel (from 'The Unitarian Heritage')
The interior of St Thomas’ Chapel (from ‘The Unitarian Heritage’)

But, according to the Vestiges, there was another chapel that took the name of a saint. This was St Michael’s Chapel in Selby. This congregation dated from 1672 and built a new chapel in 1699 which G.E. Evans suggests was called St Michael’s from the start. This seems unlikely in 1699 but the name was definitely in use for a long time and was transferred to the modest new building that was finally opened in 1903 (following some years in a temporary building from 1886). The congregation closed in 1968 according to The Unitarian Heritage and the building passed into other uses, although it still seems to stand.

So there we have the three Unitarian churches named after saints. There were quite a number of churches built on streets with saints’ names – St Nicholas’ Street etc – and there are a few examples of Unitarian chapels later being consecrated by the Church of England and being given a saint’s name. But these are the only three that are definitely named after saints. Can anyone shed any further light on them? It would be interesting to hear any accounts of either St Thomas’ or St Michael’s or indeed of any other saintly churches. In the meantime we have a Unitarian trinity – St Mark, St Thomas and St Michael.

Addendum:

With regard to St Michael’s Chapel, Selby the Rev Andrew Hill has sent the following interesting information:

“The congregation at Selby traces its origin to the visit of a puritan preacher, Noah Ward, from York, in the year 1660. As an itinerant minister he continued to make frequent visits to Selby down to the time of his death, which occurred in 1699. It is said that in honour of the memory of this preacher St. Michael’s Chapel was built in that same year by a gentleman of the name of Barstow. It seems to have owed its name to the fact that one of the Christian names of the said gentleman was Michael, whose good deed it was thought would be perpetuated by calling the place after Michael the archangel. After the death of Mr. Barstow the Chapel was given in trust by his widow, Alice Barstow. contemporary with the Barstow family there were two other families of similar social standing who were associated with the Chapel; these were the Bacons and the Morritts. Beatrix Bacon, wife of Christopher Bacon, bequeathed the land near the town, from which a portion of the minister’s stipend is still paid. A silver Communion Cup is still preserved, on which is engraved: “The Gift of Beatrix Bacon to the Selby Chapel.” The first minister was John Troviss; who was followed by a John Hodgson, and on the removal of the latter to Lincoln, a Mr. Foljamb took his place. From this date until nearly the end of 1886, when worship in the old Chapel ceased on account of its dilapidated state, there were eight ministers of whom Thomas Smith was the first and J. M. Pilkington the last. The new chapel, which is of red brick and on the old site, has been erected to an approximate cost of £400, including the interior fittings, and has accommodation for 125 It was opened on September 24th, 1903, the Rev. Ceredig Jones, M.A., of Bradford, preaching on the occasion. the present minister is the Rev. John Dale.” From: The Unitarian Chapels of Yorkshire.

Does anyone remember the chapel built in 1903? Dare one ask is the silver communion cup still preserved today?

A nineteenth-century ministerial dynasty

In two recent articles [in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society and the June 2015 issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine] I have written about the Rev John Orr (1829-1896) a scholarly and successful minister in nineteenth-century Ireland whose career took a strange and unexpected turn when he emigrated to the United States in 1879. Whatever the intention of his move to New England his career didn’t flourish on the other side of the Atlantic and by the time of his death he was little remembered in his homeland. This is a pity because he was an important figure in his own day whose two major published works won plaudits and whose ministry at Comber, co. Down helped to establish and grow a fairly new congregation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he had been almost forgotten since leaving Comber for Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 1879, although the first step towards raising his profile probably came with the publication of the Thoemmes Dictionary of Irish Philosophers in 2004 in which I co-wrote the entry on him with Professor M.A. Stewart.

 

But following my article on John Orr in the 2015 Transactions the second article in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian is as much about his family background – as both the son and the brother of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers he was part of a notable dynasty – and this also deserves to be noticed.

 

His father, Alexander, was born in about the year 1798 and grew up in the Moneyreagh congregation. Alexander’s friend the Rev S.C. Nelson of Downpatrick reported of his background that:

 

there he was brought up under the guidance and auspices of that foremost champion of Unitarian Christianity, that true and consistent representative of the earnest loving spirit of the pure and living faith of the Gospel – the buoyant, persevering, and self-sacrificing Fletcher Blakely.

 

This input, together, no doubt, with his education at Moses Neilson’s Rademon Academy, (supplemented by time at Glasgow University and the Belfast Academical Institution) led him to incline towards the non-subscribers by the time of the second subscription controversy. Alexander Orr was already minister of Second Anaghlone by this time but although his sympathies were with Henry Montgomery and his followers he and his congregation did not join the Remonstrant Synod in 1829 and he waited until 1838 before joining them when he became minister of Ballyhemlin. Here he kept a classical school and remained as minister until his death in 1869.

 

The entrance to the Ballyhemlin church
The entrance to the Ballyhemlin church

 

This provides the background for the ministry of his son, the Rev John Orr who was both minister at Comber and, from 1866, Professor of Church History, Pastoral Theology and Moral Philosophy for his denomination. If you want to read about him, his publications, his ideas, his importance, and his mysterious emigration to the USA at the age of 50 then the full story can be found in my article ‘Rev John Orr of Comber, county Down and Cambridge, Massachusetts’ in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, but I will attempt now to place him in the context of his family.

 

Alexander married Nancy Porter and all three of their children (at least those that we know about) were born while he was minister at Anaghlone. Unfortunately no baptismal register survives for that congregation so we can’t check for additional siblings and we don’t have accurate dates of birth for two of the three brothers. The eldest son, however, was named Porter Orr and must have been born in about 1826 and he was the first to follow his father into the ministry.

 

Like his father, and his brother John, Porter Orr trained for the ministry at the Belfast Academical Institution. College records at the time are not complete, however, and although we know that his time as a student overlapped with John Orr we don’t know so much about his time there. At the end of his time as a Remonstrant student he became part of the export of ministers produced by the non-subscribers. Training ministers to a high standard there was a surplus of potential ministers over vacancies and a number of students took up pulpits at churches in England. After being licensed by the Presbytery of Bangor Porter Orr accepted a call to the Unitarian church at Ringwood in Hampshire in 1845. With its origins in the seventeenth century the meeting house, then known as St Thomas’ Chapel, was built in 1728. Porter Orr stayed here for five years before accepting a call to Strabane and returned to Ireland in 1850.

 

As a new congregation Strabane was part of the fruit of the quite committed and successful missionary effort of the Remonstrant Synod and one of the few congregations to be founded west of the Bann. Porter Orr was the third minister of the congregation and had succeeded his brother John who had been minister there from March 1848 to May 1850.

 

Recently a portrait has come to light of a minister painted in about 1850. Generously donated to the Comber Church by a direct descendant of John Orr this shows a youngish man in the clerical attire of the mid-nineteenth century. It is undated and has been reframed in modern times, when someone has written on the back the name Thomas Porter Orr. I think we can fairly confidently assume that this is a portrait of the Rev Porter Orr. It is only small in size, the books in the portrait cannot be identified, but its provenance in the Orr family and the fact that it is certainly a clergyman would suggest – to me at least – that Thomas Porter Orr and the Rev Porter Orr were one and the same person. The portrait could have been made in Ringwood or Strabane, we can’t know for sure, but it is a charming and touching memento of a life that was cut short. Porter Orr resigned his charge on 30th January 1855, he died less than two weeks later on 12th February.

 

Portrait believed to be the Rev Porter Orr (Comber NSP Church)
Portrait believed to be the Rev Porter Orr (Comber NSP Church)

 

The congregation of Strabane did not last much longer, Porter Orr was the last minister and the congregation effectively ceased in 1857. But it was important to the Orrs and the denomination. John Orr was there long enough to meet his wife – Sarah Jane Porter – the daughter of James Porter, one of the founders of the Strabane congregation, and they married in October 1851. Sarah Jane’s sister, Catherine, married the Rev David Maginnis, another prominent minister in the last half of the century, in 1845.

 

Of his brother John Orr we can say that he was one of the outstanding intellects of his generation of ministers within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches, but despite his highly successful ministerial and academic careers, along with David Maginnis, his brother in law, he often found himself at the centre of the increasingly strident infighting that bedevilled the non-subscribers at the time, although he was held in high regard by his colleagues, especially those who shared his radical theological views.

 

What impelled Orr to leave for America? Was it a sense of bereavement following the death of his first wife at the age of 42 in 1865? Or was it some sense of unfulfilled ambition? Or a sense of dissatisfaction with his denomination? Or had some issue arisen in Comber that meant he should depart? Again we will never know exactly. But we know quite a lot about what he did in America, the introductions he had and the aims he carried with him across the Atlantic. We know also that he died on 19th August 1896 and was buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. His second son Alexander, who was a journalist, joined him in the Boston area but predeceased him in 1891 aged 35 and was buried in the same cemetery. His youngest daughter lived in Boston until 1960 when she died and was buried in the same plot as her father. What became of his second wife Agnes is not known. Most of the rest of the family are commemorated on the imposing memorial in the graveyard in Comber.

 

The Orr family memorial, Comber
The Orr family memorial, Comber