Two years ago, we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the opening of the present day St Mary’s Church, deep in December in the heart of winter. Our celebratory dinner planned for the following month was postponed thanks to the “Beast from the East!”
Having opened in 1873, it was two years later on November 6th, 1875 that St Mary’s Church was actually consecrated, a sign of eagerness, perhaps, to open as soon as possible!
Before this, for over a hundred years, the Parish of St Mary’s had been without its own church building, the former Priory Church having fallen into disrepair, damaged (amongst other things) by flood, the whims of the weather. Parish life continued.
The congregation continued to worship at St John’s Church but retained its own wardens, financial accounts and identity. Since Medieval times, when St John’s Church was built, the town’s attention and population had shifted towards the Castle but, in the nineteenth century, with the expanse of the docks and the rapid rise in population in the parish of St Mary’s, a new church building was needed.
The first Vicar of the new church retained the dual Incumbency with St John’s but when the second Vicar was appointed St Mary’s continued its separate identity, with a fresh calling.
Planting in the Parish
The population continued to rise. How did the church respond and grow in the parish? One way was to open satellite places of worship, with clergy and others given responsibility for the mission and ministry of that part of the parish. After time, these ‘rented rooms’ were replaced by consecrated church buildings, and separate parishes were eventually carved out, often pastored by the priests who planted them. ‘Church planting’ is nothing new.
The Patterns of Life
Today, the city continues to change shape and years, after the development of Cardiff Bay, the city centre is moving slowly but surely towards the sea, linking the two identifiable areas of Cardiff, and nudging St Mary’s along the way. Meanwhile, in between, the Butetown community retains its separate identity, stubborn to shift, despite decades of external forces which threatened its life, overlooked its values and tried to bury its hidden treasures now being brought out into the shining sun.
Over the last ten years, since the census of 2011, the population of the parish has grown by 40% and is predicted to press on further. More apartments and planning for homes continue at a rapid pace. We’ve seen this before.
Parish Life has served the city, which was simply a town when St Mary’s was built. It kept pace with the patterns of life, lived through change, effected change, and enabled growth. Still does.
Some of those churches born of St Mary’s in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have now closed, a result of the changing shape of a city, merciless in its development. Others, however, have continued their role, retained a presence, picked up the presenting needs, continued to minister to all.
Years ago, St Stephen’s Church, a chapel of ease from St Mary’s at Mount Stuart Square, was closed down, sold off. Perhaps, if decision makers had known how the Docks would be redeveloped and rebranded as ‘The Bay’ and how Cardiff would redefine itself, there may have been some stubbornness to retain it, standing as it does in an area prime for Mission.
Dry but cloudy
Today, St Mary’s Church continues to be a solid presence in a changing city. There is nothing new under the sun, and whilst we must attend to the present moment with an eye and ear on future opportunities and changes, we can also learn from the past and how parish life can serve the needs of even the quickest growing city in Europe, with its diverse and fascinating communities.
In a newspaper report of the Consecration ceremony much was made of the weather which “during the early period of the forenoon was dry, but cloudy; and continued so until about twelve o’ clock, when it commenced raining.” However, it didn’t prevent a large gathering of people who processed “to the building to be consecrated.”
At many times in its history, the Parish of St Mary’s has looked at the whole picture and, whilst scanning the scene, has looked ‘small’ at times. It picked out those pockets of population which showed such potential, which presented needs, and which needed priests, and a place for people to gather. By doing this, it enabled the parish to grow in number, to grow in faith, to grow outwards.
It played to the strengths of Parish Life which means, 175 years after its consecration and 177 years since it was first opened, St Mary’s Church on Bute Street remains both a home to a vibrant congregation, and a sign and symbol to the wider community that we are here for them, whatever the weather.
Dry but cloudy: from a report of the Consecration Service in the The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette, 8th November 1875