History of St Helen’s
Excerpts taken from the booklet ‘Continuity through Change’ by Chris Bull.
Helen (or Helena) was the Christian mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, (who was himself a Christian). She was famous in her own right for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 325 AD and founding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was to her name that the Parish Church of Stapleford was dedicated.
However before the church was built, monks from a monastery at Breedon on the Hill came to bring Christian services to the town, and a stone pillar was set up where the monks and villagers met. This was around 1000 AD, and today the remnants of that Saxon Cross, now without it’s cross beam, still stands in the church yard.
After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror gave this part of the country to his illegitimate son, Peverill. We know from the Doomsday Book that Stapleford had a church and a priest in 1086, it was probably wooden and no details exist. But in 1229, Civicia Heriz - Lady Stapleford gave this church to Newstead Abbey, which then became responsible for the ministry of the parish. Newstead continued to provide the services until 1540.
Around 1250, work started on the first stone church. It was built of local Triassic sandstone, and although much smaller than today’s building, it formed the basis of the church in which we still worship today. Since then several extensions have been added including the spire built on top of the tower in the 15th century.
Originally there would have been no seats in the church apart from a
few simple ledges around the walls, which the ill and infirm could use. This
is the origin of the saying
the weakest go to the wall. Between
1775 – 1785 major restorations were carried out and closed or ‘horsebox’ pews,
a musicians’ gallery, a false flat ceiling and simple heating were added.
In 1876 much of the 1775 work was reversed, the building was enlarged and modernised. Long pews were fitted. The building then remained little changed until the 1980s. Although in 1912 gas lighting was installed and in 1923 the Memorial Chapel was built on the south side of the church, in memory of those who died in the First World War. Electric light was installed in 1937. The tombstones were moved to the perimeter of the churchyard in 1952.
In 2006 the heating system was failing and the church need a complete electrical rewiring. So it was decided to have a major refurbishment to bring the building up to 21st century standards of comfort. Underfloor heating was installed under a new stone floor, with new lighting, a much improved audio-visual system and padded chairs instead of pews. The west entrance was opened up with glass doors. This is the building you see today.
Ministers in the Church
On the wall inside the church is an illustrated scroll giving the names of ministers over many centuries. During part of the Second World War Stapleford had a German curate, when Rev Charles Baggs was vicar. Although by then, several men of the town had been killed in the war against Germany, the church council supported the appointment of Pastor Ludwig Horlbog, a Lutheran minister. He had come to Britain as a refugee in 1938, studied at Wycliffe hall, Oxford and was ordained deacon in 1943 when he came to Stapleford as a curate.
Stained Glass Windows
In the days when most people could not read, stained glass windows and wall paintings reminded them of events recorded in the Bible.
The East Window was installed in 1877, in memory of Thomas Whiteley who was a major player in the lace trade in the area. The lower part shows Jesus’ birth, the announcement of his birth to Mary, his crucifixion, his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and one of his resurrection appearances to his disciples. Above are the symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Above them are the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet signifying the beginning an end of all things; and at the top is the image of the risen Christ seated in glory.
The Memorial Chapel window depicts St George with St Oswald and St Edward. The window in the north aisle with the two angels is part of the World War Two memorial.
A recently added window is in the south-west corner of the church and was commissioned in memory of Clarence Bassford who had sung faithfully in the church choir for many years and died in 1980.
The latest window addition is in the north-west corner. This was recovered from St. Andrew's Church in Antill Street prior to it being sold. As part of the 2008 restoration it replaced a plain glass window in that position.
Visitors to the church cannot help but notice the large monument on the south side of the building. It commemorates Gervase Tevery who died in 1639. His wife Hannah survived him. They had three daughters and one son, who are represented by the small statues around the monument. During the English Civil War, many church effigies were defaced, which is probably when the noses were broken off the figures.
The oldest monument is at the foot of the chancel steps, below the dais – and dating back to 1571 in memory of Robert Tevery and his wife Katherine, grandparents of the previously mentioned Gervase.
High on the north wall of the nave is an Italian carving in black oak, depicting the Last Supper. It dates from the 16th century and was used as a ‘reredos’, (a picture mounted behind the communion table) under the East Window. It was moved to its present position in 1915 when a new communion table was donated.
Music Making in the Church
In 1775 a gallery was added at the back of the church for musicians to accompany the singing. In the 19th century, church organs became popular and in 1876 the gallery was removed and the first organ installed. It was sold and replaced in 1902. Unfortunalty, in 1981 a fire in the vestry roof destroyed that organ. The Church Council then installed an ‘Allen Electronic’ organ complete with inbuilt computers offering extensive facilities for playing. Nowadays our singing is usually led by another group of musicians, consisting of a variety of instruments and microphones and a mixing desk with the ‘band’ gathering in the north-east corner near the vestry door.
The Saxon Cross
The old Saxon Cross is a local ancient monument and dates back to 1000 AD, and had been lost for many years. In 1760 the cross (minus the cross bar which had long since disappeared) was discovered lying in the churchyard and set up upon a stone base in Church Street at the junction with Church Lane. However as traffic grew in the town, this became a nuisance and in 1928 the Saxon Cross was moved to its present position in the churchyard. The stone ball on the top of the pillar was not part of the original; they were added in 1820 and later broken in a storm. To mark the millennium, in 2000 the town council replaced the stone ball with its present one.
There has been considerable historical interest in the stone figures carved into the cross. Some say it represents St Luke, others say it is an angel. However the Old Stapleford Wakes were held on St Luke’s Day, which supports the former view. That is why our daughter church on Moorbridge lane, formally known as the Moorbridge lane Mission was renamed in the 1970’s to St Luke’s Church.