For more than a century St Paul’s Church has sat at the heart of the community providing a sanctuary for those in need, for prayer and for celebrations.
And in many ways, as it reached its impressive 150th milestone, the pandemic has seen it delivering one of its most important roles, at the forefront of the NHS vaccination programme.
As society has changed so has the church. In its heyday the then vicar carried out in one day alone, 53 baptisms. Since January, 44,000 jabs have been administered with over 20,000 people passing through the doors of the Thornton Heath church including a visit from Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall.
There was further well wishes at the anniversary dedication festival eucharist with letter from Her Majesty The Queen, in which she wrote: “I send my best wishes to all concern for a most memorable and enjoyable gathering making this notable milestone in your history.”
The church survived bomb damage in the Second World War and has been there for the community at the start of life and the end. Over the years it has also overseen the weddings of hundreds of local couples but with less marriages taking place in church the last was in 2015.
Gill Borthwick’s connection with St Paul’s began 40 years ago when she and husband Paul moved to Thornton Heath.
She said: “We started to look for a church and came to St Paul’s just at the end of Rev Douglas Turton’s time in the late 80s. The church was going through a real sense of bereavement with losing a vicar who had been here and was well liked and then being hit with the news that a young churchwarden, David Corner was killed by an IRA bomb in Victoria Station and the funeral was one of the vicar’s last duties in February 1991.
“Understandably, the church was in a double bereavement, but as we started to get involved, we were welcomed and made to feel really comfortable, and instantly knew this was where we wanted to be.
“After 13 years of waiting, we were blessed with our first child in November 1991, and she was baptised at the church. That child, Kirsty, is now ordained herself and in her first year of curacy.
“As our family grew, our love for the people in the church grew and they became a second family. The girls loved to get involved and we have pictures showing them at an early age helping with the cleaning and moving things around when building works were about to happen. We got more and more involved – both in the services and in the community events and my husband got confirmed.
“Over the years my husband was Churchwarden for 13 years. During Rev Martin Jewitt’s time he encouraged me to explore a vocation in the church and God pointed me towards being a Lay Minister (Reader) and I was licensed in 2005. I was also taken on as a Parish Administrator during Martin’s time and that remit has broadened to include Community Coordination as I firmly believe that the church should be at the centre of the community not only providing space for activities but also active in the community.
“It was such a joyous occasion to celebrate 150 years of worship and service. St Paul’s has had its ups and downs, just as the area has, but through it all it has remained as we first found it friendly, welcoming and caring. People care about the church and the community.”
More recently, prior to the pandemic, the church has been forefront of Social Prescribing programme working to improve the health and well being of older people.
In August, St Paul’s held a special thanksgiving service to recognise all the hard work of everyone involved in the vaccine roll out with certificates presented to volunteers and a Strawberry Tree planted to remember all those who have lost loved ones during Covid.
The dedication eucharist on Saturday (Sep 25) was conducted by Bishop of Southwark Christopher Chessun and among the church leaders was former vicar Martin Jewitt who served the church for 11 years and is now retired. The service was followed by a buffet feast provided by the congregation to mark the special occasion and also celebrate the news that the church has been awarded a £15,000 grant from the Marshalls charity to enable essential roof repairs to be carried out.
The church has had 16 vicars in its 150 year history with Revd Derrick Thompson the present incumbent arriving three years ago. He said: “As a newcomer to the area I find it hard to imagine those first days of St.Paul’s church when most of the surrounding area was still fields with only a few houses around where St. Paul’s now stands, especially as the area is now so densely populated. Meetings actually started a year or so earlier, with the parish being formally created and the original building commenced in 1871. Although we are not sure, we think it was at that time that St. Paul’s was made a ‘Crown Parish’. That means that the patron of St. Paul’s is the Sovereign and it was a great encouragement to us to receive a letter of congratulations from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, for our 150th Anniversary Celebration.
“Although St.Paul’s attendance is not what it once was I often reflect on the fact that where there used to be one Church, four churches are now meeting giving different expressions to how we worship God. This is something I rejoice in as we reflect the diversity of the community we live in and serve.
“It has also been the place of many happy occasions, especially weddings and Christenings. One of the things that the last eighteen months has taught us is that we never know what is around the corner.
“My hope and prayer is that St.Paul’s will be one of the many churches in Thornton Heath that will continue to meet those needs for decades and centuries to come.”