In the latest in our series on local churches, STEPHEN LEWIS visits two York churches with distinctive characters.

PROBABLY the first thing you notice about St Helen's Church is how hemmed in it seems when seen from the street.

There's that lovely, airy, lantern-style perpendicular tower rising from the west front. But what draws the eye is the brick-built shop on the corner of Stonegate which seems to jostle the building, like a rugby full back trying to barge an opposing player off the field of play before he can touch down for a try.

It is one of the features that Derek Earis, the curate with special responsibility for St Helen's, loves about this unassuming church.

"It shares a wall with a shop!" he says.

Unassuming it may be, but this is a church with a proud connection. It is dedicated to St Helen or Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. He was proclaimed emperor right here in York in 306 AD. And he it was who, in 313 AD, legalised Christianity, paving the way for it to spread across the Roman world.

According to the church's website, there is no evidence that Helen ever visited Britain. She had humble origins. Born in Bithynia, in modern-day Turkey, in about 250AD, she seems to have been a barmaid or stable girl when she met Constantius Chlorus, a Roman officer who went on to become emperor. Constantine was Helen's son by Constantius.

So did she ever come to York, a city which venerated her name in the Middle Ages?

We don't know. But if she did, says Derek, Constantine and his mother would almost certainly have walked past the site of this very church. The Roman headquarters where Constantine was proclaimed emperor was about where the south transept of York Minster is now. St Helen's stands where the main road through the Roman fortress ran down to the river. "So maybe we have a direct connection with Helen," Derek says.

One thing you will almost certainly notice, if you are a regular visitor to St Helen's Square, is that the church's west door is almost always open.

That is part of the church's ethos, says Derek: to be welcoming and accessible. It's in a perfect location in the very centre of York. And it is a place of quiet: a haven for people in a busy city centre."

The church is also a place of worship. For ten years or so, until quite recently, it had no regular Sunday service, says Jane Nattrass, the priest in charge of St Helen's and five other city centre churches.

That all changed following a decision to 'reawaken St Helen's'.

Sundays are reserved for services in Mandarin Chinese, but during the week there are frequent English-language services, not to mention other events such as musical services, organ recitals and so-on. "Because of its location, there are quite a lot of concerts in the evenings here," Derek says.

It is worth taking advantage of that always-open door to visit the church, whether for a moment of quiet peace; a spot of private prayer; or simply a look around.

There is no churchyard at St Helen's. It used to be where St Helen's Square is now, but in 1733 it was sold to the York Corporation for £90 to make way for the opening of Blake Street and the creation of the square.

The church is officially known as St Helen's Stonegate – and a church has stood on this site for 1,000 years or more, according to the St Helen's website. The earliest reference to the church is from 1235. But the font has been dated to the 1100s and the original church probably pre-dates the Norman conquest in 1066.

Most of the existing building dates from the 15th century, although the tower is from 1814, and the pierced battlements on the west front date from a remodelling at about the same time, when the street was widened and the corner cut off.

Inside, St Helen's is a simple yet welcoming church, with a prayer tree that is popular with visitors.

In the window above the font, represented in elegant stained glass, is the coat of arms of the York Guild of Glaziers and Glass Painters. Traditionally, members of the Glaziers' guild lived on Stonegate, points out Derek – so this was their church.

Another interesting feature is the beautiful carving on the pillar nearest the organ. This is thought to show St Michael & All Angels: look closely and you can see the figure of St Michael in the centre, with a gathering of angels clustered around him.

One of the treasures of this little church, however, is a simple plaque at the end of the aisle in the east wall.

"Near this place lie the bodies of two maiden sisters, Barbara and Elizabeth Davyes," it says. Both sisters died within a couple of years of each-other in the 1760s, and there was nothing remarkable about either – except that they both lived to be 98 years old, an extraordinary achievement in their day.

Because of their long lives, the sisters lived through the reigns of seven monarchs: Charles II, James II, William and Mary; Queen Ann; George I; George II and, as the plaque puts it, "his present majesty" – ie George III. The plaque ends with a dedication: "To perpetuate their memory, and the singular instance of their longevity ...this tablet was erected by their affectionate nephew Theophilus Davyes Garencieres."

A few hundred yards away from St Helen's, in Coney Street, is a church which is closely linked to it: St Martin's.

This was once one of the principal churches in York. It was on York's main street, and the Guildhall was within its parish, points out Roy Thompson, the York diocese's tourism officer.

Then, in the early hours of April 29, 1942, German bombs rained down on the city. The Guildhall, nearby, was badly damaged: and so was St Martin's. Much of the church was destroyed by fire, with just the south aisle surviving.

In the hours following the raid, attempts were made to get the church's life back to normal. Legal arrangements were made for the wedding booked that day to be held in St Helen's, which became the parish church.

Initially, there were hopes of restoring the church to its former glory. But the north arcade proved to be too badly damaged, and there were fears it would collapse.

It was dismantled, and the architect George Pace was appointed to restore the south isle as a chapel of remembrance – with a 'garden of rest' occupying the remainder of the site.

He did a magnificent job; the church today is a small jewel in the heart of York.

Thankfully, the famed St Martin Window – made in 1447 to tell the story of the church's patron saint Martin of Tours – had been removed for safety in 1940. Pace restored it overlooking the garden of rest.

At the east end of the restored church, fronting on to Coney Street, is a magnificent modern stained glass window by Harry Stammers. It is a depiction of the York Blitz which destroyed the church, with bright orange flames licking upwards towards the sky.

Beneath it is a striking 1960s reredos by Frank Roper depicting the Last Supper, the gilded apostles seated at a long table, their bare feet dangling. It is strikingly modernistic, but somehow perfectly in keeping with this restored church.

Today, the church is a Chapel of Ease, and the garden of rest – known simply as The Courtyard – functions as a war memorial for the whole city. Two books of remembrance in the church record the names of everyone in the city who died during the raid, along with the names of the German airmen who also died that night.

That is in keeping with St Martin's role as a church dedicated to peace and reconciliation, says Jane Nattrass. A 'cross of nails' attached to one stone pillar attest's the church's membership of the 'community of the cross of nails': an international community that grew out of the destruction of Coventry cathedral in the second world war.

"The day after it was bombed, somebody collected nails from the roof buttresses and they were made into crosses," Jane says.

St Martin's is especially linked to St Mary's Church in Lubeck, Germany. "York and Lubeck were bombed in reprisal for each-other," Jane says.

Peace, reconciliation, and a place of rest, reflection and stillness in the busy centre - St Martin's is infused with them all.

Fact file

St Helen’s, Stonegate, and St Martin’s, Coney Street, are two of six city centre churches in York of which Jane Nattress is priest-in-charge. The others are All Saints Pavement, St Denys, St Olave and Holy Trinity Micklegate.

St Martin is open daily, and celebrates Holy Communion twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. It’s worship is centred on peace and reconciliation.

St Helen’s door is always open. There is a service in Mandarin Chinese each Sunday. Other services during the week tend to follow a Celtic tradition of worship: what Derek Earis calls a ‘rural tradition’ which is still C of E but “done in a creative way”, drawing on Celtic spirituality and placing an emphasis on nature, and respect for art, poetry, learning and hospitality. The church also hosts music recitals and other events.

Upcoming services and other events at St Helen’s include:

• Celtic Eucharist for Eastertide – noon tomorrow

• Organ Vespers – Organ music and readings for Easter, Wednesday May 7 at 6.30pm

• St Helen’s Day Patronal Festival, Wednesday May 21, at 6pm. A celebration of St Helen, featuring the St John Singers singing Mozart’s brief mass Spatsenmesse (Sparrow Mass).