Prayers are finally being answered for one group of York parishioners. MATT CLARK meets the worshippers who until recently had to go outside for a warm.
DEAR Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold, wrote William Blake in The Little Vagabond. He was right. Beautiful they may be, but places of worship can be perishing. And that's no fun when you spend half the time kneeling down.
Rene Braithwaite has spent the best part of her life kneeling at St Lawrence Church, off Hull Road. And most of the last 20 years trying to thaw out.
Rene Braithwaite, looking forward to being warm. Picture: Matt Clark.
You see the problem with York's largest parish church is there has been no heating since the old system packed up during the 1990s. Not for the want of trying, though. Oil, hot air, wet and dry systems, you name it. But nothing has been up to the job for such a big place.
"We even got some heaters and blankets used to be provided at the end of the pews to wrap up with," says Rene. "I never used them, though. You didn't know where they came from."
Fortunately mufflers and scarves will soon be a thing of the past thanks to a major project to install proper underfloor heating beneath the pews and man-sized cast-iron radiators in the Sanctuary.
"Oh it will be lovely," says Rene. "When the sun shines it's really beautiful here, but a lot of people don't come in the winter."
Rene, 92, says she still likes to do her bit for the elderly, like cooking their dinners and running the Darby and Joan club. But her friend Eric Coulson will be even more pleased to see a decent system.
Eric Coulson who is looking forward to taking communion without oily hands at Midnight Mass. Picture: Matt Clark.
"I got lumbered with looking after the old oil burner," he says. "I used to walk through the door and the first thing I heard was: here's Eric, he'll fix it."
Which he did, time and again. Trouble is motors kept burning out and people kept fiddling with the controls.
So how often was he called on to fix the bloomin' thing?
"Oh my gosh, most weeks," says Eric, 96. "One Christmas Eve they even called me just before midnight because the heating was off. I went down to get the burner going and came back with filthy hands. Mr Jones presented the bread into them at Midnight Mass."
Churchwarden Iain Milne says heating is critically needed to dry out damp in the building, and preserve historic fabrics. Without it, the church can be so cold in the winter that services and other events are held in the Hall.
Things were so bad in 2002 that engineers even recommended the church building be closed and demolished.
But the congregation was having none of it.
"They are very determined," says the vicar, Revd Jane Nattrass. "Since then the roof has been restored, the spire rebuilt after its collapse in 2008, and faulty electrical wiring replaced."
Of her seven churches in York, St Lawrence is by far the biggest and by far the coldest, but work is well under way on the first aisle's underfloor heating, with the second due to be done in a few weeks. That will just leave piping to install for the radiators.
Work is well under way on the first aisle's underfloor heating. Picture: Matt Clark.
It's not a cheap job, though. Not by any means.
“We thought the project would cost close to £150,000, and we’ve already been donated more than £100,000 by generous individuals and organisations," says Revd Nattrass. "Unfortunately, the contractors have discovered problems such as extensive rot in the floorboards and difficulties with the floor tiles."
Which will add more than £20,000 to the cost.
"These problems have been caused by the same cold and damp which we are trying to protect the church from in future," says Revd Nattrass. "We’re asking the people of York and beyond to help us complete the installation of a proper heating and sound system, to preserve this wonderful church for generations to come."
York St John's Theology student James Kenny first stumbled across St Lawrence at harvest festival two years ago.
Chorister, Server and Church Council member James Kenny in the Sanctuary at St Lawrence Church. Picture: Matt Clark.
"It was a dark autumn evening and to turn up in this beautiful Victorian church and to hear Victorian anthems, gave a great sense of the past," he says. "By far the warmest thing about this church was the congregation."
James has been a regular ever since. Now he sings with the choir, has taken on server duties and is a member of the church council.
"Literally the Sunday morning service finished and five minutes later we had all the curtains down, cloths off, silver away and everything piled up in the Sanctuary," he says.
Now James hopes, all being well, that everything should be back in place before the end of the year.
"Once we're allowed to come back in, as long as the centre of the nave is clear, we can put the altar back together and start straight away," he says. "We really hoping to be in for Christmas."
No one will be more pleased than Eric. Finally, no more worries about taking communion with oily hands at Midnight Mass.
If you would like to donate to the restoration of St Lawrence Church, please send cheques made payable to St Lawrence’s PCC to St Lawrence Parish Church, Lawrence Street, York, YO10 3WP. You can also give online at www.mydonate.bt.com/charities/stlawrenceparishchurch