St Helier Parish Church

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This article by R G Warton was first published in the 1916 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Long years ago, over a thousand years, the coastline of St Helier did not follow its exact contour of today. That portion of the town south of the cemetery wall, bordering Bond Street, was then submerged at high tide, forming the head of a little creek, with outlet somewhere about the meeting of Pier Road with Mulcaster Street. It then followed, approximately, the line of Bond Street, formerly known as "La rue de la Madelaine". From there, a sandy waste stretched far away westward to Mont Cochon.

The creek can be traced in a 1700 model of St Helier in the museum of La Société Jersiaise. Rings in the wall of the churchyard were found, where boats in old times had been fastened.

The Town Church in 1870

Chantry chapel

Near this creek, to the north-west of the present parish church, a chantry chapel stood, known as the "Chapelle de la Madelaine ", built of sea pebbles. Its precise position was a little to the westward of the new choir vestry. In the deed passed before the Royal Court on January 10, 1695, whereby Charles Dumaresq and James Corbet ceded in perpetuity the chapel to the parish authorities of St Helier, to be used as a poorhouse, it is described as bordering the cemetery on the south and the rectory on the east. It is evident from this document that the chapel had passed into private hands, probably sold at the Reformation by the Royal Commissioners. The chapel still existed late in the 18th century, but was allowed to fall into ruin.

It is probable that the chapel, one of many scattered through the island, was contemporary with the Fisherman's Chapel of St Brelade's Bay. St Helier, at the time we are referring to, was merely a collection of a few houses or huts, in fact a small fishing village; yet, the position acquired importance from its proximity to the scene of the labours and martyrdom of its patron saint, and later by the foundation of an important monastic establishment within the precincts of Elizabeth Castle itself.

It is possible, and even probable, that the present church originated from a second chantry chapel, dating back to about the 11th century, though there is no positive evidence of this. If so, in the ordinary course of evolution, this chapel became the chancel of the church. From extant records it would appear that during the Roman Catholic epoch, the Abbot of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte was recognised as patron, and nominated to the cure. It is, however, to be noted that, on several occasions, allusion is made to the King having presented, in time of war, candidates of his own choice to the living.

This period, (the 12th century) would be synchronous with the first of several crude changes which the church has undergone. Once more we cannot help expressing regret that during the many restorations our Jersey parish churches have "suffered", the canons of good taste and architectural design seem so frequently to have been ignored; the more unpardonable since in every case these buildings were planned in accordance with convention, thus offering free scope for better treatment.

The Town Church

First enlargement

The period we have now arrived at (12th century) was that of the first enlargement. It may be reasonably assumed that the primitive development (from the simple chantry) consisted in the prolongation of the chapel westward, the whole being then divided into a sanctuary, sIightly raised, for the priesthood, and a nave, or body, used by the congregation.

In the centre of this village arose a church, partly built of pebbles. Houses clustered around, in contrast to the somewhat isolated position held by most of the sister churches.

St Helier thus assimilated to the continental type, where churches are usually found near, and often in actual contact with the dwellings of the civil community. In England, on the other hand, our great cathedrals, almost invariably, stand in an open space, the “Close", round which the clergy live. Hence the deduction, (a wrong one nowadays at least) that English clergy form a class apart, and are less intimately associated with those to whom they minister, than is the case abroad.

Hard beaten earth as usual made a flooring. On this, the occasion of the first enlargement, a mortuary chapel was thrown out northward of the chancel; also a transept, and, as if to remind those who should follow later, not to forget the form of the "Latin Cross" when making further change, a corresponding addition to the south, "La Chapelle de la Vierge" was at the same time added.

The date of the mortuary chapel would appear to be about 1160. The exterior is conspicuous, owing to the roof being constructed with a different pitch from that of the main structure; also by the light, thin buttresses of Norman type. Inside, the broken remains of two Norman and two transition (Romanesque) arches, are still preserved; also two niches for the reception of ancient tombs.

The Church before its 19th century restoration

Unconventional churches

Jersey churches are nothing if not unconventional, and as the sequel shows, St Helier was not to prove an exception.

During the early half of the 15th century, further and most important alterations were undertaken. These probably gave rise to the "Dedicace" date of consecration, 1341.

The chancel walls were raised. The increased elevation can even now be traced in the chancel gable, through contrast in the work of the two periods. A south chancel aisle was added. A handsome crenellated tower, with cross vaulting beneath, standing on massive piers, was erected, and lastly, heavy barrel roofs replaced those previously existing, of wood or thatch.

Stronger support became essential for such ponderous additions. This was supplied by means of buttresses within, and heavy circular pillars on octangular pediments carrying transition arches to form an arcading, and take the inward thrust; the outer buttresses being at the same time strengthened. Caen stone and Chausey granite now superseded pebbles, brought from the sea.

Towards the end of the same century, (the 15th) further important changes were again made. Of these, the chief consisted in the addition of a southern nave aisle, involving more cumbrous arcading, and tending to render the interior somewhat dark and gloomy. Flamboyant tracery appeared in the upper portions of the eastern windows.

Thus, a nave consisting of five bays was completed, and the church rested from structural change for many years.

The Town Church interior

Bigotry and desecration

Things pursued their normal course, until two centuries later, arose a storm of radical and revolutionary attack, a storm that, pro tem destroyed the monarchy of England, only to collapse itself under the burden of its own iniquity. It culminated in an era of bigotry and desecration. The experience of her sister churches, was that of St Helier, intensified perhaps, owing to her metropolitan status.

During the following century, an historic event took place, under the very shadow of St Helier's Church. In 1781, the French, led by the so-called Baron de Rullecourt, attempted by a "coup de main" the capture of the Island. They failed, defeated by the gallant Peirson who, in the hour of victory, lost his life. Many prisoners were taken, who were interned, for safety, in the parish church, a handy place pending incarceration.

Reinforcements from the west arrived after the fight was over. True to their instincts the St Ouennais desired no half measures. "Let us bum them church and all", they said, and this they would undoubtedly have done, unless tradition errs, had not a force of regulars prevented them.

The next and last structural enlargement, or rather "restoration of St Helier's Church, took place in 1864. During the preceding revolutionary innings its leaders had busied themselves with the interior, purging it of aught that savoured of the Romish religion. A craze for galleries obsessed them. No fewer than seven, for the general public, and several belonging to private families, were placed in different parts.

One of the first named, known as the Common Gallery, at the west end, served as the roof of a town arsenal, for the parish guns. Another was devoted to the use of "fumeurs". The lofty Three Decker pulpit, of course, appeared, pride of the Puritan. It held a position confronted by a special pew for the Lieut-Governor. The travelling communion table also was there, used as occasion arose for parish elections, or even public auctions. Such were the marks of the roundhead regime.

Under the name of church reform, aught else went by the board. Stoups and piscinas, fonts and ornaments of every kind, were swept away. Governor Paulett, by virtue of a Royal Commission, seized the church plate and sold it; also the bells, and sold them. Such also was the situation during a certain period, happily short.

The nave

Organ box

Intemperance of every kind must find a nemesis. Reaction was not long delayed, Early in the 18th century an organ ("box of whistles") appeared, tucked away in one of the many galleries. Then, huge chandeliers, in brass, lighted by many candles, whilst tracery again adorned the window, so that, once more, St Helier's came to assume its pristine garb.

In 1864 the work of restoration was taken seriously in hand. Some interesting reproductions, illustrating the church during this transition period, and presenting views from the northwest and southwest speak for themselves. Some of the neighbouring buildings can still be recognised.

A committee was entrusted with the task of securing stained glass windows. How well they did their work is recorded below, including names of many noted Jerseymen as donors.

The cost of restoration amounted to some £4,000, The nave was lengthened, a south transept added, A vestry and porch was opened on the north side, where the two Norman and transition arches, belonging to the mortuary chapel previously mentioned, were discovered, and removed to another position.

For these was substituted yet further heavy arcading, to match that in the remainder of the church, although it would seem rather late for trying to introduce uniformity within a building whose principal feature, one might almost say charm, lay in the opposite direction.

As to the interior, all the old galleries were taken out, whilst a new one was placed at the west end of the nave, and a second in the south transept, Stalls in thc chancel were appropriated to the choir, near the organ, on the north.

Church furniture of modem type was introduced, and many gifts from various well-wishers helped to renovate and beautify the church, A handsome lectern in brass was the contribution of Francis Bertram.

The south aisle

Last supper

Members of the congregation presented a painting representing The Last Supper, to form a reredos, and specially as a tribute to the Rev P A Le Feuvre, Vice-Dean of Jersey, who died whilst in the act of ministering at the altar, on Easter Day 1889. A brass plate, in the chancel, further commemorates this tragic event.

Under one date or another may be seen recorded on these ancient walls nearly every Jersey name of note, the earliest, that of Maximilian Norreys, marked by a plain grey slab, with armorial bearings, and going back to 1591; one of the latest is that of Lieut-Colonel P Le Gallais, killed in the Boer War of 1901-2.

There, too, are other names familiar to Jerseymen as household word. Bandinel, La Cloche, d'Auvergne, de Carteret, Anquetil, Durell, a list too numerous for mention here. Tablets to several Lieut-Governors augment this roll, amongst them one to Major-General Archibald Campbell, who died during his term of office and found a last resting place within the church.

But, in this Roll of Honour none holds a more distinguished place than that of Francis Peirson. He lies beneath the tower. A simple monument (some think too simple), placed in he chancel by the States of Jersey, is thus inscribed:

"To the memory of Major Francis Peirson, who, when this Island was invaded by the French, fell bravely fighting at the head of British and Island troops. He died in the flower of youth and in the moment of victory the 6th day of January 1781, aged 24. The States of the Island in grateful testimony of their deliverance, caused this monument to be erected at the public expense".

His story needs no recital, nor his brave memory any costly monument. The French Commander, Rullecourt, was buried in the churchyard near the north transept door.

And still we might go on, but those who would recall to mind the Island's history by names of men who made it, cannot do better than spend a quiet hour within those sacred walls that speak.

The Town Church before its 19th century restoration

Church plate

St Helier's church plate is not remarkable, all being post-Reformation. Amongst its donors appear the names of Jean and Abraham Herault; a chalice, presented by the former, taking the pride of place for antiquity (1639). Philip Le Geyt, Francis Le Couteur, Mauger, Ste Croix, and Lempriere are other names associated with the collection.

But, doubtless the greatest general interest will centre round the pieces forming a service sent for the use of Charles, then Prince of Wales, later King Charles II, for use during his brief stay at Elizabeth Castle.

For a long time this service lay unheeded, certainly uncared for, somewhere within the castle walls. Its whereabouts, in some way, came to light, and then the British Government authorities took steps to have it properly looked after. Since the withdrawal of soldiers from the castle, it has been placed under the special guardianship of the Dean of Jersey, for use of the garrison at certain services, held in the parish church, once more created Garrison Church of Jersey.

The service consists of three pieces, flagon, chalice, and paten. All bear the London hallmark. The front of the flagon bears a coat of arms supposed to be those of Lord Capel. The chalice bears the arm, and the paten (1621-22) the crest of Sir Thomas Jermyn, Governor of Jersey from 1631 to 1644.

Two memorable occasions may be mentioned when this plate must have been used, each associated with the Royal refugee. On 26 April 1646, Charles, then Prince of Wales, attended the parish church in state, supported by the loyalists of Jersey. Later, in 1649, after his father's execution, the Prince, now King, was again present at a requiem service.

The young prince

The scene is quaintly described as follows:

"On this occasion the young Prince, only 16 years of age, occupied a chair fronting the pulpit; a table was placed conveniently, so that his highness might rest his elbows on it".

The Duke of York, his brother, accompanied him; the Jersey Militia guarded his route from castle to church, and many devoted adherents followed in his train. He wore the Order of the Garter, and was loyally hailed as King, Jersey the first to acclaim him.

A Roll of over 50 Rectors attests the antiquity of the Christian faith, as held by the National Church in Jersey. From 1294, up to the present time, no break occurs. The earliest on record is Nicolas Dupont, 1294.

No fewer than seven Deans have served as Rectors of St Helier, the last but not least distinguished being the Very Reverend Samuel Faile.

We now conclude this brief memorial of St Helier's Parish Church; at times seat of the Deans, scene of many stirring episodes, pro-cathedral, and in some sense a local Valhalla. It cannot be denied, that, taken as a whole, the building with its lofty crenelated tower, is dignified, though unsymmetrical. A critic of the interior might perchance exclaim in Goethe's dying words, "Encore de la lumiere".

In fact, there seems to have been a clerestory at one time. Perhaps, in the not far distant future, the powers that be may yet again draw light from heaven.

History will testify to the present era as one of religious and social activity, of "rapprochement" among the Island churches, of material improvement as regards the fabric and its surroundings and, let us hope, of further generous gifts to adorn the interior, and perfect the services. It will be from no lack of interest or energy on the part of the present holder of the benefice should such not prove to be the case.

The Town Church

Stained glass

The following is the list of windows in the church, together with their subjects, and names of the donors:

  • Chancel, east window, the gift of the Hemery family. The upper portion represents "The Lord enthroned", while the lower portions represent "The angel announcing the resurrection", and "The risen Lord appearing to Mary Magdalene”. This window is the work of one of the most eminent artists of the period, and was exhibited at the great exhibition of 1862, as an example of British Ecclesiastical art.
  • Chancel aisle, east window, given by the restoration committee. Four lights, representing "The Adoration of the Magi", "Christ in the Temple", "The Marriage Feast in Cana", and "Christ bearing His Cross".
  • Chancel aisle (first window), the gift of Jurat E C Malet de Carteret, the subject being "Christ healing the sick".
  • Chancel aisle (second window), given by the Le Breton family; the subjecL of the three panels being “Christ appearing to St Thomas", "St Paul preaching at Athens", and "The woman of Samaria".
  • South aisle (first window) presented by the late Jurat J G Falle, the subjects represented being "The healing of the woman", " Christ, the Consoler", and " St Peter walking on the sea".
  • South aisle (second window), given by the late Mr N Le Quesne, "Christ blessing the children ".
  • South aisle (third window) presented by the son of the late Mr Abraham de Gruchy, "The baptism of our Lord".
  • South aisle (west window), presented by he Westaway family, "The Ascension".
  • Nave (west window), presented by the late MR George Bertram, "The Crucifixion".
  • Nave (north window), the gift of tbe late Mr Jean de Gruchy, " The raising of Lazarus ".
  • North transept, given by the late Mr Philip Le Rossignol, "Christ walking on the Sea".
  • South transept, given by the Parish of St Helier, "The sacrifice of Isaac", "The framing of the law", and "The brazen serpent".
  • Mortuary Chapel, raised by subscription among tbe widows of tho congregation, " Christ, the Good Shepherd".
  • Vestry, presented by he late Mrs John Le Masurier, "The Annunciation".
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