The Closure of St Mary's

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The village has grown steadily since the publication of The Miscellany. New families have continued to move in but happily, community spirit flourishes, although in the last twenty years the village has lost the school, post office, shop, and garage. So it was the closure of St Mary’s had to be accepted as part of the process of change, however unwillingly.

The Vicar, the Rev Denerley, and the Church Council had managed to maintain St Mary’s through the 1980’s. But it finally became clear that a long-term effort was needed to meet the cost of unavoidable repairs and renewals. Fund-raising began in 1990 and the seven-year programme resulted in a total of £23,500 being raised, £14,500 from within the parish (nearly £5,000 from coffee mornings alone!) and the balance from charitable trusts following a series of begging letters to all points of the compass. St Mary’s was saved for the time being but ultimately rising costs made it difficult to justify maintaining two churches in so small a parish. Moreover, the coffee mornings and other informal meetings for which St Mary’s had been used were moving to people’s homes, providing more comfortable venues and encouraging larger attendance. Monday church for children had started in St Mary’s but moved for a while to Pelham Hall; but despite a few faithful families, did not ‘catch on’ in the village, and later evolved into monthly family services in St Nicholas, Trellech.

And so, after much discussion and prayer, the Church Council decided unanimously to close St Mary’s. It had served the village and the school for 135 years, a ‘good and faithful servant’ to the end. A final service of thanksgiving was held on Sunday 2nd February, 2003 …. which the church celebrates as Candlemas, to recall the presentation of Christ in the temple to Simeon, a fitting choice of date because St Simeon holding the infant Christ is pictured on the central window of the three in St Mary’s.

The parish magazine carried the following report:

In our issue of 30th January, 1869, we reported the dedication of this “chapel of ease” to the medieval parish church some two or three miles away. St Mary’s also served as school chapel until the school was closed in 1987 – and now we have to report the closure of St Mary’s itself, it having been found increasingly difficult to justify the need for two church buildings in Penallt parish.

The final service in St Mary’s took the form of Festival Evensong on Candlemas Sunday, 2nd February . It was a service of thanksgiving celebrating the life of this much loved building, attended by a full congregation and by visiting clergy including Ven. Glyndwr Hackett (Archdeacon of Monmouth), Rev. Phil Rees (Area Dean) and Rev. Keith Denerley (Vicar of Penallt, 1985-2000). The service was conducted by the Vicar, Rev. Sandra Howells, concluding with a moving candle ceremony with a prayer that “we who extinguish these candles may never forsake the light of Christ”.

The Archdeacon’s address recognised the sadness involved in the closure and sought to reassure his listeners that “the past, the present moment and the future” were “part and parcel of one seamless robe of God’s plan for his people”. “Whatever else changes,” he said, “God remains faithful to those who see Him …. He will continue to lavish his gifts of grace upon you – long after this building is closed.”

Once the church was closed, a decision had to be made about the future of the organ – too good to scrap, too big for the Old Church to use. After much searching a home for it was found in another church in Gloucestershire. Other items in the church were auctioned, with local people buying items as mementos - the writer is proud to sit on one of the old pews every day for meals in her kitchen. After discussion with the Babington Education Trust, the Church in Wales which owned the building and the Trust which owned the land on which its stands, reached agreement, and both the building and land were sold to a local resident who had previously bought and converted the old school next door to let for holidays.

St Mary’s was duly converted and renamed Capel Pentwyn. A public opening in the summer of 2005 was attended by most of the village, curious to see what had happened to the building. They found that conversion to a 5-star holiday home had been undertaken to a sumptuous standard with oak and “natural” materials used sympathetically to produce an authentic and integrated “William Morris” interior. The Victorian tiles from the chancel had been reused and the stained glass windows restored – and Simeon once again gazed down on people enjoying a meal.

[from: Penallt Revisited]