Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The Closure of St. Gilbert's Church

St. Gilbert's Church, Hayward's Mead
It was at the beginning of December when we were informed that St. Gilbert's was to close and that our last service would be on 6th January (The Epiphany). We knew the 'writing was on the wall' as, for the past few years, services had been reduced to one Sunday and one Friday Mass per month (plus Christmas Day and Easter Sunday) but we really had hoped that this might be allowed to continue, for whilst we had those few services it did at least mean that there was a visible Catholic presence in the village and the Catholic church was available for baptisms and funerals etc. In recent years, a retired priest, Father Bosco Clarke, generally came over from Maidenhead to celebrate the Sunday Masses (ably assisted by our Deacon, Paul Lipscomb); and our Parish Priest, Father Andy Richardson, was always on hand for the Friday evening service, and for special celebrations. 

A letter from our Bishop, which outlined the reasons for closure, referred to the reality of there now being fewer priests. The letter also mentioned the need to spend a lot of money on the church on maintenance issues; we had always tried very hard not to cost the diocese too much money in upkeep: for example, the interior had not been redecorated for over twenty-five years, and the interior plumbing and wiring was as installed in 1964; but inevitably major work would be required in order to bring the building up to a legally compliant modern standard. Hence, the Diocese, who are having to prioritise with many other churches around the diocese in a similar situation, took the difficult decision to close St Gilbert's and sell the land. 

The St. Gilbert's congregation always enjoyed sharing the church with our other local denominations and were often involved in ecumenical happenings: we took our turn with them in hosting the Churchyard Committee meetings, the recently established 'Thy Kingdom Come' prayer breakfast, and the annual (Women's) World Day of Prayer (some of us got together to represent Catholics at the recent one at St. John's). We even opened St. Gilbert's to an impromptu hosting of last December's 'Carols and Dress-Up Nativity Play', which couldn't take place by the village Christmas Tree due to very strong cold winds — Father Andy was represented by Father Emmanuel Okami. For more than twenty years, Mary McCarthy ran a youth club (called Charlie's Angels) at the church for children from 5 to 12 years old. We will very much miss having the opportunity to share in this way. 

As many of you will already know, it was in 1954 that a Father Dunstan (formerly a Torpedo Boat Coxswain!!) encouraged Eton Wick's Catholics to strive to finance the construction of their own church in the village. At that time, Sunday morning Mass was being celebrated in the Village Hall (for which the hire charge was 4 shillings per week and the clearing of Saturday night's debris); and, prior to that, villagers had made their way to 'Our Lady of Sorrows' at Eton. A committee was elected, a raffle held and the £3 raised was the first contribution to the fundraising. A few years (and a lot of jumble sales, bazaars, and dances) later, the funds had reached £4,000 and money subsequently pledged realised the total required for construction to commence, with the foundations being dug by the parishioners themselves. Ten years after Father Dunstan's challenge, on the day before Palm Sunday in 1964, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Gilbert was blessed by Bishop Leo Parker. St. Gilbert's was built at a cost of £16,000 on land which was purchased for £1,500. We are thankful that none of those who worked so hard to provide this Catholic church remain to see its closure. 

Interior of St. Gilbert's
Eton Wick Catholics have scattered, for a variety of reasons, to various local churches (although we officially remain in 'Our Lady of Peace' parish) and we have lost our physical `home'; but we are still together in our faith. It just remains for us to say 'Thank you' to all those villagers (whether Christian or non-Christian) who have supported St. Gilbert's in different ways throughout the past 54 years, your various kindnesses have been much appreciated and we will remember them in our prayers. 

Written on behalf of St. Gilbert's Clergy and Congregation 

This article was first published in the Our Village April 2019 edition.

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