Grow the Wonder

By Richard Benson

The big red-brick Victorian behemoth of St Mary the Virgin on Elsworthy Road might be known or recognised by many in the community as the church that sells ice cream outside, or as the venue for the famous candlelit Christingle Christmas Eve service.

But there’s much more to it than that, and in fact the wonder of what goes on within those rather anonymous-looking walls makes St Mary’s one of the most remarkable neighbourhood churches in the capital.

There are not many places of worship that use their crypt to house a craft brewery, profits from which are channelled back into the church (the equipment has been blessed by the Bishop of Edmonton, which sounds like A First). Then in the winter, the whole building is converted once a week into a cold weather shelter for the homeless. And in the summer, the interior is turned into a theatre for a well-known annual series of lectures that has included the likes of Alan Bennett, Mary Beard and Jonathan Miller.

Perhaps most strikingly, the edifice also serves as the base for St Mary’s Centre Youthwork, a nationally acclaimed programme of outreach and inclusion for disadvantaged and at-risk youth in the area. In recent times, after violence flared, St Mary’s Centre youth workers were out on the streets, providing support and dissuading young people from reprisals. The journalist and TV presenter Andrew Marr is its patron; Jason Allen, St Mary’s Youth Team Manager, received a BEM medal in recognition of his work in the last New Year’s honours list.

Throw in dozens of other inclusive initiatives, and the way St Mary’s makes its copious space available to the community at affordable rates, and you can see why the church, and its well-known vicar Marjorie Brown, are so well respected.

“Ever since the church was founded nearly 150 years ago, the governing principle has been to serve the whole community,” says Marjorie. “We do that with the building. But for us, it isn’t just a matter of being a big space for hire, as it were. We encourage a certain set of values. We want to be known as a beacon of openness, tolerance and love. And we want to expand what we already do.”

That ambition raises a problem for the vicar and her team. The reality is, she says, that the facilities are stretched and the whole building really needs to be remodelled. The office, run by parish administrator Celyn Cooke, is small and cramped. The kitchen, which produces tons of food each year, needs updating for the 21st century. The interior needs a refresh; and the outside, as people in the church know, could really do more to communicate the good things that happen within.

To achieve all this, St Mary’s is launching Grow the Wonder, a fundraising campaign aimed at attracting donations from the community, funding bodies and businesses large and small. It is spearheaded by patron Mary Portas, who sees in St Mary’s a shining example of her new Kindness Economy concept.

‘The Kindness Economy is about making business better, and making people and planet as important as profit,” she said. “St Mary’s has been doing really innovative things to make the world a kinder place since its inception, and it’s about time people knew more about it. The Grow the Wonder campaign is the point where we’re going to really tell the world what we’re doing, so we can become a  beacon of kindness, and really grow that wonder for the next 150 years!’.

 “We had something of a wake-up call,” says Roddy Monroe, who surveyed the local community to discover what they wanted from St Mary’s, “when we realised that the outside is so sober and unprepossessing that some people were unsure it’s actually open.”

Further ideas include repainting, adding new furniture, building new meeting rooms and adding solar panels. To do it all will cost £1.5m, but St Mary’s is nothing if not ambitious. Events already scheduled include a fashion show, an auction and an extra set of lectures this year.

“I think people will want to support us because we’re not just another facility or another church,” says Marjorie. “We are making this about taking a stand in favour of the open, liberal values we have always espoused. Those values are under attack at the moment, and publicly available space is increasingly at a premium because of the cost of property in London. If you care about those things, we’re offering you the chance to do something about it.”

If you think you can help by donating, or helping with St Mary’s fundraising efforts, please contact the parish office at St Mary’s.

[email protected] 

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