Tuesday, 8 January 2013

History of St Mary's Church by G.R. Balleine (Part 1)

Here is part one of the forgotten piece by  G.R. Balleine  on the history of St Mary's Church, transcribed below. Balleine had a wonderful grasp of how to make historical narrative interesting, and peppers his history with interesting anecdotes.

It should be noted that while St Mary is the smallest parish in terms of its population (as Balleine noted), it is St Clement which has the smallest habitable land area (i.e. not counting sea shore down to the low tide mark!).

I've only been in St Mary's church for a service on one occasion, which was a Marian feast day (celebrating events in the life of Mary), and it was partly out of curiosity to see what the service was like. It turned out to be quite a formal high-church affair, with lots of incense rising from thuribles swung about on their chains. Arriving just after the service had started, I was confronted with the pews, which are something of a peculiarity in the Island's churches today. They are like boxes put together, each with a door, and it was only after some frustration that I found that the latch to open and close the door to each pew is in fact only on the inside of the pew; you have to lean over and move it up, and it is - or was- quite stiff. I imagine these box pews were quite common; old photos of St Brelade's church before George Orange Bailleine's restoration, show it to have box pews as well, and also pews facing towards the altar table in the centre of the church - the Reformation pattern in Jersey, which Balleine notes below.

I only got to know one Rector of St Mary well, the Rev.  Michael Harrison (1971-1986), who had an African wife, and had spent some time in South Africa; he came across as a gentle, unassuming man, who nevertheless was firm and resolute against racism and apartheid, which still existed in South Africa, of course, in those days, and which he must have seen in operation against his wife. He used to contact me for the silent retreats which he was involved in organising, which were held in the beautiful grounds of St Ouen's Manor once a year, where there was an opportunity just to be alone and quiet, and sit and let the world drift by, away from the fast pace of modern life. There was always a good tea provided by the Seigneur's wife, and conversation later as well; it was not all quiet!

History of St Mary's Church by G.R. Balleine (Part 1)


The origin of this Church is clear from its ancient name. In the oldest documents it is always called St. Mary of the Burnt Monastery (arsi monasterii). So there must have been a monastery near here, possibly an offshoot from St. Magloire's great Abbey in Sark. This had been burnt to the ground, probably during the Viking raids, and never rebuilt; but a small Chapel survived, built of rough stones brought from the beach; and this now forms the north-east chancel of the present Church. By 1042 this had become a tithe-receiving Parish Church, for in that year William, Duke of Normandy, who later became William the Conqueror, granted it with a third of its tithes to the Abbot of Cerisy near Coutances, and these Abbots remained patrons of the living till the reign of Henry V.

At some unknown date, perhaps in the thirteenth century, the parishioners added a tower and spire, and then a nave. If you stand in the main road, you can see that the nave is an entirely separate building, much higher than the old chancel. Then in 1352 (the date can still be deciphered on the east gable), a new chapel was built on the south side of the chancel, and, after that, building ceased for nearly five hundred years. The present south aisle is the work of the nineteenth century.


We know little about the early history of St. Mary's. It seems to have been one of those parishes where nothing special ever happens. It had the smallest population in the island. It had no important manor; and it is rarely mentioned in any public document. The Church was a poor one. It had no fraternities, no daughter Chapels, and at the Reformation the Commissioners found nothing to rob except three endowments for Masses. Hardly a trace is left in the Church of those Pre-Reformation days, except a piscina in the South Chapel (at which the priest used to wash the altar vessels), two corbels, on which stood images of saints, and the tombstone of a priest built into the west wall on which is engraved a chalice and a fish.

Like all Jersey Churches, St. Mary's at the Reformation was transformed into a Huguenot Temple. Its Rectors were Ministers of the French Protestant Church, and Calvin's Geneva Prayer Book was used at all Services. Altars, images, stained glass, all were swept away and every pew faced the pulpit. Even the east window was blocked by masonry that tiers of seats might rest against it. The Calvinist communion table with its side flaps can still be seen in the Church. This was brought out and set before the pulpit on the four Sacrament Sundays.


St. Mary's first stepped into the limelight when Anglicanism was introduced. Samuel De La Place, its Rector, was the last Presbyterian stalwart to hold out against the new regime. He declared in the States, when Dean Bandinel was sworn in that he would never acknowledge him, because the word Dean could not be found in Scripture; and, as he refused to use the new French Prayer Book, he was eventually suspended. His case aroused great sympathy, and no one would take his place; so Bandinel, who was already Rector of St. Brelade's, had to take charge of this parish also. After a few years however his son Jacques was old enough to be ordained, and he was made Rector of St. Mary's.

But an amazingly bitter spirit was shown against him. When his mother came from St. Brelade's to visit him and attended church, the Constable drove her out with a halberd, on the plea that there was plague at St. Aubin's, and then closed the Church as an infected building. If anyone spoke to the Rector, even in the open air, he was confined to his house as a contagious person. The miller was even forbidden to grind the Rector's corn.

Bandinel on the other hand wrote to the Council: "Hue presumes that all is lawful to him, because he is Constable, as lately the profaning the Communion table with the blood of a dog, which he stabbed with a knife, while the Minister was preaching."

Under Cromwell, Samuel De La Place's son Jean came back to the Parish as Rector, and Presbyterianism was restored; but at the Restoration the Prayer Book was again introduced. For many years however it was a point of honour at St. Mary's never to communicate kneeling or to join in the responses. No Rector dared to wear a surplice till Victorian days.

The seating accommodation of the Church had now been considerably reduced by the introduction of Cannon for the Militia. At St. Mary's there seemed no place to house these except the Parish Church, and part of the west end of the nave was walled off for this purpose. The parish built a west gallery to provide seats for those who had lost their pews.


At times the quiet course of life was ruffled by some excitement. One Sunday morning in 1666, Jean Du Pre, the churchwarden, after being up all night on patrol duty, arrived at church drunk. As he talked aloud during the service, the Constable removed him to the vestry, but he rushed back brandishing his keys and making such a disturbance that the service was brought 'to an abrupt conclusion. For this he was fined 150 crowns by the Royal Court and ordered by the Ecclesiastical Court to acknowledge his sin on the following Sunday on his knees before the whole congregation.

Church discipline was strict in those days. The congregation constantly saw transgressors led up the nave by the wardens, forced to kneel with bare legs on the stone floor throughout the whole service, and then stand up and confess their sin, and ask the people to pray for them. A rather unusual case however was that of Elizabeth Robert, who in October 1744, did penance for having got drunk at a Christmas Eve party two years before.


Christmas bell-ringing was for many years a thorny subject at St. Mary's. In many Jersey parishes it was an old custom to ring the church bell all night on Christmas Eve and right through Christmas Day. The practice was defended on the ground that bell-ringing was the customary sign of rejoicing. If all the church-bells in the island rang whenever the Bishop landed, if the States ordered the bells to ring when a telegraph cable was laid between Jersey and England, surely the birth of Christ should be greeted with bell-ringing! This might be the theory, but in practice for the lads of the parish it was merely a spree, and, since ringing is thirsty works, often a drunken one.

A barrel of beer or cider would be rolled into the church, and. those who were not actually pulling the rope would' drink often and deep. Rector after Rector tried to regulate this at St. Mary's. In 1784 the Acts of the Parish Assembly report: "The Constable informed the meeting that on Christmas Eve the Rector had refused to give the key of the church to Centenier Le Vesconte, hoping in this way to prevent the bell-ringing, which has been the custom of this parish from time immemorial. The Assembly regarded this as an attack on the rights of the parishioners, and instructed the Constable to have a key of his own, made for the church door, so that the bell may be rung every Christmas."

In 1788, Francois Valpy, the Rector, again tried to stop the ringing. He went to church for this purpose; but a few weeks later he appeared before the Royal Court with his head still bandaged, and asserted that the ringers had torn his collar, seized him by his throat, and that one of them had broken his head with a blow of his fist.

But so general was the wish to continue the old custom that the offenders were acquitted, the Jurats declaring that they were quite justified in resisting the Rector, who was trying to prevent them from doing something that they had every right to do.

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