100 Years Young - St Faith’s Church by Hugh Dawes
St Faith’s Church on Red Post Hill - St Faith’s, North Dulwich, to give it the proper parochial title - is perhaps the least known of the Dulwich areas Anglican churches. The present church building has a narrow and rather sombre frontage onto the road, while it’s location at an often busy junction means it can easily be passed by unnoticed, whether in a car or even on foot. Inside its impact is much greater - but the realities of church security nowadays make it hard to get in other than on a Sunday. If people know the site, they are much more likely to know St Faith’s, the Community Centre, than St Faith’s the Church.
In reality, for 48 years between 1909 and 1957, the Community Centre was the Church. The idea of a church in ‘the North Dulwich end of Herne Hill parish’ goes back to 1903, the brainchild of the then vicar of St Paul’s, F H Roberts. Planning began a year later, when a group of men gathered ‘at the house of Mr Dixon, Belle Vue.’ With approval from the Bishop of Southwark, a site was negotiated with the Dulwich Estates at the junction of Sunray Avenue and Red Post Hill, for a church which that same initial meeting determined should be called St Faith’s.
The team plainly worked hard. Architects - Greenaway and Newberry - were secured in 1908 and plans drawn up. The architects’ artistic drawing shows a massive, gothic church running along a large stretch of Red Post Hill in an almost rural setting, with a small and more modern ‘arts and craft’ type hall alongside. Only the hall ever got built. It was opened as a ‘Mission Hall’, and temporary church, and first used for worship on 9th October 1909. Two days before, W W Alsopp had been appointed as the first priest in charge.
The Dulwich Estates initially insisted that the permanent church should be completed within five years. The doughty development team countered that there was no need for so large a building unless and until the Estate was prepared to develop further housing. But already economic circumstances were changing. The cost of the Mission Hall was £2,944, but there was a debt of more than £600 when it opened. Subsequently the First World War, and the building by Camberwell Council of Lloyd’s George’s ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’ on the Sunray Estate’ changed the social demography of the area. Though some modest fundraising continued over the years, it was clear that the grand scheme of Greenaway and Newberry could never be completed.
So St Faith’s remained part of the parish of St Paul’s Herne Hill, but as a Mission District from 1921, and soon with its own parsonage house at 228 Denmark Hill. Where St Paul’s had a modest central churchmanship, St Faith’s quickly became the place where High Church curates got away with more. Photographs from the inter-war years show quite elaborate Anglo-Catholic arrangements and ornaments - albeit in a restricted space!
It was Fr Kenneth McIsaac, who arrived as priest in charge in 1941, who in the context of the new post-war enthusiasm and hope of the Festival of Britain took up the challenge of a permanent building. The small hall attached at right angles to the altar end of the Mission Hall was extended first, to form the line of buildings at the back of the courtyard today. The unlovely vicarage was built next, for Fr Mclsaac now had a heart condition and there was concern that he should not be constantly toiling up and down Red Post Hill several times a day.
McIsaac was intimately involved in every detail of the new church’s building, and was present at the laying of the Foundation Stone on the 6th October 1956 the Foundation Stone was laid. It was his vision to encourage the architects - David Nye and Partners - to place an open wooden screen at the rear of the sanctuary to provide a haunting glimpse of the chapel beyond to worshippers in the nave. Tragically he died before the new Church was completed and so never was never able to see his vision realised.
The new church was consecrated by the Bishop of Southwark on the 5th October 1957. The cost was £36,709 - a considerable bargain given that the vicarage cost £5,500. Much of this bill was met from War Damage Commission payments made to the Diocese for churches which had been destroyed and not rebuilt. One of those - St Mark's East Street - had had a bequest of £2,536 for stained glass which was itself transferred to St Faith's, and resulted in the unexpected jewel of the windows in the chapel by Laurence Lee.
With the new church open, the Mission Hall did for thirty years finally fulfil its original purpose as a church hall. Then in 1986 the then vicar, Lindsay Urwin (later a bishop, and now administrator of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham), together with others, conceived the vision of a community centre at St Faith's. Their initiative - together with intensive fundraising of £450,000 by church members and other local people concerned for the needs of the neighbourhood, and also the youthful and inspired architectural skills of Pam Jenkins and Mark Newall - transformed the hall into the centre it is today; a building used by all sorts and conditions of people, and a home for them and the wide range of groups and organisations working with them.
October 2009 - in the week between Saturday 3rd and Sunday 11th - will see Church and Community Centre celebrate together of 100 years of St Faith’s in this place. We have called our celebration ‘100 Years of Church and Community’, because that has always been the vision; to belong to a place, a physical space, a local community, and support all who live there to feel that they belong as well.
Virtually all this article - and many of its words - draws on the work of Philip Spooner, who loved St Faith’s, and worshipped in it for most of his lifetime. The church’s story lived in him, and he had the knowledge to write a history of it which would have been a fascinating narrative not simply of St Faith’s but in a sense of the Church of England as a whole in the twentieth century. His vicar begged him many times to do so.
Philip never did. Because, for all his delight in its past, his concern was actually always for its present. For the needs of the local community now. For what the church should be and should do in and for that community. For - though he might not have used these words - for the building of the commonwealth of God here and now. October will be a celebration of course. But will also be a time for rededication of both Church and Centre communities to that purpose. We truly want all local people to share in the celebrations, and to join with us in that future commitment too.