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Saturday, June 9, 2012

James Herriot’s Controversial Church

The interior of St. Mary's Church.

In Chapter 67 of All Creatures Great and Small, Alf Wight, writing under his pseudonym of James Herriot, shares with us but one paragraph about his wedding.  He describes it as a “quiet do” that he wanted to get over with “as soon as possible.”  According to the website for St. Mary’s Church in Thirsk (the town identified as Darrowby in his stories), James and Helen married in the presence of the vicar and two witnesses.  The only one mentioned in the book is Siegfried, who repeatedly booms “Amen” during the service.  Assuming that the other person was Helen’s bridesmaid, or Siegfried’s brother Tristan, this means that no other family or friends were present.  Or perhaps it was her father, whom James asks for permission to marry Helen after successfully aiding the delivery of a calf from Mr. Alderson’s pet cow Candy in the previous chapter. 

Warming up for the choir.

While he describes the churches of many towns and villages in his picture book James Herriot’s Yorkshire, he singles out St. Mary’s Church as one of the most beautiful, with “fine perpendicular architecture.”  In his stories, he leads us to believe that he soon became a welcome figure in Darrowby and the farms at which he worked.  So why did so few attend the service?  Perhaps marriage customs back then were different.  Perhaps the couple faced familial and societal disapproval from Helen choosing a poor country veterinarian over her other suitor, the wealthy Richard Edmundson.  Perhaps James and Helen couldn’t afford to pay for a reception.  Or maybe he and Helen wanted to make as little fuss as possible over the ceremony.  (After all, they “honeymooned” while he carried out tuberculin testing on local farms).  Whatever his views on religion, church attendance, and wedding planning, clearly St. Mary’s remained special to him throughout his life.  The sight of it always reminded him of “the bitter November morning when Helen and I walked out into the frosty sunshine.” 

An actual altar rail.

Unlike the afternoon when he walked in late for a performance of Handel’s Messiah, we didn’t have to “run a gauntlet of disapproving stares” as we entered.  Instead, we were greeted warmly.  Other visitors admired the sanctuary’s stain glass windows, fine woodwork, brass altar rail, pipe organ, and artwork.  Or perhaps they studied the various memorials inside the church, and stopped to read the “prayer for today” on one of the altars.  In between our wanderings of the church, we fell into easy dialogue with several parishioners.  The organist played familiar hymns while I sat in St. Anne’s Chapel, an area set aside for smaller services.  With our spirits at rest, and our photographs taken, we prepared to leave.  One of the greeters offered us a pleasant delay as she shared with us a little of her life in Thirsk. Up front, the choir gathered to practice.  Their joyful singing formed a gentle accompaniment as she related her own experience with Donald Sinclair, the real-life Siegfried.

St. Mary Magdalene in Tudor-style clothes.

In addition to the mystery surrounding James and Helen's poorly attended wedding, another controversy swirls around St. Mary’s Church.  At over nine hundred years since the church was established, and with the present building having been built nearly five hundred years ago, its paternity seems in doubt.  In James Herriot’s Yorkshire, he states that St. Mary’s is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, and not, as others contend, the Virgin Mary.”  A sign beside the painting of Mary Magdalene acknowledges the controversy, but asserts that the church is dedicated to the mother of Christ.  Whether or not historians have resolved this issue, I cannot say.  At least the congregation seems to loves each other, and readily welcomes visitors.  If, in the future, we find ourselves in Thirsk again, no doubt resides in our minds as to whether we would schedule another visit to St. Mary's Church.

Thanks for tagging along,
Dragon Dave

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1 comment:

  1. It is known that Alf Wight's parents did not attend the wedding, as his mother in particular had higher social ambitions for her son.