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Saturday, August 11, 2012

St. Oswald’s in Sowerby

The Sowerby Flatts

In most directions you take from Thirsk, all too soon you leave it behind for open country.  But if you walk south from the parking lot in the city center, suddenly you find yourself in a busy residential area, and an entirely different village.

From this vantage point, Sowerby seems to consist of nothing but residential housing.  We walked past a crowded noisy playground along the Sowerby Flatts.  In James Herriot’s Yorkshire, Alf Wight (Herriot’s real name) describes the Flatts as “a gracious sweep of grass preserved as an open place where people can walk with their children or their dogs, safe from traffic, free to rove widely over the green acres or follow the beaten path by the river’s edge.”  

I can certainly attest to its graciousness, as it was a hot afternoon that we walked along it, and, having not expected such weather, we had not packed shorts for our vacation.  Nor did the seeming unchanging nature of the brick houses to our right stir our curiosity.  Several times we thought of turning back.  But then, sheltered behind a stand of trees, we spotted our destination. 

St. Oswald's on a hot, weekday afternoon.

No one knows when St. Oswald’s was built.  The first written reference to it dates back to 1145 AD.  For centuries, it was just a tiny chapel.  But with the rise of the industrial revolution, Sowerby grew, and the congregation worked together in the mid nineteenth century to expand the church.  Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the congregation again enlarged the church.  Coming as we did during the week, we weren’t able to attend a Sunday worship service.  But on our short visit there, just for a handful of minutes one hot afternoon, it was obvious how much the locals loved their little church, and the way in which it served the community.

Linda explores the "additions."

As we headed back to Thirsk, we noticed a building larger than the sanctuary, the church’s parochial hall, which was built during the 1930s.  According to Alf Wight’s son Jim, the rich, generous Mrs. Pumphreys, whose real name was Marjorie Warner, lived in Sowerby (along with Tricky Woo, her beloved Pekinese).  I wondered if she might have attended St. Oswalds, and helped such a small church (even after its two additions) build such a large parochial hall.  Yet according to Reverend Carnall, the vicar of St. Oswald’s, there exists no record that Mrs. Warner ever attended the church or contributed to the project.  

Perhaps that’s just as well.  The congregation, acting together, pooled their resources to fund both additions to their sanctuary, even if most of their gifts were small.  It’s nice to think that a small group of people, acting together for a common cause, could have also erected such a large building, to serve both their own needs, and that of the community. 

The remodeled, "original" altar area.

Virtually all of the small Nazarene churches of my experience are gone now.  Each of the congregations flourished for a time, but eventually dwindled and died.  In most cases, the buildings remain, and serve other congregations.  But one has been bulldozed, and the land covered with houses, leaving no trace of the church that once sat there, or the people who worshipped there.  It’s nice to think of a church that started small and grew into something larger.  It’s nice to have visited a church that was built nine hundred years ago, and still serves its community.  

So many of the churches we’ve visited in England are large and grand.  It would have been easy to skip St. Oswald’s.  But I’m glad we walked into Sowerby that hot and humid afternoon, and visited a small church that has not only survived, but also grown more vital with the passage of time.

Dragon Dave

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