22 February 2018
On the west of the River Itchen There are three churches dedicated to St Boniface all within a few miles of each other. One is in Chandlers Ford, another in Nursling and the third in Shirley close to where CJ and I were enjoying a well earned cup of coffee. St Boniface was the church we’d walked so far to visit, although, at this point, we weren’t sure if it was open or not.
It’s no coincidence to find so many churches dedicated to the same saint in such close proximity to each other. The saint in question has local connections, although he was just plain Wynfrid from Devon at the time. In the late seventh century, when young Wynfrid told his parents he wanted to join the church, they were less than happy. Despite their disapproval, Wynfrid went to monasteries to study, first to Exeter and then to Nursling, around four miles from our coffee shop.
No one knows for sure where the monastery in Nursling was, it was destroyed by the Danes in 878, but Wynfrid studied there under Abbot Winberht and produced the first Latin grammar to be written in England. At the age of thirty Wynfrid became a priest and, in around 716, he left to become a missionary in Germany. Whether he ever visited Shirley is a mystery but he may well have set sail from Southampton so it’s possible he did.
The church of St Boniface in Shirley High Street is an eye catching building. CJ and I first spotted it when we were passing through on a bus. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to come back and have a closer look at it. From the street it didn’t disappoint. The Romanesque style church was built in 1927, designed by architect Wilfred C Mangen of Preston and constructed by Jenkins and Sons of Southampton. The wonderfully textured brickwork in various shades of red is pleasing to the eye, as are the curved lines, the ray like tile work above the triple arched doorway and the white statue of Boniface. There is an unusual tower, octagonal at the top with a cap of beautiful Mediterranean style tiles. Today though, the best thing of all was the open door.
Inside, pale plaster made the church feel surprisingly large and light. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Perhaps the plain white design was no accident. When the Roman Catholic mission of St Boniface opened in Shirley in 1902 it had no church at all. Services were held in Wilton Lodge in Foundry Lane until a corrugated iron church was obtained from the grounds of La Saint Union Convent on the Avenue. The makeshift church was erected in the grounds of the lodge. The tin church was demolished in 1930 and no photographs of it remain but I imagine it was cramped and dark. It must have been a relief when this bright new church was built on Shirley High Street.
Usually stained glass windows are one of the things I love about churches. Although there is stained glass in St Boniface Church, the long, narrow arches are almost as plain as the walls. This might have been a disappointment if the quality of the light they cast hadn’t been quite so haunting.
Colour came from the wood of the pews, the herringbone parquet floor and sunny golden paint in the sanctuary surrounding the altar. The altar is the focus of attention in Catholic Churches. Many are ornate, dripping with gold and decorated to the point of gaudiness. The altar in St Boniface was minimalist, pale marble with a golden crucifix under a many arched tabernacle.
The plainness of the church interior gave it a peaceful, calming feeling after the hustle and bustle of the busy High Street we’d just left. Reading about St Boniface, I get the feeling he’d have approved of the unfussy simplicity of this church. It seems to me he was a singleminded man who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and had no time for distractions.
Wynfrid’s mission in life was to spread the word of his chosen religion. Like many Anglo Saxon missionaries before him, he travelled to Frisia, now part of the Netherlands, where there were plenty of pagans to convert. Unfortunately, the local ruler wasn’t keen on having his people converted. After a brief return to England, where he turned down the chance to become abbot of his monastery, Wynfrid set off again, this time for Rome. There, in 718, he met Pope Gregory II who sanctioned his evangelistic ambitions and gave him the name Boniface.
Undaunted by his first experience and probably buoyed up by the blessing of the pope, Boniface returned to Frisia. The political climate had changed and for the next few years he quietly went about his missionary work. By 722, he had been made a Bishop and was spreading the gospel in Germany under the protection of Charles Martel, the Carolingian ruler of the Franks. It was here, on Mount Gudenberg in Geismar, he preformed one of his most famous miracles.
A massive oak tree grew on the mountain, worshiped by the pagans and sacred to the god Thor. When Boniface announced he was going to cut the tree down a large crowd gathered, believing the thunder god would strike him down. Boniface took one blow at the tree with his axe. Immediately it spilt into four pieces and fell. The gathered pagans were so impressed many converted to Christianity on the spot and Boniface built them a church from the wood of the tree. Or so the story goes.
The immediate impression of stark minimalism in the church was dispelled as we walked around and discovered little gilded details and statues hidden here and there in niches. Many of these were plain white marble and each seemed to add to the serenity of the place. On each of the central pillars we discovered icons framed in wood depicting Jesus’ journey to crucifiction. The subject matter may have been a little gruesome but the pieces were beautifully executed in plaster relief with lovely pastel coloured paint. Weaving back and forth between the pews I captured as many as I could.
There were other paintings too, copies of famous works, hidden away in corners to surprise us. We also stumbled upon a stained glass window depicting St Boniface, framed and placed on a wall like a painting. This came from the original tin Mission Church in Foundary Lane. When the church was demolished it somehow ended up in St Boniface Children’s Home in Lee on Solent. It was returned to St Boniface in Shirley by the wife of the head of the home in time for the centennial of the parish.
Not all the statues we found were plain white marble. Along one wall under the light from the tall stained glass windows we found several stunningly beautiful and colourful statues. The quality of the light coming through the thick glass casting eerie shadows on the pale walls combined with the serene looks on the faces of the statues to give them an ethereal quality I will not soon forget. Amongst them was a statue of St Boniface in his bishop’s robes.
Boniface’s dedication did not go unnoticed. In 732 Pope Zachary made him an archbishop, allowing him to consecrate bishops where they were needed due to his success. Later he was instrumental in reorganising the church in Germany and the Frankish kingdom. This laid the groundwork for papal authority to influence both religious and political matters in a large part of Europe.
His attempts to convert any pagans he found continued and, ultimately, this led to his death. In 754 he was at Dokkum in Frisia when a group of pagans came upon him. His companions drew their swords to defend him but Boniface told them to leave matters in the hands of God. They put their swords away and the pagans killed Boniface and his companions. He was eighty years old. His body was taken to the monastery he’d founded in Fulda and placed in a sarcophagus. He was quickly declared a saint and the site is still a place of pilgrimage.
By the time we came upon the statue of St Boniface we’d almost finished our tour of the church. We were heading for the door when CJ suddenly stopped and pointed at the floor. When I followed his pointing finger I saw a bright rainbow on the wooden tiles. Perhaps if I was of a religious persuasion I would have seen this as a sign of some kind. As it was I looked around to see what might be causing it and discovered it was a trick of the light catching the edge of the glass entry doors. Even so it was pretty enough to make me stop and stare.
After the peace and quiet of the church Shirley High Street was a shock to the system. It seemed noisier and more filled with people and cars than ever. There was a momentary temptation to dash back inside the pretty church with its rainbows and statues but, of course, we couldn’t stay there forever. With one last look at the lovely building and the matching red brick house beside it that is probably home to the priest, we turned for home. Our Wild West adventure was over.
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