Historic Canterbury church kept alive by tiny congregation

Once a month, the sound of 15 voices united in song drifts across the paddocks of Irwell.

Here, surrounded by sheep in the corner of a quiet field, a congregation regularly gathers to worship at one of Canterbury’s oldest churches.

The beautiful historic building is named St Mary’s, and has no running water or toilet system. It’s a classic white wooden frame, with a bell powered by a rope, and an open sanctuary that only seats around 30 people. But these days, that’s more than enough.

At a time when older venues have gone out fashion, the Anglican Parish of Ellesmere has continued its services.

Service at St Mary's.

“It's the feel of a place like this, you just walk in here and you know you're in something that's been here for a while and is treasured,” said Michael Morley-Bunker, a parishioner who has been attending services for more than 20 years.

“I find being in a small church really uplifting, it allows me to think and meditate.”

St Mary’s is one six historic churches kept alive by the congregation, which travels to a different venue every week.

It provides a lot of variety, from the brick of St James in Southbridge – built in 1865 – to the vaulted roof of St John’s in Leeston.

Services usually only consist of 15 to 20 people with plenty of empty pews. But many of the parishioners have been attending for a lifetime.

Service at St John's in Leeston.

Keith Gilbert, 80, has been farming the paddocks that surround St Mary’s for 52 years.

“When we first came here in 1968, we saw the church here on the farm on the back corner of the paddock,” he said.

“We decided there was only one church to go to and that was the church at Irwell, and we were made very welcome.”

Gilbert used to walk across the paddocks to Sunday service.

“It's your faith that draws you back,” he said.

“If you’re feeling down in the dumps, you come along and go to church and you get that uplifting feeling.”

But the church does have a newcomer: the vicar.

Margaret Neate was only inducted in November and has had a whirlwind introduction.

“The first of the small services I took, I just thought, this does it for me,” Neate said after one of her sermons, sitting under St Mary’s stunning stain glass windows.

“The followers of Christ met in small groups, and they had a sense of family around them, and you can get that here.”

She is often required to hold services at two different churches on the same Sunday.

“It’s very busy, hectic, but they are all very lovely people and all very willing to help me settle in,” she said.

Sure enough, soon after her sermon at St Mary’s, Neate could be seen quickly downing a cup of tea before heading to the next service at a church 15 kilometres away.

The parishioners were pouring the hot water from a flask to make up for the lack of a kitchen.

“We've got to bring it all, and we don't think anything of it,” one laughed.

At a time when large churches taking over, this tiny congregation is following the words of Jesus in the Bible.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” he is recorded saying in Matthew.

Two millennia later, the 15 parishioners continue to live that verse out every Sunday.


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