The perfect Christmas present is about to be delivered to jolly old Saint Nick in the village of Worth Matravers – news that a £600,000 appeal for the church that bears his name has been successful.
Work to rebuild the dangerous roof at the Church of St Nicholas of Myra – the original Santa Claus – is well under way and should be finished by early April 2024.
Andy Carpenter of Tudor Rose Masonry, building manager Greg Hollidge and former vicar James Mercer at Worth Matravers church
Bishop of Sherborne to reopen church
While that means there cannot be any Christmas services at the village church this year, congregations have moved just across the road to Worth Matravers village hall and worship carries on as normal.
And when the major roof rebuild at the Norman church is completed, there will be an official reopening service of celebration with newly appointed village vicar Lindy Cameron and with the Bishop of Sherborne, the Right Reverend Karen Gorham, in attendance.
The Grade I listed building, dating back to 1100 is one of the oldest churches in Dorset and is likely to have been built on the site of an even earlier Saxon church.
While much of the church building is still Norman, the roof was replaced in 1869 after the building had fallen into such disrepair that church services had to be held in the village school.
Removing the first stone from the roof of the church in October 2023
Stone tiles are removed, exposing rotten wood, crumbling plaster and rusty nails from 1869
Roof was held in place by rusty nails
Former vicar James Mercer said:
“There was a fall of plaster within the church about three years ago that alerted us to the problems. When we investigated, we realised it wasn’t a patching job, but a complete rebuild of the roof that was needed at a cost of about £600,000.
“The roof had rotten battens and if it had been left much longer it could have slipped. It was held in place by nails that dated from 1869 and in the damp air of Worth they had largely rusted away.
“It seemed a huge amount to raise but we are more or less there now, through a combination of church funds, various trusts, local fund raising, and a bid to Heritage Lottery which brought in £250,000.
“That was a significant point because it showed other fund raisers and local donors that this was a serious project and not just wishful thinking.
“Apart from the age and historical importance of the church, Heritage Lottery was also interested in community engagement, and part of the project is interpretation of heritage, drawing local schools into the story of the church.
“The church is well regarded in the local community, it’s a key centre for the village and a very important building which people didn’t want to see fall into disrepair.”
The team from Tudor Rose on scaffolding as work progressed
Little is now left of the Victorian roof, and rebuilding work will start in early January 2024
Church bells to return for New Year
Work started on the roof repairs at St Nicholas of Myra Church on Wednesday 18th October 2023 and is expected to take six to eight months – the official finish date has been set at Wednesday 3rd April 2024, although it may be a little later than that.
However, work is progressing well on the project undertaken by Dorset company Tudor Rose Masonry and Conservation.
To date, stone roof tiles have been taken off, exposing plenty of rotten wood, and the roof battens which had failed, have been removed along with the lath and plaster leaving just a skeleton with roof trusses.
The next phase of the project, rebuilding the roof, will start in the new year using most of the existing stone tiles, although there will also be a percentage of new Purbeck stone tiles.
Christmas services will be hosted in the village hall, including Holy Communion at 9 pm on Christmas Eve, Sunday 24th December 2023, while there has also been a community service in a village barn and carols on the green earlier in the month.
The church bells have continued to ring until very recently, and they will hopefully be back for the New Year.
The painting by renowned artist Nicholas Hely Hutchinson which raised £15,000 towards the roof fund
More rubble is removed from the roof space after the church was closed
A wonderful community effort
James Mercer added:
“It has been wonderful to see such a community effort – we are all amazed that the money has been substantially raised, though there is always room for more generous donations to cover eventualities and we won’t stop fund raising just yet!
“A lot of the money has been raised by local people, not just the villagers of Worth but from the wider Purbeck community, and over the months there have been open garden events, a literary lunch and several sales.
“Nicholas Hely Hutchinson, a nationally important artist from Dorset, agreed to do a painting of the church, which was valued at about £5,000.
“We sold 700 tickets then drew a winner, and while the painting ended up in Australia – there are village connections there! – we also had a limited number of prints made and sold, raising a significant contribution of £15,000.”
Inside Worth Matravers Church, which will be reopened by the Bishop of Sherborne in June 2024
Like the duckpond, the church of St Nicholas of Myra is at the heart of village life
Helping to keep churches thriving
Grants of £20,000 from the National Churches Trust and the Headley Trust, which were received in December 2023, have helped St Nicholas of Myra Church to reach its target.
Claire Walker, chief executive of the National Churches Trust, said:
“We are excited to be able to support Worth Matravers to carry out urgent roof repairs to their building. Not only will this protect this important heritage, but it will help to keep the church building open and serving local people.
“Our grants help to keep churches in good condition and serving local people. Whether seeking quiet reflection, access to community services or a place to worship, the National Churches Trust helps to keep hundreds of churches thriving today and tomorrow.”
Sinterklaas – Saint Nicholas of Myra – pictured in traditional celebrations in the Netherlands
The history of Santa Claus
St Nicholas of Myra, who lived from 270-343, was an early Christian bishop from the maritime city of Myra in modern day Turkey during the time of the Roman Empire.
He is best known for making secret gifts of gold to three sisters as dowries to allow them to marry and he has since become patron saint of children, sailors, the unmarried and also brewers.
In the Netherlands, coins and presents have long been left for children on the feast day of Saint Nicholas, 6th December. In Dutch, his name is Sinterklaas, and when Dutch settlers moved to New York in the late 18th Century, that changed to Santa Claus and new traditions built up around his name.
Many of the modern ideas of Santa Claus come from the anonymous publication of a poem, The Night Before Christmas, in the New York Sentinel in 1823, including his sleigh pulled by eight named reindeer – but not Rudolph, whose story wasn’t written down until 1939.
Thanks to everyone who has given, the church roof appeal has been a huge success