A Short History
The Orthodox Church of Saint Barbara is a parish of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. It is under the direct care of His Eminence, Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain.
The Parish was founded in 1985 by the late Archimandrite Barnabas (Burton), of blessed memory, with the blessing of the then Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, Methodios. This followed the realisation that there were Orthodox Christian faithful residing in and around Chester who found it difficult to travel to the all-too-few Orthodox churches in the north-west.
The first service was held in the redundant Saint Barnabas church close to the railway station on Sunday 15th December, 1985 celebrated by Archimandrite Barnabas and assisted by Deacon Alban Barter.
The next service took place on 19th January with the dire warning that if heavy snowfall was expected there would be no Liturgy! With Deacon Alban living in Ruthin and having to collect (and return) Fr Barnabas to his monastery near Newtown in mid-Wales any prospect of inclement weather would be enough to cause cancellation!
Services fell into a monthly pattern through 1986. Father Alban was ordained priest early in the year, the first funeral was celebrated (Elutheria Jones) and the first Chrismation (Seraphim McConville) took place. That September, the first Liturgy in Shrewsbury was offered, and so was born our daughter community of the Holy Fathers in that city. At the end of that year Stephen Maxfield was ordained deacon and priest to serve in Shrewsbury while Archbishop Methodios also raised Father Alban to the honour of Protopresbyter.
Relieved of the burden of Shrewsbury, Father Alban now undertook to support the Orthodox living in and around Llanelli. Through the early part of 1987, it became increasingly clear that Saint Barnabas church would no-longer be suitable for us, not least because when it rained, umbrellas were required! Since it proved impractical to attempt any long term tenure of that building, a search of the city was made to locate a suitable alternative.
The fine redundant cemetery chapel in Overleigh Cemetery was made available to us through the good offices of Chester City Council. The council undertook to put the chapel into good order though it had no heat, light or running water. The first Liturgy to be offered in our new home took place on 21st June 1987 following the blessing of the chapel with Holy Water. Thus began a pattern that has grown over the years of Sunday and Feast-day services with the many services of Great Lent offered in full. Today, Matins and Divine Liturgy are offered every Sunday with Vespers or Vigil being sung several times a week. Liturgy or Vespers will be served on most Feast-days with many other services according to the church calendar.
Initially, heating was resolved by using gas heaters with the attendant risk of scorched coats or trousers. Water was available from a stand-pipe close at hand – and still, is though we hope we shall be able to connect to a supply in time. For many years our services were illumined by candles though with the purchase of the church, electricity was finally installed to provide us with both heat and light, though at great expense it has to be said! Some of us still miss the candle-lit days though Vespers is still offered in the semi-darkness of evening. Still, we don’t shiver in the depths of winter as we once did!
The year 1986 saw the resumption of Orthodox Pilgrimage to the sacred Well of Saint Winifride at Holywell. Although pilgrimage to the Well had never ceased, there had been no Orthodox presence for the best part of a thousand years. This October (2019) we enjoyed our 33rd visit to Holywell. As always, a concelebrated Liturgy is served in the mediaeval chapel before we process down to the Well for the Blessing of Waters before concluding with Vespers. Pilgrims come from across the country and even from abroad for this most blessed of occasions.
Although, in those early days we did not own the chapel, we were able to transform the interior, removing most of the pews and placing the others against the walls. The large English altar was replaced by a wooden ‘Orthodox’ altar and a simple iconostasis began to take shape. Rather like Topsy it just ‘growed’ it remained a temporary and slightly wobbly structure.
The parish continued uneventfully through the following years with Liturgy offered each Sunday in Chester with occasional services being offered elsewhere. In 1994, Columba Sanders was ordained Deacon by Archbishop Gregorios, receiving the name Pancratios after the first Bishop of Taormina in Sicily. Father Deacon Pancratios was ordained priest in 1996 to provide valuable support to Father Alban.
Father Alban was a very public figure, being Coroner for the City of Liverpool for over 30 years, during which time he dealt with some 90,000 deaths including that of the child James ‘Jaimie’ Bulger. His faith and his priesthood brought great compassion to all he dealt with in court.
The following year, 1997, Father Alban’s beloved wife, Barbara, reposed and Father Alban was recognised as ‘Emeritus’. He quietly stepped back into retirement and Father Pancratios took charge of parish matters. Father Alban reposed in 2009 following a stroke and Father Pancratios was subsequently honoured as Protopresbyter.
During the course of these years, the parish had made several attempts to purchase the chapel, each time without success. It was only in early 2012 that we were successful and the freehold was obtained. This was largely possible through the bequest of Spyridon Reynolds, a long-time member of the parish and some substantial gifts from parishioners.
Since the purchase was completed, we have transformed the interior with a purpose built iconostasis and fresh icons. A new marble Holy Table has been installed, the stored furnishings have been disposed of and a kitchen installed in the refectory. Tables and chairs now make for a much more useful environment in the refectory allowing our little church school to function properly and for refreshments to be served after Liturgy.
In August 2013, His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, our ruling Hierarch, was pleased to consecrate our church to the eternal Glory of God and to secure our presence for all time as the Orthodox presence in West Cheshire and North Wales.
Five years on, Archbishop Gregorios returned to the parish to ordain Tsvetan Petkov to the Diaconate giving him the name Ioan (John) after the great Bulgarian Saint John of Rila. He has proved to be a welcome addition to the parish and we pray that he will be ordained priest in due course.
The building is Grade II listed so we are charged with its careful maintenance and it continues to be in general good order. There is much we seek to do, both inside and outside the church. Aside from installing running water, we are soon to replace the remaining benches with the ‘standing’ chairs which are commonly found in Orthodox churches to serve those who find it difficult to stand through the services (Standing is the normal posture for prayer). A long-term intention is to fresco the walls to offer a more prayerful environment – the present brick doesn’t inspire greatly! To improve our ‘carbon footprint’ we will need to seek a means of insulating the roof – the walls are solid, so we can’t do much about them – but the roof is another matter for which we will need the appropriate professional expertise.
Apart from the liturgical and social life of the Community, parishioners have undertaken a number of initiatives to raise awareness of the Orthodox presence in Cheshire and North Wales. Among these are the Open Days held each year usually held to coincide with the nationally promoted Heritage Weekends in September. These Open Days enable visitors to see the interior of an Orthodox church – often for the first time. Visitors are able to meet the local Orthodox and ask questions and simply to chat over a cup of tea or coffee. A service may be offered, either Liturgy or Vespers (or both) and a talk on the Orthodox Church is also part of the programme. Specialist Open Days for schools and their teachers are also available. This helps those faced with the teaching of R.E. in schools to be given facts about the Orthodox faith rather than the fiction which is presented in many text books today.
Several local tour bus companies maintain a regular service of open-top buses with guides pointing out the many landmarks in Chester. These buses pass the cemetery gates frequently each day and the guides are known to point out our church to the passengers.
With the help of God, the Divine Services will continue without interruption in the years and centuries to come.
In all these things we ask God’s help and your prayers,
Father Pancratios and Presbytera Anna Sanders
Deacon John and Diaconissa Vera Petkov