1976: The final bombshell

1976 - Goodbye, thank you, and God bless you.

The church has hosted concerts for Bridgnorth's Haydn Festival
The church has hosted concerts for Bridgnorth's Haydn Festival

A host of historic Anglican churches in recent times have seen a transformation from active places of regular worship, to redundancy.

For St Leonard's Church in Bridgnorth, the last service of all was on the evening of Wednesday, September 29, 1976.

Taking the service on this special and sad occasion was the Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev John Eastaugh.

After serving the community for hundreds of years the sandstone building had been declared redundant because repairs needed to the east end would cost more than £300,000.

Those years had been nothing if not eventful. There had been a battle on the doorstep, and then the church was blown up.

In 1940 St Leonard's was only narrowly missed by Luftwaffe bombs. A gap in the buildings in the street leading up to the church is actually a bomb site, used as a memorial garden.

An aerial view of St Leonard's Church

As the sun set on the building, the question arose of what to do with it. At the time the rector, the Rev Donald Phillpot, suggested it could be a future museum. That didn’t happen, but happily the building lives on as a community resource today.

For that last service, parishioners of all ages packed the church. The Bishop reminded them that the closure should not affect their worship and their faith in God.

“I remember one time when I was in the East End of London during the war, standing beside a woman looking at the rubble that five minutes earlier had been her home,” the Bishop said in his sermon.

“After a few well chosen words spoken in the way that only people from that part can, she turned to me and said: ‘Thank God a family is not bricks and mortar.’ That moment has stayed in my mind ever since because we are all part of that family. We are one because God is all. The power of the church is in the goodness of God.”

For his part, the rector made no pretence that the closing of the church was not a great personal sadness to him.

The following week the Bridgnorth Journal carried a funeral report which, given the date of the funeral – September 29 – conceivably records the last funeral service held at St Leonard’s.

The funeral, at which the Rev Martin Inman officiated, was that of Mr Albert Green, aged 74, of Sydney Cottage Drive, who had died at Bridgnorth Infirmary on September 25.

The building was eventually placed in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund – later to become known as the Churches Conservation Trust – in December 1980 for care and preservation.

However it was to rise again like a phoenix and be revived for use by the community.

Local historian Clive Gwilt says in a booklet outlining the story: “By August 1983 the Trust had carried out repairs to the chancel and to the Stackhouse Library and the dangerous stonework of the tower parapet had been dismantled.

Near miss – the gap in the street on the left marks where Luftwaffe bombs fell

“By 1987, thanks to the enthusiasm and good offices of the late Mr Jeff Walker who had been appointed custodian, the church was once again open to all. A group of Friends was formed to help the fund the day-to-day care of St Leonard’s,” writes Clive.

Among other events, the church plays host to concerts for the town's Haydn Festival.

One mystery about St Leonard’s is the date of the church’s foundation. In terms of physical structure, what stands today is mostly the result of a 19th century rebuilding and restoration.

Undoubtedly the most dramatic period of its existence came during the English Civil War. According to a brass plate Colonel Billingsley, commander of the town regiment on the King’s side, was killed in a skirmish in the churchyard on March 31, 1646.

Clive says from 1884 his sword was displayed at St Leonard’s.

“In 1929 the sword was reconditioned by the British Museum, but unfortunately has since been removed from the church and its whereabouts is now unknown.”

The Parliamentarians then used the church as a magazine which was detonated by a shot fired by Royalists, and the explosion and fire destroyed most of the church, the college, and all the old borough records housed within.

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