The Reverend Don Lewis 1965-1977
The Reverend Don Lewis 1965-1977
"Good to see you, Geoff!" (or John, or Jean, or George or Gillian, whatever your name might be). The ringing voice was warm, Welsh and ebullient and it belonged to the Revd. Donald Edward Lewis who became Vicar of Hale on February 10th1965, he recalls how it came about.
‘It was Canon Maurice Ridgway who asked me to consider the living of Hale St Peter’s at a time when I was about to leave the Church Missionary Society where I worked as an Area Secretary covering the Dioceses of Chester, St. Asaph, Bangor, and Sodor and Man. Only a few weeks previously I had been offered the Parish of Kirk Braddon in the Isle of Man by Bishop Pollard.
‘While I knew Hale St. Peter in my role as CMS Area Secretary (I had spoken to the Mothers Union and eaten my lunch that day in the Assembly Rooms' Car Park and that facing the railway line!) the only person known to me in the Parish was Mrs. Stockton, who was deeply devoted to the C.M.S. and a formidable, powerful person to a young Area Secretary.
‘Maurice Ridgway invited me to see the Parish and drove me round it road by road (for there were no streets I noticed) in his dormobile. Having been shown the Parish, I chanced to remark that the people in the Parish of Hale seemed to be so well off and well catered for that they did not need a parson. Well I remember the reply of the learned Canon. "The up and outs need as much spiritual care, if not more, than the down and outs, and they are harder to work with."
‘Upon my arrival I found the Parish Church fairly well attended with a strong and almost all powerful Youth Club of people in their teens and early twenties. The various organisations were in good shape and it was clear that with only a little care, love and attention, all the organisations would blossom and the parish was capable of taking off in almost any direction.'
That it did indeed take off and in many directions was due to the dramatic effect Don Lewis had upon it and as a result of his impact on the individual members. To be hailed in Hale became a regular experience and, at first, a disconcerting one. ‘Why ever,’ one asked oneself, ‘should anyone be all that pleased to see me?’ But when Don said, ‘Good to see you’, he really meant it. He ‘collected’ people as others collect stamps or coins and, like them, he loved and treasured his collection.
Each and every person mattered to him. For example, he never spoke of an elderly person as being 'old' but rather 'full of years', and he welcomed and was eager to learn from their experience. Moreover, he eliminated the line we many of us tend to draw between our workaday selves and the people we are in the worshipping and social life of the church. When the author offered to do two hours a month gardening around the church Don refused the offer but asked, instead, for half an hour a month in the area of communication, my profession. Similarly, Dr Geoff Worsley brought his talents as an Architect to the design of the new Scout Headquarters that was built onto the Assembly Rooms. What Geoff, and I and so many of us who were called upon to help in our various ways found, was that it was all the most tremendous fun. When Don arrived at a meeting or a social event, it ‘came alive’.
If one had to sum up the years of his ministry in Hale in one word, that word would be 'Enthusiasm'. People offered, in the phrase of the day, their 'Time and Talents' with the greatest enthusiasm. Four evening parties were held in the Assembly Rooms and 500 people were invited to each. As a result, the £1000 cost of the campaign was almost covered by the new covenants which were signed and 60 new families joined the Parish bringing the total to 900. Other lasting benefits had their beginning: the creche that was set up for church services, the young couples group and the system of road contacts to welcome newcomers. The whole brilliant stewardship campaign was itself the result of the time and talents of Michael Morton and his team.
Unless enthusiasm is harnessed and used, though, it will evaporate, like steam. Directed into cylinders, steam will drive great engines, haul trains, power ships, generate electricity. Directed aright within the Parish, enthusiasm will bring a church to life.
To make sure that it was directed properly, Don Lewis created structures to undergird and carry the enterprise of the parish. To enable people, societies and groups to meet socially and to hold events, a Catering Committee was formed. No Parish tea-and-buns affair, this group of ladies could and did provide anything up to and including a five course meal that any professional caterer would envy.
The parish needed room and, selling 50 Westgate, purchased what became known as Peter House. Working parties cleared away the overgrown hedge and the wilderness of weeds that separated it from the grounds on the north side of the church. To look after it, Ted and Elsie Coombs went to live there. Meanwhile, Phil and Barbara Mawdsley moved into School House next to the assembly Rooms when Phil became the Caretaker.
More and more people became involved, especially in worship. A great many Sidesmen were appointed. A Guild of Lectors was founded whose members would read the Lessons. Ken Thompson was joined by four new readers, John Boulton, Norman Barker, Pal White and the author. Revd. Peter Audsley joined as Curate and he, and Revd. Jack Frankland completed the Vicar's clergy team, enlarged and enlivened for a time by Brother Aidan, a Franciscan. In 1976 Brian Taylor transferred his Readership from Greenfield to Hale.
There was an especial emphasis on youth with meetings on Sunday of various groups under the guidance of Ada Pearce and midweek, of Scouts, Guides, Brownies, Cubs and Venture Rangers.
The time when so much activity was most joyfully evident was the Family Service. The church was so full that it was literally 'standing room only' unless one had come very early. Long before the start of the service, Charles Jones would be marshalling the children who overflowed the pews and filled the chancel, sitting on the carpet between the choir stalls. Arranging for them to collect bunches of daffodils and the pieces of simnel cake (which Wyn Beesley used to bake) on Mothering Sunday, or for them to bring up their gifts of food at Harvest Festival or of toys in the service a few weeks before Christmas, was an exercise in organisation of which he was a master.
The Minutes of the PCC for March 1969 record the Vicar's great pleasure in the fact that ‘he has the greatest difficulty in finding a seat in the chancel or sanctuary on Family Service day.’
More and more people were attending services. The Wednesday evening one was particularly we 11-attended (having replaced the early morning service of that day). A Prayer Group was formed as was the Committee for Mission. In Holy Week 1971, a team from Ridley Hall conducted a mission in the Parish. It was a great success, especially the house groups. The Diocese was to hold a full scale Mission under the tide 'Call To The North' and St. Peter’s was responsible for much of the art work and, although it emanated from Chester, Don Lewis for much of the plan.
Series 1 form of Holy Communion found some approval, but Series 2 was tried and dropped. 1662 remained firmly in place and many people from parishes where the new forms of worship had been imposed moved to St. Peters to continue to enjoy it.
As to the church itself, at the start of the seventies it had a new flagpole, an electric mechanism to wind the clock and was greatly enhanced by a gift from the Ladies’ Guild: Bowdon Methodist Chapel, the 'Dome Chapel' as it was known, had been demolished and from it, a set of three stained glass windows was rescued and installed on the south side of the chancel. The Church Womens' Fellowship gave the rail for the chancel steps and the Mothers' Union, the new carpet for the chancel and sanctuary.
Peter House had quickly become indispensable, not only as home to the Coombs and to Peter Audsley and his wife but as a meeting place for the PCC and many organisations. The Parish Office was established there and so was the Chapel.
We were coming together far more with other churches with the establishment, first, of the Altrincham and District, and then the Hale, Neighbourhood Group of Churches. One astonishing exception, considering the overwhelming favour it seemed to receive, was the scheme for unity with the Methodist Church which was voted out in the then Church Assembly.
Money was needed and successive fairs and auctions and campaigns continued to raise it. However, people do like to have a specific aim and for one group, that aim was the care of Peter House. Myfanwy Walker and the 'Friends of St. Peter’ held a Cheese and Wine Evening with a Tombola in the Assembly Rooms on Shrove Tuesday 1970. They were to hold one every year for the next 19 years. The highlight of the evening was the Pancake Race with pancakes tossed over the tie-rods high in the roof. (It was a tradition that the Vicar's team always won.) ‘Laugh and be merry', wrote Masefield, ‘The sign of the joy of the Lord.' In St. Peter's, many a serious purpose was achieved with a great deal of fun. The positive regiment of Sidesmen held a Sidesmen's Supper once a year, the Vicar their Guest of Honour.
The Vicar entertained to dinner the members of the Guild of St. Peter, people who had given good and long service to the Parish.
Under the stage of the Assembly Rooms was the old kitchen. Some of the young people spent months converting it into a Coffee Bar to use as a meeting place. In September 1975. 50 of them attended a meeting and agreed to form SPRADS - St. Peter's Recreational and Dramatic Society. That Christmas, they put on a Pantomime and played to packed houses, in the Assembly Rooms, for five performances. They have done so most years since, as well as putting on many other plays. The guiding spirit was Joan Schofield who persuaded her talented thespians to assist the author in another entertainment.
The Pleasure of Your Company', wherein a splendid dinner was followed by a concert. Ballads and songs from musical shows were sung by Frank and Ann Poole and two friends of theirs - and ours - Frank and Kay Bennett. SPRADS were the Dancers and Chorus performing production number routines with a vivacity and enjoyment matched by the gaiety of their specially-made costumes. The concerts were held for ten years.
There was great appreciation for three festivals which filled the church with flowers. 'A Garland for St. Peter’ was the first, in 1968. Two years later in a 'Festival of Praise' a programme of hymns was illustrated, each hymn by a flower arrangement. In the Rose Festival, their beauty made the church a fragrant bower filled with the light of the evening sun shining through the West Window, adding its colours to the floral spectrum.
Granada Television came to broadcast a Family Service. Unfortunately, their power equipment failed and Harrop Road was lined with mobile generators which provided barely enough light. The opening, however, was an outside shot as the Choir processed from their vestry to the South Porch. The Vicar was to pause to greet the viewers in a brief piece to camera. ‘Good morning,’ said Don Lewis, ‘and welcome to Hale St. Peter. This is our Family Service. It is a service where anything goes, and something already has - the lighting...’ On Christmas Eve 1974, BBC TV transmitted the Midnight Communion, 'The Message of the Angels'.
However much the church touched our lives in those days, nobody was more closely involved than the Choir under their Organist and Choirmaster, Duncan Eyre. He recalls the dedication of the organ by the Bishop of Chester in the interregnum and writes:
‘We had an instrument and a choir to be proud of. Then came Don Lewis, red robes, choir camps and music, music, music. It was the beginning of a period of friendship and of working and playing together which is etched on my mind with superlatives.
‘From this time on the choir as a social group grew into something amazing. Nobody realty left. If they had to move from Hale for some reason or other they would be back either to sing in the Christmas services or to be married.
‘Choir camps were always a marvellous experience whether deep in the rural selling of Castle Caereinion or singing under the flood-lit spires of Lichfield Cathedral. And then, who can forget Lowther College with its endless corridors for little boys to run along late at night, games of "Pirates" in the gym and the swimming gala! The final conclusion that must be drawn is that choir boys require very little sleep. In spite of this, they always perform well at services and the Saturday night concert makes ii all worthwhile.
‘Musical performances in the church that I shall always remember include a Mozart Mass, the Faure Requiem, 'Behold the Man' by Armstrong-Gibbs and joint concerts with the St George's Singers, Poynton of Haydn's ‘Creation’, Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' and Handel's 'Messiah'.’
In June 1977 came the news that Don Lewis and his family were to leave for Swansea.
At the party in the Assembly Rooms on October 6th, we sang 'Farewell to the Lewises', specially written by Duncan Eyre. It was apt, for we were indeed saying farewell not just to the Vicar but to the whole family who had become a part of our lives. One thought of 'Don and Ann' as often as 'Don', and Julian and Rachel had grown up here. We had shared their sorrow when their baby daughter Bridget died and also at the death of Ann's mother, Mangi and we had shared their joy at the birth of their son. Ishmael Christian St. Peter. We would miss them all.
When Don Lewis had departed, the Parish ran smoothly on, like a well-shunted carriage, along the rails he had so carefully laid during his twelve years here.
Societies and organisations continued to flourish and, most importantly, services continued to be held. During the twelve months interregnum, the Revd. Jack Frankland presided at Holy Communion and conducted and preached many services as well as attending those taken and preached by the team of Readers, efficiently deployed by Norman Barker. Behind the scenes, our Churchwardens Wilf Hamilton and Michael Morton conducted the affairs of the Parish with unobtrusive acumen and conspicuous diplomacy.