Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
day they took possession of it, priest and worshippers had gathered
on the small green in nearby St Helens Lane. It was the first
religious service that the building had witnessed in 461 years.
During this time, among many other things, St Helen's Chapel had been
a private house, a shop and a workshop. When the small congregation
entered and began to sing, It sounded as if the walls themselves
were singing back at us, asking us: 'Where have you been all this
is very hard
even for a benighted heathen like myself
not to be moved by Father Alexander Haig's account of how in the year
2000, the Orthodox Church came back to the chapel in Maidenburgh
Street, Colchester. The emotion is in his voice and in his eyes while
he tells this story.
Helen, or St Helena as many call her, was mother of Constantine the
Great and of course, Patron Saint of Colchester. Depending upon which
sources you believe, she was born nearby in Colchester Castle
then her father King Coel's castle. She is said to have built the
chapel for her own worship. According to history though, she was
actually born in Asia Minor
modern-day Turkey. Here, religious doctrine, local legend and and
blurred historical account all conspire together to make what
Hollywood film-makers would call 'a reality soup'.
thing is for certain though. St Helen's Chapel is very, very old.
Nobody knows exactly how old but it was here before the Normans
(autumn of 1066 onwards )and even then its restoration was on their To Do list.
Appearances can be deceptive. The chapel's walls, three of which are
on the foundations of the ancient Roman Theatre, have seen much
rebuilding over the centuries. The exterior, in a town rich in other
historical treasures, is a rather unspectacular Victorian one. It is
the interior which is so interesting. The luminous red-golds of the
saintly icons which line the chapel's walls
along with the candles which quietly hiss and sputter during my
visit, combine to make the little church far more atmospheric than
many much-grander places of worship.
Haig, does his erudite best to crash-course me through the basic
history of Orthodox Christianity, which is fascinating. Eastern
Orthodoxy was the earliest form of Christianity. Catholicism is a
stripling by comparison. A schism then occurred between Eastern
Christianity (Greek) and its rival Roman Catholicism (Latin) in the
11th century. The emergent Catholic Church in turn experienced its
own dissenters a few centuries later and so Protestantism was born.
Father Haig himself was an Anglican priest for three decades, but
converted to Orthodox in the mid-Nineties. The matter of women
vicars, he says, was one issue which prompted his decision. Looking
around St Helen's now and absorbing something of its overwhelming
mystique I can partly sympathise with this. If you'd been brought up
with a theological package
one rich in ritual and reverence
and then woken one day to find that your place of worship was now
full of people playing drum-kits, blasting saxophones and guitars and
happily clapping along, all
conducted by someone a bit like Dawn French in her Vicar
role, might you not yearn for a return to an older weightier
wholemeal faith one with no additives and nowt-taken-out so to
The matter is obviously more complex than this but it is the simplest
explanation that a theological chowderhead such as I can muster.
Haig's flock comprises Greeks, Greek-Cypriots, Bulgarians, Serbs,
Arab-Christians and others.
There may be between thirty and fifty worshippers attending any one
service One feature of an Orthodox service is that all music is
chanted or sung. The Orthodox faith believes that the voice comes
from the soul, whereas musical instruments are of the earth.
Similarly, the Sanctuary of the church, which represents heaven, is
curtained off from the Nave, the area where the congregation pray.
The Sanctuary may be observed when the curtains are opened but only
the priest has access to this area. It is adds Father Hague,
using an Olympian analogy, As if life were a race and this
were the stadium. Here he points at the many icons of the saints.
And these, are our spectators who cheer us on, should we tire or
it is the sheer antiquity of St Helen's Chapel, or maybe it's
something to do with the candles, the icons and the quiet measured
tone of the priest's voice. But time seems to dissolve while I
listen to him and I suddenly find that an hour has slipped by in what
seems like five minutes. As I walk out dazed into the cold drizzle of
Maidenburgh Street, I pause to look back down the hill and north to
the distant fields on the outkirts of town. Well over a thousand
years ago when the Riverside Estate to the east was still
marsh and water meadows, a St Helen's Chapel, in some form or other,
existed here. At the top of Maidenburgh Street, the High Street
bustles moodily about its midweek business. Two minutes walk away,
nestling in quiet sidestreets, is this ancient, holy building that
has somehow fallen back into the hands of the very faith that created
it. St Helen's Chapel is Number 2 on Colchester's Heritage Trail.
It's also on a rather older, more venerable trail one which leads
all the way back to Antioch.