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St. Mary's Church Caerau-with-Ely, Cardiff

By the Reverend Victor Jones

I was ordained in 1955 by the Archbishop of Wales, the Right Reverend John Morgan, in St. Dyfrig's Church, Cardiff. I served for two years as a Curate in St. Luke's Church, Canton with Father John Read. I was then asked by the Archbishop if I would go to Ely where a new church was to be opened on the new housing estate on what was once the Ely Racecourse. It was to be a dual purpose building, a church-cum-hall. It took only a week to construct and when finished it looked like a Nissen Hut. I was told that I could choose its name, so I chose St. Timothy as he was a young man and the parish was full of young people. My wife, Margaret and my baby daughter Ruth, moved into 96 Heol Carnau in September and we stayed for a little under five years.

The name of the parish was Caerau-with-Ely, and on the hill on the outskirts of the parish stood the old parish church of St. Mary's, next to a Roman Camp and an Iron-Age Fort. In 1957, before my arrival in Ely, the church of St. Mary was officially closed down, deconsecrated, the roof taken off, and left to the mercy of the elements, the vandals of Ely, and the mercy of God.

Young people helping with the rebuilding.
I was very busy at St. Timothy's. On the first Sunday the 8 o'clock Communion Service was packed with over 200 people, and the first Sunday School later in the day with even more children. For two years we struggled on trying to cope with the large and increasing numbers. There were nearly 50 Confirmation Candidates each year, most teenagers. Sometimes the Bishop of Llandaff, the Right Reverend Glyn Simon, would come to assist with the chalice at the 8 o'clock service, and stay for breakfast. The parishioners had come to Ely from every part of Cardiff that had been blitzed during the war. St. Timothy's became the only focal point to bring them together. It was clear to me that another church was needed and I put it to the Bishop. His reply was, "You have not yet finished paying for this one, they cost 10,000 each." One day I walked up to the old church on the hill and took with me Mr. Charles Jewell, a Server and Sidesman in St. Tim's, and a bus driver for Cardiff Corporation. The vandals had been very busy and in one place the wall had been pulled down almost to the ground. A huge hole in the tower wall showed where thieves had broken in and stolen the bronze bell. It looked a ruin and a mess, but the amazing thing was that the old Communion Rail, made of wood and wrought iron, was still in place. I knelt at the rail and Charles Jewell did also. We prayed in silence, and when we got up I knew what I was going to do, rebuild the church around this Communion Rail.

I said as such to Charles Jewell and he replied, "Yes, and I will help you as much as I can." I phoned the Bishop and told him all the above and asked to see him. I asked for his permission to rebuild the old church and he said "Yes" and smiled, but he knew that I meant it, but thought I was mad. On the following Monday morning at the clergy staff meeting in the Vicar's study at St. David's Vicarage, I told the Vicar, the Reverend Redvers Evans, what I had done. I had not once discussed it with him, after all, he had been the one who closed the church and made it a ruin. When I told the parishioners what was happening they were delighted, especially Mr and Mrs John, an old Caerau family. It was towards the end of 1958 that I began going up to the church in the early evening to clear away the mountain of stone and rubble that had been pulled down from the walls. I had many willing helpers. Boys and girls from my Scouts and Youth Clubs found it a great game and had lots of fun sorting out the stones into heaps and clearing away rubble. The men of St. Timothy's were all in full time employment during the day, but whenever they had some free time they would come to help, but most of my helpers at this time were young people. Quite a few marriages were to come from this in the future, Michael and Margaret, Roger and Josie, to name a few. The walls of the church were three feet thick so a lot of stone would be needed. I went to the Wenvoe Quarry, two miles away, and told them what I was doing. They let me have all the stone I required, free of charge, and delivered to the site. There was the Mortar Works in Mill Road, at the lower end of Ely, and I went there and said, "I am Father Jones from St. Tim's and I am rebuilding St. Mary's Church. I have got stone, but I have no mortar and no money." The next day 3 cubic yards of mortar were delivered to the church, free of charge, and this went on many times until the work was finished. The first job was to fill in the hole in the tower. This was done from a ladder, one stone carried up at a time, then a bucket of mortar, and so on. Then I set to work on the North wall which was down to the ground. I had never laid a stone or a brick in my life before, but I was now learning. There were no craftsmen to help me, we were all learners. Mr. John was an engine-driver, Harold Hillard was a wheel tapper on the GWR, Ken Pinches was a shoe maker and repairer, Michael Vaudin was a farmer, Charlie Jewell was a bus driver, Tony Keogh was a rent collector, Roger Balkwill was a student.

Scaffolding on the outside of the church.
One Saturday afternoon I was laying stones on the south wall when a family walked through the churchyard. It was a very popular walk for Ely people on a nice day to the Iron-Age Fort. A man's voice called out, "Hey, Father Jones, catch this" and he threw up to me an 8 inch bricklayer's trowel, brand new. The one I had been using was a 4 inch, a mere toy. He said he was a Roman Catholic. All through the summer of 1958 the walls grew higher every day, but vandalism was still going on, and work I had done one evening would be pulled down the next. I asked the Police for help, but was told, "Sorry Father Jones, don't bring them to us, but if you catch them slap them hard, only use the flat of your hand." We never caught them, except one, I nicknamed him the Ox. When it came to building the wall over the chancel arch, the ladder had to be moved often and this made the work slow and tedious. I was able to scrounge some scaffolding from a local builder and was working from that. It was 30 feet high and 6 feet square, with three platforms. I came up to the church one evening, alone as usual, and found the scaffolding on the floor, twisted and unusable. There was still 3 feet of the gable to be done. Somebody told me that a young man had done it. He was a big boy, built like an ox, about 18 years old. One afternoon, as I was visiting in Heol Poyston, I knocked on a door and it was opened by a woman. "Hello Mrs , I am Father Jones from St. Tim's, and I am rebuilding St. Mary's Church on the hill. You can tell your son, , that he can be pleased with himself because he has made my work twice as hard and twice as long, he will be proud of himself." The next evening I was up at the church working on the ladder on the gable when I heard a noise below me. I looked down and saw the Ox, he was alone and looked very big. I thought, "This is it, he is going to get his own back because I spoke to his mother." He said nothing, except one word "Catch", and he picked up a stone and tossed it up to me. All I had to do was pluck it out of the air, and place it on the wall. He stayed there all evening until I had finished the gable, then without a word he left. I thought, "What a lesson in Penitence."

The walls of the church were now finished, and that was also how I felt. It seemed to me the work was endless and progress so slow. I had a break and came up to the church a few days later one sunny afternoon, not to work, just to look. As I stood there thinking and praying and feeling very low, "Can I finish it? Will I finish it? Then the answer came in a wonderful way. I was standing facing the east wall, the sun was high in the afternoon sky. Then the shadow of that cross appeared on the east wall, where the altar would be. It was as if God had spoken to me direct. "You will finish it" and I never had any doubt after that moment. If you think about it and of all the conditions that had to be met for it to happen, then it was a supernatural event, a miracle. It had never happened before and it would never happen again. The roof had to be off, the sun had to be shining in a cloudless sky, the position of the sun was critical and, lastly, I had to be there at the exact moment. Those conditions were all met that day.

Altar and ladder.
The easy part was over and the hard part about to begin, the roof. Before tackling the roof, I decided to add a small vestry to the north side of the church to complete the cruciform shape of the church. It would match the porch, but it would have an inside wall of brick, not stone, with a window looking out on the churchyard. I went to the Ely Brickworks and told them my story. They said they had already heard it on the radio and read it in the newspapers, the Daily Mirror and the South Wales Echo. They gave me as many bricks as I needed and delivered them to the church. St. Mary's still had a lot of friends.

As a result of the radio broadcast I had made, and the stories and pictures published in the papers, which parishioners sent to their relatives living abroad, I began to receive letters of encouragement and generous donations from complete strangers, who at some time or other had connections with St. Mary's Church. They came from Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, and Middle Eastern countries. Expenses had not been great so far, but the next stage would cost a lot more than we had, and those contributions would be a great help. Mr. Arthur John was the Treasurer and he organised a Bingo evening in St. Timothy's every Monday which brought in a lot of money. He also arranged a Football Lottery which paid a weekly prize to the holder of the winning ticket. Many ladies from St. Timothy's helped in the kitchen on Monday evenings to provide tea and refreshments to the Bingo players. My mother was a keen Bingo player and she enjoyed her Monday night out.

The font.
I possessed a book called Building Construction. In it was a picture of a King-Post-Truss which was designed for a building the same size as St. Mary's. It was made of Oregon Pine and the tie-beam was 11" x 4" and spanned 30 feet from wall to wall. Other timbers were just as sturdy, and purlins and rafters were all included. The wall plates were 12" x 4" and the trusses would sit on them. The Ridge Board was 12" x 2". I can see it all now so clearly, though it was over 50 years ago from this time of writing. The roof would be covered with 1" T&G matchboarding, roofing felt, battens, and slates. I went to Robinson David Timber Company and explained what I wanted. Unbelievably, the David side of the Company had connections with St. Mary's, and it meant we were given some discount. Soon timber was being delivered to St. Timothy's and the only place to stack it was around the walls. It could not stay there for long so I had to get busy. Every joint had to be cut using hand tools. I worked alone for several weeks to complete the trusses. The iron-work required to hold them together was made and given by Mr. David ? The husband of one of the twin daughters of the David Farm on Caerau Hill. This David also made and gave the four wrought-iron chandeliers that gave the church an elegant air. David was a great helper and supporter. The day came when the roof timbers were to be erected on site. An army of men and boys turned up, and many girl friends and family members came to watch and cheer. It took all of one Saturday to do. I had already put the wall-plates in position. We were blessed with fine weather. St. Mary's began to look like a church again. It took several more weeks to complete the roof. It was covered by 1" T&G matchboarding, roofing felt, battens, and slates. I had spoken to the Works Manager of Cardiff City Council and told him that I needed slates. He provided, free, several thousand Princess Slates, 24" x 12" which had been carefully removed from buildings being demolished in the city. I found someone who said he would put them up, for a price. He did a terrible job and the whole lot had to be taken off and the job done again by a competent slater. The roof was now complete and St. Mary's looked like a real church again.

The next stage was the interior. The floor was bare earth. I levelled it off and marked it out into sections. When this was done I ordered the concrete and 3 cubic yards were dropped outside the church door. With the help of Roger Balkwill, our young organist at St. Timothy's, each section was filled in and screeded level. We had only one wheelbarrow and one shovel. We had to work non-stop until all the load was laid, and it was very hard work as we got to the end of the load as it was hardening off. Roger loaded the barrow and wheeled it to me. It took a whole week, working every evening to finish the floor. In the process we covered over an underground crypt containing human bones.

Later on I covered the whole floor with 12" Marley tiles, red and black. The smell of the glue was awful, like cat's . The walls had to be plastered next. Earlier on a part of the wall was found to have remains of medieval plaster and parts of a mural. A diocesan adviser came to have a look and we were told to cover it up. A skilled plasterer was paid to do the work and when finished it looked so different. The weather was still good and everything dried out properly.

The altar.
At this point I approached the City and County Councils and asked if they could put an electricity supply to the church. It was done within weeks by overhead cable, and the road to the church was also repaired. Both Councils could not have been more helpful. David from Caerau Farm then came and fitted the wrought-iron chandeliers and electric heaters were also fitted on the tie-beams. Winter was now approaching and the dark evenings would make work difficult, but there was still much to be done. During that winter I made the pulpit and lectern, and my workshop was the gents toilet in St. Timothy's.

My next door neighbour, in 98 Heol Carnau, Mr. Howard Verey, offered to make the choir stalls. They were made of Japanese figured oak, and were absolutely first class. Howard and I were both coach-builders by trade and worked together at the Western Welsh Bus Depot in Cowbridge Road, in the parish. We were about the same age. Howard must have wondered how it was possible to pass from coach-building to church building??

Strangely enough there was no vandalism to the church at this time, the winter of 1959, nor during the remainder of my time in the parish. The vandals had instead turned their attention to St. Timothy's. Stones were thrown at almost all of the windows which were all of Georgian wired glass. A large store shed I had built was burned down and a trellis I had put up across the front of the church was pulled down and wrecked. The wreckage ended up supporting Mr. John's roses at his home in Cowbridge Road, so some good came of it. With the return of Spring we began to prepare for the opening of the church. Shopping lists were prepared of all items needed to function as a church again. The Altar Cross and candle-sticks were given by Mr. and Mrs. John. The Communion vessels and cruets, alms dish, chalice and paten were given by other families in memory of their loved ones. Miss Olwen Curtis and her brother Tom, gave a chalice and paten. A processional Cross came from another family. I wish I could remember all their names.

The seating arrangements would be by chairs, battened together in accordance with regulations. The ancient font was placed on a stone plinth beneath the tower and this became the Baptistry. The Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff gave us a beautiful triptych of Byzantine Art, which was placed in the Baptistry on the west wall. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with Child was given by the parish of All Saints, Llandaff North, and stood on a corbel on the south wall of the church.

One of the last things to do before completion was to paint the interior of the church. It was decided to put a damp-sealer on the wall first, and one evening a number of men turned up to do this. Mr. John, Harold Hillard, Ken Pinches, Len Arrowsmith, Charlie Jewell, Roger Balkwill and myself. Because it was an evening job the outside door was kept closed. Unknown to us the sealant gave off very powerful fumes and Harold Hillard became very breathless and was quite ill for a few days. We finished the job and painted the interior white. The result was breath-taking. The following week the furnishings were put in place, chairs, kneelers, choir stalls, lectern with Bible, and the altar furnishings. The altar was decorated with white flowers in brass vases. Everything that was needed had been given by the parishioners and friends of St. Mary's.

Church dignitaries at the reconsecration. Father Jones is on the right.
The Bishop was informed and a date arranged with the Vicar for the re-consecration and hallowing of the building.

A marquee was hired for the day for the clergy to robe in, the Bishop, his Registrar, the Archdeacon, the venerable Gwynno James, who preached the sermon, the Vicar and church-wardens. Crowds of people had come to witness the occasion. The church was full and many had to stand outside, including myself and most of the other workers. The weather could have been better. It was mid 1960. I was feeling tired and worn out, and spiritually exhausted. Later on the Bishop made an appeal for money to build more churches like St. Timothy's in the diocese. I asked him to make me his church builder, but he refused. My thoughts turned to the Royal Navy, which I had always hoped to join since my ordination. In January 1962 I left Ely to become a Naval Chaplain, and left St. Mary's and St. Timothy's for others to care for.

I have often wondered whether I had done the right thing. Should I have stayed?????