‘We Have So Much to Be Thankful For’ – St Peter’s Church Ropley Marks Ten Year Anniversary Since Devastating Fire

‘We Have So Much to Be Thankful For’ – St Peter’s Church Ropley Marks Ten Year Anniversary Since Devastating Fire

It’s been 10 years this month since a fire destroyed St Peter’s church in Ropley. A decade later, the congregation is settled in a beautiful new building and is finding many opportunities for engaging with their community and building God’s Kingdom. We went along to hear the stories of the many people affected…

On 19th June 2004 local residents watched in horror as flames engulfed the St Peter’s Church building.  The roof and bell tower and virtually everything inside was destroyed, including the organ, altar, pulpit and irreplaceable historic records. 

For some residents, it’s still hard to talk about that day. Justin Clements has been a resident of Ropley for 41 years and two of his daughters were christened in St Peters.   He said: “I was completely dumbstruck when I saw the fire.  I was a bell ringer and it was awful to watch the tower burning and to watch the church going up in flames. I couldn’t talk to anyone for three days.  I was totally heartbroken.” 

Rodney Skinner is Tower Captain and has been coming to the church for 60 years:

“I remember going outside to put something in my rubbish bin and wondering who was having a bonfire at that time of the morning and then I realised it was the church on fire.   It was all gone in 2 hours.  I remember watching and hearing thuds as the clock weights came down and rattling as the tiles came through the roof.  I was a bit numb at the time and it was only later when I saw the charred remains that I realised the enormity of it.”

Barbara Burton lived in a thatched cottage next to the church: “My husband had gone off to the garage with the car and I smelled smoke. It was just terrifying because we looked straight into the bell tower and it went up in flames.  Afterwards there was an air of stillness and quiet.  A few days later, it was the Friends of St Peter’s drinks party and we all just stood there and thought ‘we’re going to rebuild it’ – it was great how it brought people together.” 

Little was left of the church after the fire, but from the ruins of the building came a determination to rebuild.  Previous problems in the village had left the community divided but quicky people rallied together and supported one another to look to the future. A plan was drawn up and architect John Alexander was hired to design a new church building. During the rebuild, parishioners worshipped in the village hall.

Revd Amber Beresford became vicar of St Peters in October last year. She said:

“Our previous vicar Rev’d Clare Welham was fantastic.  She did pastoral care so well and she brought people together.  During that time there was a lot of love and healing, whereas before everything was so broken.  Momentum grew for fundraising, for the vision of the having a space for the community, having a space for the children to visit any time, having a space for people to just come in during the week if they needed to.  And that’s what continues to happen today.”

A huge fundraising effort began with events such as an auction of promises, open gardens, concerts and other community functions. People even sponsored roof tiles and chairs.  The rebuild cost £4 million with some covered by insurance, donations, a grants and loans from the Diocese and other organisations and more than a million pounds was raised by local residents.

Barbara Pettegree

The building project wasn’t always straightforward.  When Covid hit, work had to stop and there were problems with getting supplies from Europe.  But eventually the church reopened in August 2022 with the website stating: “8 years, 1 month, 31 days, and 19 minutes after the fire halted the hands on the bell tower clock at St Peter’s they are turning once more!!!”

82-year-old Roy Wyeth was christened at St Peter’s in June 1942 and has had a close connection to the church all his life. “I was upset when the old building burnt down. It was devastating really.  We had services in the village hall and at one time we wondered if we’d ever get back into the church.  I look around here now and see this new building, it’s unbelievable.”

The new church is a large bright open space with reminders of the old church that survived the fire.  The old clock, saved from the debris, hangs on a wall close to the new toilets.  There’s a new kitchen and a space for youngsters with toys and games.  The church is providing a focal point for the village and offering new ways to love and serve the community.

Churchwarden Sue Thomas said: “It is amazing because when the church burnt down, the whole parish was in a very tricky situation. Some of us were worshiping in the village hall. There was a very small congregation here and the church was basically dying.  There was a lot of discussion as to whether we rebuild and most of us thought it was so important for the church to be a centre for people to come to and feel enriched in their lives.   There’s a constant stream of people coming in to just sit and have a quiet moment.  We’ve made lots of connections.  I think our whole ethos was that it should be a welcoming home for everybody and I hope we’ve done that.   People feel accepted and wanted and that’s really important. There are all sorts of different ways of coming to Christ and however small our steps may be, they are all in the right direction.” 

Part of the planning requirement was that the new church had to be a community facility and it has become just that.  The local school regularly visit for end of year services and concerts which also brings families into the church.   It’s also been used for many community and social events, such as an opera, art classes, concerts, fitness classes, dances, conferences and fayres. 

The church is open every day for people to come and enjoy the space.  Sometimes they come and work in the church.  People are in here all day long.  We also get a lot of pilgrims as well as we are on the Pilgrims Way.  The church was always planned to be an incredible community asset and to be a lettings and events venue, as well as a place of worship and a thriving church community.  I definitely feel like it’s a sanctuary for people in the village. We get families coming in to play with the toys in the community room.  After holding school events, there are often questions that follow on either from parents or from the children about God.  We had someone sitting on our bench who just felt the presence and the peace of God and it’s little stories like that, which are fantastic.

Revd Amber Beresford

The church has started a stream of family events such as Children’s Church, Café Church and Crafty Church and a recent Pentecost party which saw new families welcomed in.  There’s a board games morning, coffee and chat and special lunches, reaching out to those isolated in the community. There’s also been a revival in music with a new church singing group established which has added to church numbers. 

Barbara Pettegree has been coming to the church since 1979: “We’re blessed. We’ve got a young vicar and I think a lot of ministry is done at the school gates and it has brought people in. This is tomorrow’s church and it’s so important that we involve the youngsters and welcome new people and young families.  God is certainly moving here.  We’ve had a rocky journey because we’ve had Covid, leaving the EU and there was quite a shortfall financially.  But despite all that, clearly, the hand of God was here.”

Revd Amber said, “In terms of growing faithful disciples, we really have grown congregation wise.  People that have started coming to church again, coming to try out church and coming to feel welcome in church.   The momentum of the reopening has given us all excitement really.  The warm welcome and bright amazing space has brought in people who want to give their time and talents, starting things like the choir and bellringing so we are really starting to see growth in these areas.  It’s great to get people in the door and also it’s helping them to feel it’s their church.  It’s easy to get caught up in the building and in logistics and then God always offers a gem, like someone who has come to faith or has felt God’s presence in that space.   It makes you remember that it’s so much more than a building, so much more than a community asset, because it is a sanctuary and it’s a home.”

Roy Wyeth

Recently the congregation blessed a new altar which was donated to the church.  It was made out of wood from a tree that blew down in the storms in 1990.  It had been kept all those years and revitalised, just like the church itself.   A new electric organ was also donated by a member of the congregation. In August the bells are due to be rehung with the help of a National Lottery heritage grant.

Rodney Skinner added, “The new building is fantastic.  It’s a building to be used. It’s not a building just for Sunday morning for an hour.  Our visitors book shows just how many people come here.  It’s just what we wanted. It’s bringing people together.  Listen to the chattering after our service, that’s been lovely to see and there are people who come from outside the parish too.  There were times if I’m honest, I never thought I’d see it open again especially looking at the building in the weeks after the fire.   It’s incredible what’s happened.”

Justin Clements said “I think it’s going to go from strength to strength, but we still want to encourage more young families to come to St Peter’s.  Ropley as a community is very strong and I think we went through it together.  It’s been hard but it takes a while to see what God’s message is.  Now we look and we can understand what he’s given us.” 

St Peter’s is also visited by other people who come to view the new modern building and get ideas.  In April it was venue for the diocese’s ‘Caring for your Church Building’ day and used as a case study on how to approach reordering a church.  The church has won awards for its architecture.  The next step is working on the car park and paths to improve access to the building. 

Revd Amber added: “This is a really key time because we’re at the start of the life of this building.  It’s giving people a real excitement and joy to be that church family once again, in the building together.  We’re getting used to the fact that it’s a venue as well as parish hall, coffee rooms and place of worship.  We’re learning how we all work together for the good of the village.  It’s a great place with so many people involved in village life and the church is now more at the forefront of that.  There’s the congregation and there’s the community events, which work together.  They all help each other and they volunteer for each other.  It’s a brilliant machine that keeps going.  I would encourage people not to fear the space being used for so many different things. I would say broaden your imagination as to who would use it.  People have used this building in ways we wouldn’t imagine, like the art group and like the plays.  It’s great to be used as a positive example and an inspiration for other people”.

Church member Bryce Fletcher said, “There is so much love and togetherness here, so much positivity and warmth.  It’s electric and special.  We have so much to be thankful for.”