St Michael and the Holy Family, Kesgrave
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
Kesgrave is a sprawling eastern suburb of Ipswich, home to about 10,000 people. It extends along the A12 corridor to Martlesham, which in turn will take you pretty much all the way to Woodbridge. Extensive housebuilding in this area over the last 20 years has meant radical extensions to both this church and to the nearby Anglican church of All Saints, as well as to the church of Rushmere St Andrew. All of them are good extensions, both major and interesting.
Holy Family sits neatly in its trim little churchyard. It is a most curious shape, of which more in a moment. Beside it, the underpass and roundabout gives it a decidedly urban air. But this is a church of outstanding interest, as we shall see.
A large car park stretches beyond the church, and between the two there there is a tiny, formal graveyard, with crosses remembering the Rope and Jolly families. The main entrance is from the north side, and stepping through the porch, and its elegant wrought-iron inner gates, you enter a pretty interior, lots of red brick arcading and archways highlighted by white walls. And, of all things, a model of an airship hanging above. Stepping back into the porch, you'll see the reason for this, for a plaque reveals that the church was built to the memory of Michael Rope, who was killed in the R101 airship disaster of 1930.
Airships were one of those exciting inventions of the recent past that enthralled Blue Peter-watching boys like me growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. They were, in a real sense, futuristic, apart of the 1930s modernist project that tried to predict the way we live now. But they were doomed, because the hydrogen which gave them their buoyancy was explosive. As a child, I was fascinated with the R101 airship and its disaster; that familiar photograph of its wrecked and burnt-out fuselage sprawled on a northern French hillside is still haunting.
The wreck of the R101 is ancient history now, but in the year 2001 I had the excellent fortune to be shown around Holy Family by Michael Rope's widow, Mrs Doreen Rope, still alive, and then in her nineties. She was the patron of this church, which acts as a chapel of ease to Ipswich St Mary. One of the priests of the parish has pastoral responsibility for the Kesgrave area.
The original church from the 1930s is the part that you step into. The nave altar and tabernacle ahead are in the original sanctuary, and you are facing east at this point. The altar frontal is by local artist Isobel Clover, responsible for much other work here, as well as the tapestry reredos at nearby All Saints.
A gorgeous terracotta Madonna stands to the left of the arch, and to the right is St Joseph. This must have been a most intimate space before the extensions, which would have intensified the power of the wonderful windows, particularly that to Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. It carries an uncompromising dedication, written before those two great heroes were canonised. There are two other fine windows above the altar. "My sister-in-law did the windows", Mrs Rope told me.
Her sister-in-law, of course, was Margaret Agnes Rope, who, in the first half of the twentieth century, was probably the finest of the Arts and Craft Movement stained glass designers. She studied at their Birmingham workshop, and then worked in London with her cousin, Margaret Edith Rope, whose work is also here.
Their work can be found all over the world; in several Catholic cathedrals in this country, and in half a dozen Anglican parish churches in Suffolk. Mrs Rope explained that her husband's face had been used as a model for one of the figures.
Margaret Agnes Rope entered the Carmelite Convent at nearby Woodbridge, but continued to produce her stained glass work. Designs for her windows in other churches can be found all over Holy Family, framed and bolted securely to the walls. Among them are the roundels for the Tyburn Convent in London. "They had to remove the windows there during the War", said Mrs Rope. "Of course, with me, you have to ask which war!"
Turning to the north, we see the new sanctuary with its high altar, completed in 1993. The window above is tripartite, and the two outer windows are also by Margaret Agnes Rope, moved here from Old Hall, the former Franciscan convent at East Bergholt, now a commune.
The glass of Christ in the middle, not by her, is much less good. Mrs Rope explained why it lets in so much light compared with the ones that flank it. Simply, stained glass today is thinner. "The glass in my sister-in-law's windows is half an inch thick", Mrs Rope said. "In the workshop at Fulham they had a man who came in specially to cut it for them".
The Rope cousins' flowing lines make the middle window seem rather pedestrian; it is the one jarring note in this artistic shrine.To the left of the new high altar stands the Galilee transept, built in 1993, a large glass partitioned area which allows families with noisy children to participate fully in the liturgy without worrying constantly about keeping them quiet. Microphones and speakers relay the Mass through to this area.
It is very popular; as so often in modern urban Catholic churches, it is already not really big enough. It is also used for meetings and other events. At present, the church hosts the Parish anticipatory Mass on a Saturday evening, but is shortly to recommence a 9.15 Mass on Sundays as well. Mrs Rope was pleased about this, but aware that it will place even more demands upon the Galilee.
We walked along the east aisle, product of an extension in the 1970s. "I'm afraid that the Stations aren't up to much", said Mrs Rope, indicating the simple yet attractive paper Stations of the Cross then along the walls. At the time of my visit, these were put out at Lent for use with the children; at other times, simple wooden crosses sufficed. However, since then they have been replaced by an excellent modern set, in memory of two local brothers killed in the World Trade Center disaster.
We talked about the changing Church, and the practice of transferring Holy Days on to the nearest Sunday, so that the teaching of them is not lost. Mrs Rope had a passion for ensuring that the Faith could be shared with children; as we have seen, her church is designed so that they can take a full part in the Mass. But she was sympathetic to the distractions of the modern age.
"The world is so exciting for children these days", she said. "I think it must be difficult to bring them up with a sense of the presence of God." She smiled. "Mind you, my son is 70 now! And I do admire young girls today. They have such spirit!"
This magnificent lady left me to potter about her wonderful treasure house. As I did so, I thought of medieval churches I have visited, which were similarly donated by the Mrs Ropes of their day, perhaps even for husbands who had died young. They not only sought to memorialise their loved ones, but to consecrate a space for prayer, that Masses might be said for the souls of the dead. This is the Catholic way, and our Christian duty. Before the Reformation, this was true in every parish in England; it is as true today here at Kesgrave.
Simon Knott, 2007
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