St Mary’s Ely
A transformed church for a growing city
St Mary’s is a glorious grade I listed C13 church standing prominently near the Cathedral in the middle of Ely, yet it was a building that had become difficult to use well. The 1876 restoration had locked the building into a ‘Sunday-only’ pattern of use – appropriate perhaps for the Victorian understanding of how a church should be used, but less so now. The result was a magnificent building used for just a handful of hours each week. This was an increasing frustration for the church community – with the city growing rapidly there was obvious need and potential to offer a more generous welcome and visible presence in the community.
With the growth of Ely, the parish now accommodates some 26,000 parishioners, and counting. Although there was both the potential and appetite to host events, concerts and conferences in partnership with other faith organisations and secular bodies, including local schools and businesses, users struggled to make use of the space.
“The transformation of this building has enabled us to engage and grow new disciples more effectively, welcoming those on our fringe and those in the wider Ely community. The transformation of the building is vital to the accomplishment of the vision and mission we feel called into.” Rev. Chris Hill
Archangel were approached to re-order the church internally to create a comfortable and welcoming space that would offer flexibility to accommodate different patterns of worship, and that could be open each day through the week for a wide variety of other uses. We engaged closely with the church in the preparation of the faculty application, including the Statement of Significance and Statement of Needs. As the faculty process unfolded, we worked constructively with the Diocesan Advisory Committee, representatives of Historic England, the Victorian Society and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to make a case for transforming the church in a sensitive and meaningful way. This patient work resulted in faculty approval for the full-scale reordering, showing that where the need can be demonstrated, significant change is possible.
The project included:
- Improved accessibility for wheelchair users, sight and hearing impaired, those with invisible disabilities and those with special needs. A ramp provides access from the east end of the north aisle onto the enlarged dais and into the chancel. A new glazed door provides access from the south chapel into the churchyard – making a link between the interior and this beautiful green space to the rear – with another making a more direct link between the south aisle into the church hall.
- Removal of Victorian pews from the nave and chancel has created a fully flexible space in the nave and chancel. New timber chairs and folding tables were selected and three of the Victorian oak pews were retained. The ‘resting’ layout for the building has chairs set out in rows in the front half of the nave and aisles, and circular tables in the rear half.
- The raised pew platforms and Victorian floor surfaces were removed and a new stone floor with underfloor heating was installed; the ledger stones set into the floor, most of which has already been gathered in the south chapel in the nineteenth century, are now more visible.
- Relocation of the existing stone font to east end of south aisle.
- A new screen built across the east end of the chancel to bring the communion table forward, while also creating a new vestry and storage space for tables and chairs, essential for the reconfiguring of the space into different formats
- The existing vestry at the west end was converted into a meeting space, with a tea station which allows for the serving of refreshments from a separate serving point in the south aisle.
- Electrical installations have been renewed including lighting, power and audio visual, and a hearing loop installed.
The church also embraced the opportunity of a major reordering to reduce their carbon emissions, in pursuit of the Church of England’s ambitious net zero carbon target of 2030. The addition of an underfloor heating system powered by twin air source heat pumps has significantly reduced the church’s carbon footprint per hour of use. Improved background heating will also have a long-term positive impact on the health of the building because of the more stable internal environment, reducing maintenance needs going forward.