11 October 2019

Saint Agnes Church,
a church with roots in
Cornish Celtic Christianity

Inside the Church of Saint Agnes in the village of St Agnes on the north coast of Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have been visiting a number of beautiful towns and villages in rural Cornwall this week, beginning with St Agnes on the north coast in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 13 km north-west of Truro, where I have been staying, and 16 km south-west of Newquay.

In summertime, picturesque St Agnes is a popular place for tourists, with its the rugged landscape, sheltered beach, shops, bars, restaurants old stone cottages that line the streets and are staggered down the steep hills.

This is Poldark country, and until the 1920s, St Agnes was a centre for mining tin, copper, and arsenic. The remains of the tin mines are now part of Cornwall’s Mining World Heritage area.

Some stories say St Agnes takes its name from the local legend of Bolster the Giant, who terrified villagers and ate small children. But he fell in love with a beautiful young Agnes and wanted to marry her.

Agnes asked Bolster to prove his love for her by filling a hole in the rocks by Chapel Porth with his blood. But he did not realise hole ran right down through the cliffs and into the sea. Bolster was tricked and died on the cliffs. St Agnes was hailed a heroine, and the village took her name.

The Church of Saint Agnes stands the site of a church dating back to Celtic times (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

However, the parish church says it is named the Roman martyr Saint Agnes, who refused to marry a son of Sempronius, a governor of Rome and member of the Sempronia family. She was martyred on 21 January 304, during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian.

The first church in Saint Agnes was believed to have been built as an early Celtic church, sometime between 410 and 1066. A second church was built before 1331, and there are records of a visit by the bishop that year, when the church is described as being ‘sadly neglected.’

Inside the Church of Saint Agnes looking west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The records of the Diocese of Exeter refer to a chapel of Saint Agnes in the parish of Perranzabuloe (Perranporth) in 1374. A second, or third, Church of Saint Agnes was built on the same site around 1482. However, nothing survives of that church, apart from the lower part of the bell tower.

The carved oak Elizabethan alms box … ‘Remember the Pore’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A carved oak alms box against a pillar is believed to be Elizabethan and depicts a ‘hungry man.’ His hands are pressed against his stomach, and the inscription on the box over his head reads: ‘Remember the Pore’ – although this has been misread by some visitors as ‘Remember the Pope’!

The coat-of-arms of Charles II, dated 1660 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The royal coat-of-arms of Charles II, dated 1660, just above the door of the bell tower, was probably given to the church in recognition of Cornwall’s loyalty to the royalist cause in the English Civil War. It was refurbished and hung over the door in 2009.

The Church of Saint Agnes was rebuilt in 1848-1851 by Piers St Aubyn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Agnes became an autonomous part of the parish of Perranzabuloe in 1846, when it was given its own vicar. Two years later, church and two years later the church was rebuilt and restored by the Gothic Revival architect James Piers St Aubyn (1815-1895), a cousin of John St Aubyn, 1st Baron St Levan, of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

St Aubyn’s work always included a foot-scraper outside the porches. The poet John Betjeman knew this and often failed to visit churches where these could be found. St Aubyn’s greatest professional disappointment was his failure to secure the commission to build Truro Cathedral, which he lost by one vote to John Loughborough Pearson. His most notable achievement was the restoration of St Michael’s Mount, which has been described as ‘among the greatest achievements of 19th-century architecture.’

Saint Agnes Church was dedicated on 29 May 1851, the eve of Ascension Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Agnes Church was rebuilt by St Aubyn in 1848-1851, and was dedicated on 29 May 1851, the eve of Ascension Day. The bells, six in number, were transferred from the old church.

The High Altar is made of granite from the old quay at Trevaunance Cove. The pier was built to allow coal from south Wales to be shipped to Saint Agnes, but it fell into disuse and disintegrated in the 1920s.

The rood beam above the chancel steps (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The rood beam above the chancel steps has a crucifix and figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. This is a memorial to Father Brown, Vicar of Saint Agnes (1922-1933), who changed the churchmanship from ‘middle of the road’ to ‘High Church.’

The chapel in the north aisle is dedicated as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and has a curtained tabernacle with the reserved sacrament. The chapel in the south aisle is the Lady Chapel.

The chapel of remembrance by the south porch door has an altar in Cornish granite.

The pulpit is carved with figures of Saint Agnes and the four Evangelists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The pulpit is carved with figures of Saint Agnes and the four Evangelists. The font probably predates the church built in 1484. The Stations of the Cross on the church walls were given in memory of residents of the parish or people with connections with St Agnes.

The organ was originally installed at floor level in 1881, but an organ loft was built in 1931, providing space for a sacristy underneath.

The East Window in the Church of Saint Agnes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The spire was rebuilt in 1905, and the bell tower and the bells were restored and rededicated in 2001 on the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the church. Today, this is a Grade II listed building.

The old Cornish cross beside of the church probably dates from the 8th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The old Cornish cross beside of the church probably dates from about the 8th century. A granite wayside cross by the churchyard gate is the remains of a mediaeval lych stone used for holding coffins.

The east end of Saint Agnes Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

There are other Anglican churches at Mount Hawke (Saint John the Baptist) and Mithian (Saint Peter’s Church), a Methodist church in St Agnes, and a Roman Catholic church (Our Lady, Star of the Sea). John Passmore Edwards in 1893 had built and donated the Miners and Mechanics Institute in the village.

From St Agnes, we made our way down Stippy Stappy and past the Driftwood Spars to Trevaunance Cove, the main beach and a well-known surfing spot. St Agnes Beacon, St Agnes Head, and the Wheal Coates engine house all came into view during the walk down to the cove and back up to St Agnes.

The Priest-in-Charge of the Atlantic Coast Cluster of Churches in the Diocese of Truro is the Revd Canon Anne Browne. Sunday services at Saint Agnes Church are normally at 8 a.m. and 9.30 a.m.

Trevaunance Cove, near the village of St Agnes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Synagogues of Dublin:
13, Walworth Road

The synagogue at No 3-4 Walworth Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Beth Hamedresh Hagadol Synagogue at 13 Walworth Road was the youngest of the small henbroth or synagogues that sprang up in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area between the South Circular Road and Portobello in Dublin.

The Walworth Road Synagogue dates from 1912 and was formed on the upper floor of two neighbouring terraced houses at Nos 3 and 4.

The Beth Hamedresh Hagadol Synagogue could accommodate a congregation of about 150 people.

As other synagogues in ‘Little Jerusalem’ closed in the 1950s and 1960s, Walworth Road still had 120 seat-holders or subscribing members in 1954. But this figure had fallen to 70 by 1962, and with the continuing drift of most of the Jewish population to Dublin’s southern suburbs, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970.

The original synagogue survives upstairs in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The premises were locked for almost 15 years, but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984. The Irish Jewish Museum opened the following year.

The museum was the brainchild of Rafael Sief, who was its curator until he died in 2009. The then President of Israel, the Irish-born Chaim Herzog, officially opened the museum on 29 June 1985 during his state visit to Ireland.

A Torah scroll in the former synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original synagogue upstairs retains all its ritual fittings. It was never formally deconsecrated, and so was used for a wedding as recently as 2013. There is still a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy, dressed for a wedding.

What was the women’s gallery now houses the Harold Smerling gallery, with many religious objects, including richly decorated covers for Torah scrolls.

The museum is divided into several areas. In the entrance area and corridors, there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community, telling the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

A unique feature on the ground floor is a traditional kitchen, with double kitchen sinks and a typical Sabbath meal setting from a Jewish home of the late 19th and early 20th century in this neighbourhood.

There are photographs of some of the Jewish characters named by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects he refers to.

A Menorah in the former synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The collection of photographs also includes famous Jewish politicians and judges, including Mr Justice Henry Barron, Otto Yaffe, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899, Bob Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, and Gerald Goldberg, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, and of former TDs from three mainstream political parties – Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.

The museum has plans to expand and redevelop the site, including the three adjacent terraced houses. This would substantially increase the size of the museum, but generally retain the façade of the terraced houses on Walworth Road.

There are two plaques on the front of the building. The upper plaque reads in Hebrew: ‘Beth Hamedresh Hagadol.’ The lower plaque commemorates the opening of the museum by President Chaim Herzog.

The two plaques on the façade of the Irish Jewish Museum … the upper plaque in Hebrew recalls the name of the Walworth Road Synagogue, ‘Beth Hamedresh Hagadol’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tomorrow: 14, 6 Grosvenor Place (1936-1940)

Yesterday: 12, Greenville Hall Synagogue, South Circular Road