The Statue of Christ Ascendant
 
by Uli Nimptsch

Rededicated at the Ascension Day Service
Thursday 21st May, 2009

by the Venerable Douglas McKittrick, Archdeacon of Chichester

 

Summary

As communicants return from receiving the sacrament and also as visitors leave church by the West door, they will now be able to see high on the West wall the stunning life-size statue of Christ Ascended by one of Britain’s most eminent sculptors, Uli Nimptsch.

The story of the statue - the seven and a half year battle of the donor to get a design accepted and installed, the choosing of the sculptor and the subsequent two relocations make a fascinating story, but equally amazing is the life and work of the donor Miss Helen Dey, at one time a Matron of St. Bartholomew's Hospital.

The statue is now relocated to a fitting position and this and companion web articles (links shown below) set out all the investigations, work carried out and culminating in the rededication of the statue very appropriately on Ascension Day 2009, 45 years after the statue was first dedicated in St. Wilfrid's church.

Rededication on 21st May, 2009
Ascension Day Eucharist 7:00pm

The president and preacher at our Ascension Day service this year was the Venerable Douglas McKittrick, Archdeacon of Chichester and what a most heartening occasion this was. For the choice of clergy and the occasion were entirely fitting and no mere coincidence, for Fr. Douglas had chaired the Diocesan Advisory Committee charged with investigating the possible relocation (what would be its third location) of the Christ Ascended statue which had ended up ignominiously and seemingly unwanted in a corner of the South Transept for over thirty years.

Part way through the opening hymn, Fr. Ray Whelan asked the congregation to turn to face the west wall and Fr. Douglas gave opening prayers for those who in times past had given freely of their substance and work for St. Wilfrid’s church especially for Miss Helen Dey, at one time Matron of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital who had donated the statue. Then, forty five years after its original dedication by the then Bishop of Chichester, Roger Plumpton Wilson (7th May 1964), Fr. Douglas rededicated the statue in its magnificent new setting high above the West Door.

During his address Fr. Douglas said ‘Your controversial statue of Christ Ascended is unique, and one of the few sculptures of the Ascended Christ. It is wonderful to see it where it is, where it can be seen, where it needs to be. We see many moving sculptures of Christ Crucified or Christ Glorified but this Christ Ascended is very rare and, leaving this church, starkly reminds us of both our Christian hope and our Christian message – God longs for all humanity to be reconciled to him, our home belongs to God in heaven… We owe a great debt of gratitude to the good friend of St. Wilfrid’s whose magnificent gift meant so much to her and in years to come will mean so much to St. Wilfrid’s in terms of devotional worship, leading through a sense of the presence of the eternal Christ to more steadfast witness and service’. He concluded his address with ‘Every worshiper in this church or indeed every visitor will now leave reminded of the message of the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus… Amen’.

Fr. Andrew was still on sick leave and, after initiating the relocation investigations, he must have been very disappointed not to be able attend. However, Fr. Ray did a sterling job of organising the service and thanks must also be given to Fr. Ray and Fr. Mark for assisting Fr. Douglas so well. A final and very big thank you to Fr. Douglas for all the work he did on the relocation investigations and for leading this very special Ascension Day service.

As many were unable to attend the weekday Ascension Day service, note recorded excerpts can be heard as podcasts - links below and also on our podcasts page at www.wilfrid.org.uk/podcasts/podcasts.htm  .

The final research of John Hawkins and myself which we are now completing, is focussed on the life and work of the donor Miss Helen Dey, who lived in St. John’s Wood, London but worshipped at St. Wilfrid’s during her stays at the Old Coastguards Hotel (part of the Rock Gardens site and now demolished). She was evidently an extraordinary and determined lady who in 1927, at the early age of 39, was appointed Matron and Superintendent of Nursing of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, where she remained until 1949; she was awarded the OBE in 1937 and the CBE in 1946.

I am much indebted to a friend Anne Witney, who was a nurse at Barts in the 1950s (a time when even after Helen Dey’s retirement as matron the very name of Helen Dey was still strongly revered and still feared!). As a result of a chance discussion about Barts when I mentioned Helen Dey, Anne was moved to mention this discovery about Helen’s life in Bognor and funding the statue in the League of St. Bartholomew’s Nurses League News and this has created a wave of interest from those at Barts who remember her.

I brought Anne to one of our weekday Eucharists recently and the possibility was discussed of inviting Barts staff retired and present to come to a service when this amazing lady Helen Dey and her role in this story can be properly recognised. Things take awhile to organise at Barts (like they do at St. Wilfrid’s!) so we thought a special Ascension Day service in our Centenary Year 2010 would be very appropriate. We have waited over thirty years already to see the statue relocated to a fitting position so hopefully one more year is not too long to wait for this additional special commemoration.

As always a very special thank you to John Hawkins for all his research and assistance and so pleased he attended this very special service.

Peter Green 21st May, 2009

 

The Design and Planning Years 1958 -1963

From research into the PCC minutes and correspondence of Miss Dey in the County Records office it would seem that her endeavour to have a statue of Christ Ascendant on the bare East wall above the altar was well under way by 1958. There is a letter from the Chichester Diocesan Art Council of 29th April 1958 which favoured the idea of a figure of Ascended Christ but felt ‘great care had to be exercised in the choice of the design and sculptor’.

On 5th May 1958 the Decorative Art Guild wrote on behalf of Miss Dey which indicated that plans had already been submitted and approved by the PCC, but the letter also showed the determination of their client (who was concerned about a deviation from the architect’s original design authorised by the PCC for steps to the sanctuary) and they wrote ‘my client is not the PCC and therefore a great deal of consideration will have to be given to her views’. Clearly the experience of 22 years as Matron of St. Bart’s was proving useful!

Procrastination over the statue continued until 1963 by which time there had been two schemes prepared and rejected by the Advisory Committee. On the 28th January 1963 the PCC minutes confirm that a model by Uli Nimptsch had been seen by the Archdeacon and approved by the Arts Council. At a faculty petition on 7th July 1963 Prof. Monnington of the Royal Academy confirmed that he had consulted colleagues in the Royal Academy and they recommended the commission go to Mr Uli Nimptsch whose design was for a 7.5 foot high statue in bronze.

Prior to this, Uli Nimptsch’s latest commission had been the statue of Lloyd George at the entrance lobby to the House of Commons completed in 1963, a commission recommended to the House by Sir Winston Churchill at his very last speech as Prime Minister in 1955. The commission was originally given to Sir Jacob Epstein but awarded to Nimptsch on Epstein’s death which indicates the eminence of Nimptsch at this time.

A faculty for Uli Nimptsch’s design for the Christ Ascendant statue at St. Wilfrid’s was finally granted on 2nd August 1963 at a cost of £4,000 and the dedication service by the Bishop of Chichester took place on Ascension Day, 7th May, 1964.  It was reported in the Bognor Post at the time - “it has taken seven and a half years to get this done”, said the donor. “Believe me, during those years, that blank wall nearly got between me and my God”.

Picture taken at a wedding in 1969

The First Relocation to the South Transept in 1977

The mother church of St. John's in London Road was closed in 1971 and demolished the following year and this resulted in the transfer of  certain fixtures and fittings including the reredos (screen behind the altar) to St. Wilfrid's Church. A problem loomed because the reredos had been enlarged some years before with  a removable canopy and this could not be fitted because of the location of the statue above it. At a meeting of the PCC on 24th November 1971 it was agreed 'that the reredos should be brought over and put on the wall as now is, and that subsequently, if necessary, the figure could be raised or removed'. However, discussion continued and at a PCC meeting held on 3rd July 1972, reference was made to a discussion about completion of the reredos following a recent questionnaire ‘but it was agreed that this should await the completion of the church’. It is interesting that as late as 1972 there was still hopes of finishing the church which to this day remains unfinished – missing 3 of the 5 bays, the bell tower and baptistery of the original design. The controversy over relocation of the statue continued until on the 1st November 1976 the PCC agreed to relocate the statue and a faculty was granted on the 7th March 1977 'for permission to remove the figure of Christ Ascendant from the East Wall, to enable the reredos transferred from St. John's church in 1971 to be completed by the addition of the canopy'.

The Second Relocation to the West Wall in 2008

In 2008 following lengthy discussions with the Archdeacon of Chichester and the Diocesan Advisory Committee, it was finally agreed to relocate the statue on the West wall high above the entrance. The work was completed in September 2008.

It is rare to have the Ascension of Jesus, a cornerstone of our faith, depicted in this way and at last, 44 years after its original installation above the altar on the East wall and 31 years after being relocated to a less conspicuous location in the South Transept, that the statue is now relocated once again to a prime position in our Church. We hope too that Miss Dey, who died in 1968 (the requiem mass was at St. Wilfrid’s church on 12th June 1968) would approve.

Peter Green and John Hawkins, 18th September, 2008  

 

Further details

Miss Helen Dey

Uli Nimptsch     

Dedication Service 7th May 1964

Centenary Presentation on the Statue 25th May 2010

 

 

 

The work is finished September 2008

 

Work started on 4th August 2008


Statue about to be placed in new position 14th August 2008

 

 

 

 

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