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,
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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