It is about a thousand years since people began to worship here. It is not known why they chose this wet soggy fenland site where the expectation of life was governed by the ague and outbreaks of deadly plagues. However, there is evidence that a stone building was erected here in the 11th century. Some of the nave arches have been built on stonework attributed to the Roman and Norman periods.
The population of this settlement could not have been very great. Perhaps that is why the monks of the Abbey at Ely chose to settle and work here some two hundred years later. One of their first tasks would have been to establish a cell within which they could worship God. Again, we do not know whether they found the earlier building intact or just the foundations. Whatever the situation, they soon began to build this church which they dedicated to St Mary the mother of Jesus. The first phase was the nave, a simple, plain rectangular building. It was important that the fen folk living in isolated farmsteads should know where the church was, so a tower was erected to guide them as they trudged along the muddy fenland tracks. The building of the tower must have been an enormous task. There was not, of course, scaffolding as we know it today, but some clues remain, visible from the outside, which help us to understand how the tower was built.
Six hundred years ago the nave was given greater height and more light when the clerestory was added and the delicate little window above the present chancel arch was inserted. A chancel, smaller than the present chancel, was built. The north and south aisles were added. Over the centuries the church was subjected to additions and alterations until the middle of the nineteenth century.
In 1883 it seems that the building was in a parlous state. Richard Devereux Jones, the vicar, who had arrived a year or two earlier, was struggling to keep the building intact. The Churchwardens and Overseers called a special meeting of the Vestry to ask the parishioners to subscribe to an appeal to save the church. The Vestry agreed to act, and an eminent London architect, William Bassett-Smith was instructed, but it took seven years to complete the formalities, raise the money, and complete the restoration. In 1901 money was still needed to pay the remaining bills.
At the completion of the 1901 restoration the structure of the church was very much as we see it today, except that the organ was in the south aisle, and there were four pews in the corner now occupied by the Lady Chapel. The font enjoyed a central position in front of the tower arch. The chancel had been largely rebuilt, and the vestry was to the north of the chancel. New seating was installed and the floors were tiled. The vicar and his congregation were, however, left with a plain building with bare walls and very little colour. The windows were either plain or yellow glass (as can be seen in the clerestory today). Devereux Jones was grateful but was ailing. He struggled on until, being almost completely blind, he handed over to a curate in 1910.
The most recent chapter in the church’s history began when Mowbray Smith arrived in 1914. In less than a year he was away from the parish serving as chaplain to the forces in the Great War. On his return he set about collecting artefacts as he travelled in this country and on the continent. Most of the furnishings on and around the altars, the much-travelled lectern, the works of art, the wooden statues and the medieval stained glass are all memorials to Smith’s avowed intention “to turn this building into the most beautiful and dignified house in the parish”. He was instrumental in replacing the plain glass in the magnificent east window with a stained glass memorial to those who died in the two World Wars. He also arranged for the memorial windows to Richard Devereux Jones in the north aisle, the Grimwade family window in the south aisle and the Kilham family window in the baptistry. Thus the work of the modern artists sit happily with that of the medieval craftsmen.
And so we come to the twenty-first century. Fortunately we are not faced with the serious problems that worried Richard Deveraux Jones. We have to acknowledge that the church is in a reasonably good condition, but there is a sense of urgency about the appeal we are launching this month. We have to act to arrest certain faults that have been highlighted in a recent survey. Since 1901 we have been fortunate in having a succession of caring priests and congregations and the church is much admired by visitors. Apart from some small items that need correcting, the work that is currently planned is on the exterior. The rain and frost of hundreds of winters continue to take their toll on the render and stonework. Apart from the obvious damage to the building, there is the risk of falling masonry or plaster to anyone visiting the churchyard. The main areas of concern, as highlighted in the architect’s report, are the south aisle roof which has to be replaced together with some water-damaged timber, and the masonry in the large west window in the tower which is in a dangerous condition. Whilst the scaffolding is in place, and to reduce costs in the future, the Parochial Church Council (PCC) has decided to undertake other repair work to the fabric and clerestory windows.. I hope you will have the opportunity to visit the church to take a closer look at these areas of concern.
The cost of these repairs is estimated to be not less than £100,000, and we now formally launch an Appeal for funds so that the restoration may be completed as soon as possible. The PCC is pleased to be able to contribute to the Appeal, and is also engaged in planning a programme of high-profile fund-raising events to which you will all be invited. Grant applications are being submitted and we are hopeful for positive responses. As Grant applications often require match funding, we take this opportunity to invite the residents of Wisbech St Mary and Guyhirn, and our friends throughout the area, to share in our work, and help us to raise at least £30,000. A church has watched over this community for nearly 1000 years. For 700 years this building has been a parish church, firstly as an outpost of Wisbech St Peter, and more recently in its own right, always welcoming parishioners in times of pleasure and in times of sadness. Countless generations have been drawn close to God in this place. Babies have been baptised here, couples have been married here, and men and women of all ages have been brought here on their way to their final resting place. The church door has always been open, and it always will be. This is Wisbech St Mary and Guyhirn’s church, one of the most attractive in the Diocese of Ely, and we now ask everyone at this time to support us in seeing that this beautiful building is preserved for generations to come.