Ends and new beginnings
The problems inherent in a small parish with other churches close by were exacerbated in the second half of the nineteenth century by the building of churches in the new suburbs. The vicar's income was only about £150 a year, and when the Reverend Thomas Smith resigned on health grounds in 1909 after 32 years it could not have come as a complete surprise to the congregation that the Archbishop of York decided not to replace him. There were petitions and appeals for St Helen to retain its own identity, but the benefice was united with St Martin Coney Street in 1910 and services ceased.
As in the 1550s the closure of such a prominent York landmark would not be uncontroversial. When Canon Bell was appointed vicar of St Martin with St Helen in 1920 the then archbishop told him that he would like St Helen's reopened for worship. Canon Bell would have welcomed such an instruction. He was of the Anglo-Catholic tendency in the Church; the established pattern of services at St Martin focusing on sung matins on Sunday was not wholly to his taste and the introduction of alternative eucharistic worship at St Helen offered a solution which would avoid conflict with the established congregation. It was very different from the previous St Helen tradition, however, and not without its difficulties. It was agreed to experiment with a series of Sunday evening services in Advent 1920 which were well attended, but it was apparent that to continue would be to risk the lives of the lives of priest and servers. The chancel, added in 1857-8 without proper consent, was in imminent danger of collapse. Major repairs were needed before the church re-opened properly in 1923. It continued to serve in a subsidiary role to St Martin under Canon Bell's strong leadership.
Things changed dramatically on 29 April 1942. That night York was bombed; St Helen suffered some damage to the west front and roof, St Martin was destroyed by fire. St Helen became the parish church and although the St Martin congregation moved for a time to St Michael Spurriergate, by 1946 all services were at St Helen. The arrangement was not ideal; the church was much smaller than St Martin had been, the organ was in a poor state and there was little space for the choir. Old links had been broken, and all the city centre churches continued to suffer from the loss of population from the city centre. But St Helen had become the civic church, and with the arrival of Canon Noel Porter in 1955 after the death of Canon Bell the church took on an even more prominent place in the city and became one of the city centre's most popular and well attended churches. The organ was renewed, more old decorative glass installed in the windows, the south aisle reredos and altar which survived the bombing of St Martin installed at St Helen, and the chancel reordered in 1972.
Things cannot remain the same. Canon Porter had other responsibilities beside St Helen, and there were too many small churches for each to have a priest to themselves. After Canon Porter's time various experiments were tried in city centre organisation, and the role of St Helen as the civic church was removed. In 1995 the benefice gained a new link with St Olave under a single vicar, the Reverend Tony Hodge, St Martin gained a new purpose, and as the congregation at St Helen declined it was decided to cease regular Sunday worship at St Helen at Easter 2003. Weekday services continued until May 2009.
The Twenty-first century
St Helen’s is now part of several churches in the City Centre which are under the aegis of a Priest-in-Charge. All Saints’ Pavement, St Denys, St Helen with St Martin and St Olave’s began to collaborate in ministry under the leadership of the Rev’d Jane Nattrass who arrived in York in 2010. The Rev’d Allan Hughes (retired in 2012) and The Rev’d David Simpson were part of the initial team. In 2013 The Rev’d Canon Derek Earis joined the team of clergy and Readers. In the same year, Holy Trinity Micklegate also began to benefit from working together and a tear later the group was joined by St Lawrence.
Awakening St Helen’s Church from her slumbers
Although the church remained open every day the building was suffering from some structural, drainage and damp issues. A lot of work has been done to revitalise St Helen’s Church and to resolve the building issues. The church building is now cared for and is warm and friendly. We are pleased to welcome many musicians and artists to perform and give concerts and recitals..
We are at an exciting stage of exploring Celtic spirituality. In January 2013 we introduced a year of experimentation to explore God’s purposes for us in St Helen’s Church. A monthly Celtic Eucharist was introduced and there are plans to expand this work so that St Helen’s can become known as a centre for Celtic Worship and Learning. The Celtic Eucharist on the first Saturday of the month was added to by a similar Eucharist on the third Saturday during 2014. This service is celebrated as far as possible in a circle round the altar. It is both liturguical and informal and inclusive and has attracted a loyal regular congregation of 20 - 30. This pattern of worship is successful and continues to this day.
Music has become more important in the worship of the reawakened church. In 2014 our first Organ Scholar was appointed and in 2015 we appointed four Choral Scholars under the direction of John Bradbury. As well as supporting the Celtic Eucharist they have initiated a series of Classical Masses on the last Sunday evening of each month at 6pm. We have been treated to settings by Mozart and Haydn amongst others. This new series enables a liturgy which resonates with St Helen's earlier Anglo-Catholic tradition.
In addition we have occasional Choral Evensongs either from the Scholars or visiting choirs. These tend to be from time to time on a Monday evening when there is often no Choral Evensong at York Minster. We also celebrate our fine organ with a liturgical strand which comes from the Lutheran tradition by holding a monthly Organ Vespers on the second Wednesday of each month at 6.30pm. This short 30 minute service features readings, meditations and organ music, normally on a theme.
By these means St Helen's is developing a distinctive worship pattern and increasing activity and support.