Raising The Roof At English Martyrs Church In Worthing
by Robert Veitch
Where in the world could you find a replica of the Sistine Chapel in an aircraft hangar? In Worthing of course, so we sent wide-eyed Robert Veitch along to be astounded by English Martyrs Church.
The exterior of English Martyrs Church resembles a pebble-dashed village hall but inside it takes your breath away. Anne Niven, the Parish Secretary confirmed my disbelief, “it’s very ordinary from the outside, but extraordinary on the inside.” As we sat in a pew I struggled to avert my eyes from the ceiling with its wondrous bewildering beauty, like looking at the stars on a clear crisp night.
Anne’s been with the church for forty years, her memory lucidly stretching back to the days when it was known as ‘the aircraft hangar.’ As we chatted a bearded apparition exited one door, walked a few steps, then departed through another. The apparition did not look up. I thought nothing more of it… for a while.
Anne told me the site was purchased in 1937 with the flint walled ‘Jupps Barn’ which dates from 1771 that became the original church. In 1952, the church was gifted the neighbouring house, making it possible for a Priest to live in residence. The first incumbent was the Canon Desmond McCarthy (1952–1978), the first resident Priest in Goring since the Reformation.
As the congregation outgrew Jupps Barn, demand for a larger church increased. Father McCarthy designed the new church with the same proportions as the Sistine Chapel. But even he could not prophesise what a thirteen year-old member of his congregation would one-day dream up. Work began on the new church late in 1968 and it was complete by 1970. The new church ceiling was painted basilica blue, creating ‘the aircraft hangar’ nickname; and everyone was happy.
The thirteen year old was Gary Bevans and his art teacher at school identified a natural talent for painting, suggesting Gary move to Art College. His parents were less keen and Anne recalls, “Gary was told to get a proper job,” which he did. Gary became a signwriter.
Gary painted in his spare time, his artistic journey inside the church beginning when Father Eric Flood (1978-1983) allowed him to paint copies of two Holbein portraits; Saints Thomas More and John Fisher remain on permanent display. In 1987 Gary painted what Anne refers to as, “the Goring-by-Sea Last Supper.”
After this Gary made a pilgrimage to Rome. Wandering around the Vatican, all pathways and passages eventually lead to the Sistine Chapel. Enthralled, Gary had an idea. He hoped it would go away, something he could forget, an idea that would evaporate and dissipate. But it didn’t go away; it became his artistic magnum opus.
Gary informed Father Enda his vision was to reproduce the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of English Martyrs Church, replacing the basilica blue of ‘the aircraft hangar.’ It would become the only hand painted replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece anywhere on the planet. Father Enda sent Gary to Bishop Cormac who agreed to it, with the single proviso, “if you start… you must finish.”
It became necessary to line the entire arc of the roof with marine plywood, which Gary attached with 10,000 screws. Two coats of white paint completed the base. In Rome the original had been photographed for a book, on sale at £600 per copy. Anne recalled what hurt Gary the most was purchasing the book and then taking it apart. But it had to be done, to create a flat-plan for the ceiling.
Painting began in 1988. Michelangelo created a fresco by painting on wet plaster, but Gary used acrylic paint because it would last so much longer.
Gary’s day job as a signwriter meant he worked solo in the church in the evenings and at weekends. Michelangelo had a dozen assistants and completed his task in about four years. The replica was finished in five and a half years. By the end of 1993, the aircraft hangar was an artistic tour de force.
Of the 500 figures on the ceiling, Italians believe the image of Jeremiah to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo. There is no self-portrait of Gary Bevans. Once complete, there was a Mass of Dedication and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontiface medal was awarded to Gary by Pope John Paul II.
Rational thinking would think the project was complete. But Anne recalled Gary looking at the 1970’s building with a medieval ceiling and commenting, “they’re arguing.” So he began to marble the walls and columns in an effort to coalesce these disparate eras.
Around the same time, the ‘Peter the Fishermen Window’ was installed with stained glass from a Littlehampton convent. The orange and yellow sail curves complement the spandrels of the ceiling while fish contain the initials of church members of the time.
Soon, the various facets of the church were ‘agreeing more than arguing.’ Father Enda returned from the ‘Sisters of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God’ convent in Portslade with a 300 year old marble altar and tabernacle to replace the concrete altar from 1970.
Change continued with the installation of stained glass to the clerestory windows above the altar. At the turn of the century the eastern window was upgraded and Father Enda suggested English Tudor martyrs be etched into translucent glass. Five reside on either side of Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs.
Gary has since built the lectern and painted ‘Christ the Teacher’ and the ‘Baptism of Christ,’ which hangs by the font, close to the Holbein reproductions that started things off.
Gary, with no formal artistic education, has created something most churches would cherish and most art galleries would covet. These days he’s an ordained deacon, still involved with English Martyrs Church. He doesn’t do interviews, a quiet, modest man it would seem. When the actor Brian Cox came to visit, he called the ceiling, “one man’s prayer,” and he’s correct. Gary need not say a thing as his work says it all for him.
Is it finally finished? I enquired. Anne smiled, “I think so… yes, I think it’s finished.” Has Gary painted elsewhere? A bit here and there she told me, mostly murals in the chapels of HM Prisons.
In Rome photos are banned and visitors must keep shuffling along. A fleeting tourist experience, it’s an, ‘I’ve been there tick in the box’. But here, it’s immersive, “take as long as you like,” said Anne, “take as many pictures as you want. Lie on a pew if you want and soak it up.”
Once upon a long ago this building was known as ‘the aircraft hangar,’ now it’s a work of art, but first and foremost it’s always been a church.
…And that apparition from earlier on? That was Gary Bevans.
Opening Hours: From Easter until the end of October Monday from 10am – 1pm / Tuesday – Friday from 10am – 4pm.
- The church can be opened outside of these hours for groups by prior appointment
Telephone: 01903 242624 /01903 506890