St Clement's Church

The mediaeval parish of St. Clement, covering the area bounded by the city wall to the north, the river Ouse to the east, Knavesmire to the west and extending to that of Bishopthorpe to the south has experienced prosperity and depression in the religious life of its inhabitants through some 900 years and it may be of interest to parishioners to reflect on its past as we look to its future.

That the district adjacent to the city wall was known as Clementhorpe in 1070 indicates that it was probably so named after the dedication of its church. It is an historical fact that sixty years later a church existed as an integral part of the Benedictine Nunnery of St. Clement founded by Archbishop Thurstan in 1130 serving both as the Priory Church and as the Parish Church for the residents living outside its boundary. This, the first monastic institution to be established in the North of England after the Norman Conquest served successive generations of York citizens for over four hundred years and also became the first to succumb to the onslaught of the Suppression Act of 1536, surrendering on the 31st of August of that year. During the Nunnery’s long service to the community, Clementhorpe developed from a hamlet outside the City to become a “considerable village”. The Priory Church, reverting to an entirely parochial role, was spared destruction, and served the community for the next fifty years. However, it was later allowed to fall into ruin due to the depleted population when the parish was united in 1585 with that of St. Mary, Bishophill Senior within the Walls. Not until 1745 was the stone from all the buildings removed and used for repairing the Walls of the City. The parish remained derelict until its re-birth during the “Industrial Revolution”.

Between 1823 and 1830, Dove Street, Swann Street and Dale Street had been built and the lower portion of Nunnery Lane was being built up with dwelling houses, as also was St. Clement’s Place. The residents of this new district agitated for an opening to be made through the City Wall to facilitate access to Bishophill and their parish church of St. Mary which resulted first in a subway being made through the mound under the Wall in 1838, to be replaced by the present Victoria Bar, opened in 1840.

Apart from the mansions of Nunthorpe and Middlethorpe the parish was truly local, with windmills on the highest ridge running through its centre – the Nunmill at one end and the Mount Mill at the other.

The introduction of railway transport in 1839 to be followed a year later by four daily through trains running to London, and a further extensive network developing during the next ten years, created a demand for houses in the area. This was increased when Terry’s confectionery factory concentrating on chocolate was completed in 1864, the carriage and wagon works built in 1867 and further between 1870 and 1880 when the York Confectionery Co. established a considerable business from premises in Fenwick Street, specialising in candied peel and the mint rock supplied to many seaside resorts. By this time, high density housing had been completed in the two areas of Clementhorpe and that bounded by Nunnery Lane, the lower end of Bishopthorpe Road and Nunthorpe Road.

Within months of his appointment in 1871 as the last Rector of the united parishes, the Revd. George Marsham Argles (later Canon of York) saw the urgent need for a separate church to serve the already densely populated areas and the anticipated further developments southwards. The population of St. Mary, Bishophill Senior, in the Clementhorpe – Bishopthorpe Road area had grown from 1,227 in 1851 to 4017 in the early 1870’s. This was now the parish with the fastest population growth in York. His enthusiasm and the loyal support of the parishioners resulted in the foundation stone being laid on 16th October 1872. St. Clement’s Church, as we know it today, was born.

St. Clement, who is commemorated on November 23rd. was probably the third Bishop of Rome (AD91). Some have thought him to be the “fellow labourer” to whom St. Paul alludes in Philippians 4.3, but this is unlikely. The very first document belonging to Christian history, outside the pages of sacred scripture, was written by St. Clement. This was a letter written to the Corinthians and was so greatly valued by Christians that it was read in Church like other lessons from Scripture. For centuries the Church possessed only a mutilated copy of this epistle, but in the year 875, to the great joy of every one, a perfect copy was found at Constantinople. St. Clement’s house in Rome seems to have been used by Christians for their reunions and it is likely that the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul hallowed it by their presence. In one part of the house a memorial was erected to the Bishop. Another part of the house was defiled about the second century by being used as a pagan temple for the worship of the god Mithras. Over this house and the adjoining building, about the fourth century, a Church was erected which was eventually destroyed and became the foundation of the present Church, one of the most famous in Rome because of its historic interest.

Among many traditions of St. Clement there is a fascinating one which a fresco, recently discovered in the fourth century Church illustrates. St. Clement was exiled to the Crimea and was condemned to work in the marble quarries there. He was subsequently martyred in AD98 by being thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor tied round his neck. His friends were grieved that they could not recover his body, so they begged God to tell them how it could be found. Their prayers were answered, for the sea retired and when they followed the receding waters they found his body enshrined in a beautiful temple built by angelic hands.

For two centuries after, on the anniversary of his death, this was repeated and pilgrims visited the shrine. Once a lady left her child behind and discovered her mistake too late. The sorrowing mother gave up her child for lost, but on the following anniversary to her joy, she found her child alive on the steps of the temple. The fresco depicts the mother finding her child.

The anchor is now St. Clement’s symbol. He is sometimes represented with a fountain near him, which is said to have sprung up when he and his fellow workers were dying of thirst in a desert place among the quarries where he was condemned to work. Felt makers and hatters have St. Clement as their patron saint because, so tradition says, St. Clement, forced to flee from his native city was worn out by constant tramping, his feet were badly cut and blistered and he sought a remedy by collecting bits of wool clinging to the bushes, and placing them in his sandals. After a day’s journey he found that pressure and warmth had united the wool into a firm substance. When he reached Rome he perfected the process and manufactured felt.

The dedication of our Church to St. Clement is a happy one, for it unites us in thought to the days of the Apostles and the Church throughout the world. It also unites us to the congregations of olden days in this district who worshipped in their Church of St. Clement. We, the worshippers in the present Church, have the same ideals and fight the battle of life under the same symbol, the Anchor of Hope, the symbol of all who trust in the Lord above.