The History of St. Ouen's Parish Church
St. Ouen’s church is beautifully situated on the crest of a hill overlooking the Atlantic. Down the slope from the church, towards the golden sands, is one of the finest dune areas in Europe, Les Mielles, and the largest freshwater lake in the Channel Islands, La Mare au Seigneur. This is an area where magical wildlife, stunning views and glorious sunsets are abundant. The church, with its rugged granite buttresses weathered by Atlantic storms, can be clearly seen from most parts of this picturesque setting of St. Ouen’s Bay.
The exact age of the church is unknown. It was, however, mentioned in the charter signed by William the Conqueror prior to his landing in England, so it is certain that the church pre-dates 1066. (In all seriousness, some Channel Islanders will tell you that Britain belongs to them. William the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy, including the Channel Islands, when he defeated the English in Hastings in 1066).
The first of St. Ouen’s Christians, during the sixth century, would have met in private houses for worship, teaching and fellowship. This is exciting when one considers that we still run house-groups for identical purposes. Perhaps some of the surnames of present house-group attendants will be the same as those found in house-groups of nearly fifteen hundred years ago, only five hundred years after the time of Christ.
The first church would have been a thatched chantry chapel on the site of the present chancel, with a large window in the eastern gable, beneath which would have stood the table on an earthen floor. The doorway would have been at the western end. Perhaps the chantry chapel was built by late-seventh century monks from Normandy. The roof of this early chapel was probably of wood for which, in due course, was substituted a barrel vault of stone. This required extra support which can be seen in the chancel in the form of buttresses (not usually found in churches). The church, as it stands today, is striking for the way in which it has been “got together” rather than for any really dominant feature. It is likely that the original building was replaced or enlarged by an early member of the de Carteret family who probably obtained the feudal lordship of St. Ouen after Jersey became part of the Duchy of Normandy in 933.
In the early thirteenth century the nave was added and, at the same time, a north chancel aisle to serve as a Lady Chapel. This is what is now known as the Chapel of the Epiphany. In the same century a second chancel aisle and a tower with low spire and transepts supplied fresh additions. Pointed arches between chancel and aisle and chiselled pillar work now appear for the first time, marking the change in style from Romanesque to Early English.
The fifteenth century saw a third enlargement, in the form of north and south nave aisles, which replaced the transepts. Thus disappeared the cruciform plan of the church at its second enlargement, when transepts were first introduced.
Turning to consecration of the church, no altar could be consecrated unless it contained a relic; so the founder secured, probably at a high price from some church in neighbouring Normandy, a tiny splinter of a bone of St. Ouen, the famous seventh century Archbishop of Rouen, and henceforth the chapel was known as St. Ouen’s. Although the church is believed to have been consecrated on the 4th of September 1130 no reliance may be placed on the consecration dates of any of Jersey’s parish churches, said to be derived from Le Livre Noir de Coutances. The document itself is a register of the churches in the diocese of Coutances (in which the Channel Islands were included until 1569) drawn up by order of the bishop in 1251, but the consecration dates were a later addition and are completely fictitious.
In 1156, Robert de Torigny, Abbot of Mont St. Michel, visited his kinsman Philippe de Carteret at St. Ouen’s Manor and Philippe confirmed the grant of the church to the Abbey which his father Regnauld de Carteret had made. As a result of belonging to the wealth Abbey, St. Ouen’s church was gradually enlarged and beautified as mentioned above.
Until the Reformation there were no pews. In church you either stood or knelt on the floor. Hour-long sermons became a central feature of the service and pews had to be provided. Around the pulpit there were four horse-box pews – big enough to let the Seigneurs snooze unobserved by the common herd. Two belonged to St Ouen’s Manor and one each to the Manors of Vinchelez de Haut and Vinchelez de Bas. Pews have always been a source of contention in St. Ouen’s as can be seen in the Court records. Pews were used by those who were not permitted, or even stolen or demolished!
The unusual stone staircase leading from the nave to the belfry is unique among Channel Islands churches. Victorian in construction, it is said to have replaced a fourteenth century staircase to the tower and loft. A similar staircase may be seen in the Parish Church of Totnes, Devon.
A heavy peal of bells was installed in the thirteenth century. A single bell now remains which was recast in 1971 after its predecessor, cast in Normandy in 1884, was found to be cracked; the previous bell was cast in Bristol in 1812, replacing one cast in Jersey in 1754 by a man named La Source.
It was customary in times gone by to ring the church bells during the whole of the afternoon and evening up to ten o’clock on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This custom s no longer continued except in the western parishes of St. Ouen, St. Peter and St. Mary. The custom is known as La Sonnie d’Clioches (the ringing of the bells). One April 5th 1812 it was discovered that the then solitary bell had been so badly cracked during the previous Christmas ringing that it was useless. The bells fell silent again more recently, during the Christmas of 2008, when the clapper broke off during La Sonnie d’Clioches.
The lectern was carved by Jerseyman, Jacques Alexandre. The pulpit is of Caen (Normandy) stone and features panels enclosed by marble pillars and arches, each containing a statue. These statues represent eight writers of the New Testament with their symbolic figures. They are St. Matthew (a man), St. Mark (a lion), St. Luke (an ox), St. John (an eagle), St. Peter (keys), St. Paul (a sword), St. James (a script) and St. Jude (a staff).
When we reached the nineteenth century, the font, thrown out in the Reformation, had not yet been replaced, for in 1806 Madame Hilgrove presented to the church a silver bowl to be used at baptisms. This bowl is still used, although there is of course a font proper.
A great restoration was carried out by Canon Clement in the years between 1865 and 1870. There had been a smokers’ gallery (galerie des fumeurs) near the south door and this was swept away. Some Jersey Militia cannons were ejected from the south aisle where they had been stored for centuries. Further artillery was housed in the west porch and here the jambs had been roughly hacked away to give the guns access.
The pews, after long negotiations with the owners, were cast out and a uniform system of seating was installed. The chancel was vaulted and lengthened by eight feet. A new organ was installed. The new pulpit and lectern mentioned above were provided. A new font was positioned at the west end of the church. The windows were filled with much-admired stained glass. Unfortunately the quality of the colour was inferior and faded. Only in recent years have the windows been returned to their former glory and they are, once again, very much admired by visitors to the church.
Information and illustrations from the booklet 'A History of St Ouen's Church' prepared and illustrated by John Wileman