‘This chapel is the heart of this lovely new place’: the St Dunstan’s Chapel

21 November 2013 12:45

The Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend George Bell, described St Dunstan’s Chapel at our Brighton Centre as ‘the heart of this lovely new place’ at its dedication in 1938.

Our Brighton Centre was described as 'the heart of this lovely new place' by the Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend George Bell, at its dedication on 25th October 1938, soon after the centre itself had opened. However although the centre and its chapel were indeed new, Blind Veterans UK of course was not, and the religious needs of members had been taken account of ever since our early days when we were based in Regent's Park.

The first chapels of our own, one Church of England and one Roman Catholic, were consecrated in 1917. The Anglican Chapel was also used by members of other denominations. Much of the woodwork in the chapels was made by the men, in the carpentry workshop. It was also in 1917 that we acquired our West House centre in Kemp Town, Brighton. In 1924 a chapel was opened there, with the altar and furniture being transferred from Regent's Park.

Our first honorary Chaplain, at Regent's Park, was the Reverend Ernest Sharpe, who was Rector of nearby Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone. He conducted services for us on Sundays, and also selected a collection of well-known hymns which was collected together and printed in Braille as the 'St Dunstan's Hymn Book'.  Holy Trinity Church has itself played a very significant part in our history; many of our members have married there and the funeral of our founder Sir Arthur Pearson was held there.

Our honorary chaplains have generally been drawn from nearby parishes; the vicar, with the aid of his curate, would conduct services and care for the spiritual needs of the members. Roman Catholic priests who were based close to the centre would also attend as and when required. However, we have also had a number of members who were themselves ordained, and several of those also became honorary chaplains. They would preach once a year in the chapel, in addition to undertaking occasional additional duties elsewhere.

One such member who regularly took services at the St Dunstan's Chapel was the Reverend Harold Gibb. He had served in the Boer War, and then following his ordination in 1910 served in France in the First World War as an Army Chaplain, acting against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury in enlisting. He was severely wounded and blinded, and came to us in September 1917. He took some services at the chapel at Regent's Park. In 1921 he became Vicar of Sherbourne, Warwick, a position he held for 15 years. It is also through Gibb that we have in the chapel a piece of sixteenth century glass from the original Cloth Hall at Ypres, which was ruined by artillery fire in the First World War. The glass was recovered by Captain Percy Palmer of the Welsh Guards, and was later presented by his widow to Gibb; with her agreement, he gave it to us.

The chapel at Ovingdean, like the rest of the building, was designed by architect Francis Lorne. Originally from Scotland, Lorne spent much of his early career in the United States. He moved to Canada during the First World War, and served with the Canadian Engineers.  After returning to the UK he became a partner in the Burnet, Tait and Lorne practice in the early 1930s. An outgoing personality, he was apparently renowned for receiving clients wearing a silk shirt without a jacket, which was unheard of at the time! Lorne was present when the chapel was dedicated.

The sculpture above the chapel is by Julian Phelps Allan. Originally Eva Dorothy Allan, she changed her name in 1929. Allan had served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during the First World War, and went on to do so in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. In 1938 she wrote "I am now working on what will be a 20ft figure for the new St Dunstan's Convalescent Home which is being built outside Brighton. This is a "Winged Victory" holding the insignia of St Dunstan's. It is rather an adventure, especially as no one knows whether the floor of my studio will hold it!". Allan herself lost her sight later in life.

The St Dunstan's Chapel has been used primarily for wedding services, blessings and funerals but other events have also been held there.  On 9th December 1961, the 40th anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur Pearson, the memorial service in the chapel was broadcast on national BBC Home Service radio.

The first wedding to take place in the chapel was on 10th February 1951, between John Simpson and Esther Ellison. John, who died in 1982, was one of Blind Veterans UK's most active members, especially in sporting events. His achievements included competing in the International Games for the Blind in Austria in 1973. John also provides a connection to us today through his daughter Paula, who has recently been supporting Blind Veterans UK by undertaking 50 challenges for her 50th birthday to raise funds for our work.

Why not join us for our Brighton Family Carol Service on 14th December 2013? A great opportunity to enjoy the wonderful chapel at our Brighton centre. Please apply for your free tickets by emailing rachel.chitty@blindveterans.org.uk or call the fundraising office on 01273 391455.