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Feature: Hidden gem’s an important part of our heritage

PUBLISHED: 18:00 02 March 2013

Upminster Old Chapel at Sacred heart of Mary Girls' School is being being restored after being closed for twenty years. The Chapel itself is 200 years old.   Gemma Smith,  heritage officer at the Upminster Old Chapel shows me around the site.

Upminster Old Chapel at Sacred heart of Mary Girls' School is being being restored after being closed for twenty years. The Chapel itself is 200 years old. Gemma Smith, heritage officer at the Upminster Old Chapel shows me around the site.

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You might have walked past it every day without knowing the important role that it played in the history of Upminster.

You might have walked past it every day without knowing the important role that it played in the history of Upminster.

But this is all set to change when the Old Chapel in St Mary’s Lane opens to the public for the first time in 20 years.

Heritage officer Gemma Smith said: “People don’t actually realise how important it was. It has played a big part in the community of Upminster and it has been a place of worship for a lot of the different Christian groups and it tells you a lot about acceptance and tolerance.”

Work on restoring the 200-year-old chapel started two years ago in time for its opening later this month.

The project was given a massive boost thanks to a £840,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Veolia Havering Riverside Trust.

But this time around the chapel is set to have a very different role.

It will be used by Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School for assemblies, liturgies, prayer and as part of the curriculum, but Gemma is also keen for it to be used by the wider community.

Most of the chapel’s original features have been restored including the facade, the pulpit and gallery.

It has also been given a face lift with new easier access, new toilets and a meeting space.

The chapel will be open on set weekends in line with Upminster Windmill and the Tithe Barn in St Mary’s Lane, Upminster.

But the project has not all been plain sailing.

In March, workmen discovered 22 unexploded Second World War shells near the chapel and then three weeks later another three were found on the site.

The chapel was built in 1800 as a place of worship for a church of Protestant Dissenters, formed by a group of parishioners who were in dispute with the rector John Rose Holden Junior over taxes.

The group took it in turns to worship in their homes, until they raised £486 11s 9d – about £30,000 today – to build the chapel.

The congregation used the chapel until 1910, when they relocated to the new church in Station Road. When they left, another Christian group called the Brethren worshipped there until 1989.

Gemma said: “The history of the chapel shows the level of acceptance of different types of worship and it tells you a lot about non-conformists.”

Things took a turn for the worst in 1989, when the chapel became too expensive to run.

Despite attempts by various church groups, including the Havering Christian Fellowship Centre to restore the chapel, it was too big of a challenge.

When Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School purchased the building in 2005, they saw the potential.

Gemma said: “There is a chance that if we didn’t do it then, it would have just been left to just get worse.

“I have been really fascinated with speaking to the people that went to the church and they told me about all the memories.

“It’s been really interesting and it has helped me to understand the role that it played in the community.”

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