PFC St Eligius History (1989-2015)

St Eligius has an interesting history starting life as a stable for horses arriving at the original REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) garrison. REME is a widely-spread Corps, and its members therefore tend to be in a minority when they contribute to worship in their local garrison or civilian churches. In the predominantly REME Garrisons in Bordon and Arborfield, however, the Corps has taken the lead in running and supporting active churches. St Eligius Church in Arborfield was to have a special significance as through the efforts of some very dedicated people it was to become the Corps Church (as well as a local centre of music in Arborfield). Its story is outlined below.

St Eligius Church was dedicated on Sunday 3 December 1989 by the Chaplain General, the Reverend James Harkness. It became the first multi-denominational Garrison Church in Arborfield since the Remount Depot opened in 1904. The building was based on former Garrison Theatre, which had originally been a reception stable for horses arriving at the Remount Depot. The idea of doing this arose in the late-1980s, and as the project attracted no official funding a significant fundraising effort was organised. Lieutenant Colonel Larry Le Var REME was appointed Project Officer by the Garrison Commander. This was to prove an inspired decision, as Lieutenant Colonel Le Var and his wife Dr Rita Le Var were to play important roles in the life of the Church for the rest of REME’s time in Arborfield.

Lieutenant Colonel Le Var was successful in raising funds from a variety of sources with the help of a number of people, including Major Dennis Knight REME and major Frank Reynolds REME. This allowed the former theatre to be turned into a very attractive church, which reflected a great deal of thought and work that had gone into its design.

The new St Eligius Church soon became the focus for inter-denominational worship in the Garrison. A new dimension was added with the addition of a Corps Memorial Chapel and four beautiful stained glass windows in the main church: St Eligius, The Garden of Eden, Jesus in the Carpenter’s Shop, and The Creation.

The Church was used by the Ministers of the Church of England and other reformed churches who acted as Garrison Padres with overall responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the soldiers and their families in the Garrison. There were close and constructive relationships with the Roman Catholic Church, and Catholic Masses were held in the Church since its dedication. Chaplaincy to the Roman Catholic members of the Garrison was provided by the Roman Catholic Chaplains based at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Although St Eligius Church started with essentially two congregations (Roman Catholic Masses being held on Sundays at 9.00 am and Anglican/Reformed Services at 10.30 am), many ecumenical (multi-denominational) activities developed over the years, including fellowship and study activities, and services such as Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The Church also began to be used regularly for funerals, baptisms and weddings, including the wedding of two young people whose fathers had both served as DEME(A). The Church was naturally involved with Garrison and Corps events, which had a religious dimension, such as the Remembrance Sunday Service and annual St Eligius Day Service.

The Church was a place where both sacred and secular music came to be played and sung. The Arborfield Garrison Singers (led by Nicholas Ballard in later years), practised weekly in the Church building since its inception. The Church Choir was established in 2012 for the major Christian Festivals in the Church Year by Rita Le Var, (who was also the organist from 2009 – 2015). The Choir contributed to special services, such as Carols by Candlelight and the Royal School of Church Music ‘Music Sunday’ Services.

Monthly lunch-time concerts, organised by Rita Le Var, were held in the Church from October 2011 to September 2015. The concerts covered a wide range from band concerts to piano, organ, violin, viola, cello, harp and song recitals. The REME Band supported the concert on six occasions and gave its last public concert in the Church. Other performers included the opera singer David Durham (baritone), and Carla Rees (alto and bass flute specialist). During holiday periods, school children and students from the Farnborough Sixth Form College gave delightful concerts and recitals.

All the concerts were memorable in their own way and greatly appreciated by the audience. Everyone visiting the Church commented on the beautiful surroundings and the warm reception they received. One performer described the audience as “a large, enthusiastic and appreciative music society”. The Choir of the Royal Memorial Chapel, Sandhurst, with Peter Beaven, Director of Music, and Simon Dinsdale, Sub-Organist, gave the final concert in September 2015 to a full Church.

A bi-annual concerts’ newsletter was produced, which contained details of the disbursement of the charitable donations to the REME Benevolent Fund and the military church communities. In all, the concerts raised £14,568.

The structure for managing the Church evolved over time, with a Church Council being established in 2006, with the Garrison Chaplain as Chairman, and Rita Le Var as Secretary until the closure of the Church. The first Corp Chaplain, the Reverend Stephen Thatcher, was appointed in 2009 with Lieutenant Colonel Larry Le Var (Rtd) having taken on the role of Corps Church Warden from 2003, and Viscount Alanbrooke the role of Garrison Church Warden.

It is not possible to list all that went on at St Eligius Church, but the following description of it seems to offer a fair summary:

‘In the 26 years of its existence, St Eligius Church has been the centre for Christian worship and fellowship in Arborfield Garrison and within the Corps of REME. Within its walls, soldiers and their families received a warm welcome as did other people living nearby with connections to REME. The ministry provided support that took account of the particular pressures and hardships of military life. Over the years, the Church has undertaken the mission for which it was dedicated to the Glory of God, in praise and prayer’.

During the final year of St Eligius Church as a military church, discussions led by Padre Stephen Thatcher, took place with the developers, Crest Nicholson, and a local Anglican parish about the possibility of St Eligius Church continuing as a civilian church once the military garrison closed. They achieved a successful outcome.
(Extract from Craftsmen of the Army Volume III 1993-2015)