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Ancient English Church Going to Orange County : Rescuing a Bit of the 13th Century

January 11, 1986|STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writer

A small Anglican congregation in Corona del Mar has received preliminary approval from the Church of England to dismantle a 13th-Century village church in the English countryside and transplant it to Orange County.

The small church, hardly bigger than a typical Orange County ranch house, will become the oldest church in the Western Hemisphere, said the Rev. Samuel Scheibler, assistant pastor of the 64-member St. Matthew's by-the-Sea in Corona del Mar.

"That was one of our criteria," Scheibler said. "We wanted one built before 1500 to beat Puerto Rico. The Chapel of the Holy Virgin there was built by Christopher Columbus' chaplain."

The church, St. Bartholomew's, is in the village of Covenham about 130 miles north of London near England's eastern coast. William the Conqueror established the parish in 1086, and the church was built in 1257, Scheibler said.

Barbara Harrison, a member of the Covenham Parish church council, said the villagers, by and large, are happy to see the church exported to California.

"We couldn't raise the money (to restore the church). We were going to have to demolish it," she said.

"There are strong feelings, particularly among some of the older people, that the church is part of the village," she said, "but most of the people are very happy because they were upset that the church was going to be demolished. They would rather (it be exported) than it be a heap of rubble."

Its Gothic cruciform (cross-shaped) architecture has remained unchanged except for repair of its limestone block walls in the 16th Century (common brick was used) and the addition of a large stained-glass window in 1852.

The Church of England declared St. Bartholomew's "redundant" in 1978 after residents of the farming village, population 253, had to decide which of its two churches to use. Covenham was made up of two even smaller villages at one time and could not afford to operate both churches, Harrison said.

Scheibler said he is confident that his small congregation can raise the money for the expensive project. He said his church is "fairly representative" of Corona del Mar, a well-to-do section of Newport Beach. "Some are affluent, some middle class," Scheibler said.

He said the estimated $35,000 necessary to dismantle and pack up the church, plus the cost of shipping the crates to Southern California, will be paid for with money already donated by his congregation.

Foundations also have been contacted about helping to pay for restoring the church, he said, although negotiations are preliminary.

Scheibler said he expects the actual dismantling to begin in the summer of 1987, using volunteer archeology students from the United States and Britain. He said he did not know when restoration will be completed.

He said the project "makes no sense divorced from the theological reasons for doing it."

"Because we are traditionalists, we believe that it's important to communicate honestly and emphatically our roots in historic British Christianity," he said. "Therefore, this project is for us a sermon--literally a sermon in stone.

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