St Mary's church in Brecon has seen significant growth in the past year, after facing a twenty-year decline. The growth comes after Father Mark Clavier's arrival at the church in June 2022.
Last year, the church had a weekly congregation of just over a dozen but has since 'quadrupled' in size. Father Mark Clavier, Canon Theologian, Bishop's Chaplain & Vicar of St Mary's, Brecon, was invited to the church by Bishop John, who at the point of invite had been Bishop of Swansea and Brecon for a year. Originally from America, Father Mark has a reputation for breathing life into declining churches. "There were conversations about the future of this place and how viable it was. An average Sunday attendance was sixteen or seventeen people. When I came I thought it was going to take me a year or two to begin to turn the place around. Maybe God was involved, but it all took off much faster than I had ever anticipated. We've more than quadrupled in Sunday attendance in the past year, and that is within a rural context. There are churches growing in cities like that, but it's unusual for mid-Wales."
The growth, which has increased to 60 people on a Sunday, has seen people from all walks of life attend, including people who aren't local to Brecon. Father Mark hopes that the people who come and soak up the atmosphere will remember it. "There's energy, optimism and hope, and it's infectious. I hope they take that energy back to the churches that they go to in their villages."
Seeing the potential of St Marys, a church that has benedictine links, has led Father Mark to launch The Beacon Project. "What can we do to ensure the transformation of this place as a church, a community centre, and as a worship space in a way that is sustainable long term? The Beacon Project has helped us match a strategy for our ministry going forward. It will hopefully make this place a really lively and inspiring community, rooted in love, faith, and hope. You can't beat this space for the location in the town. There's so much potential for what can be done here."
The Beacon Project will also take advantage of St Mary’s heritage and location in the centre of Brecon to offer residents, tourists, and pilgrims a vibrant centre for community support, well-being, culture, and the arts.
The hope is that events, such as concerts, can be a regular occurrence in the church, as well as architectural work to preserve the historic building. "It will help us marry worship space, cafe space, and community space altogether in a way that makes it that when people enter through the door, they walk into a place that reveals to them a whole other way of being."
The cafe has created local jobs and has even supported refugees from Ukraine. Liz Parry, churchwarden and pioneer for the cafe has welcomed the growth. "We feel we have an important piece of work to do. We were reminiscing about a lady we had back in 2003 who said 'there is no way we can let this place go down. It's been 900 years. If it goes down on our watch, we're responsible', and twenty-odd years later we're still saying the same. We can't let this place go. It's an incredible part of our history and heritage."
She hopes that the church isn't only seen as a place of worship, but a place where anyone can feel welcome. "We want to provide a space for people where they feel safe and secure. There is so much going on in our world that can be extremely daunting, and we would like to think, hope, and pray that we've got something here. We never know who is going to come in through the door. People come in with all their different problems, and we like to think we're that place where people can come to for comfort."
One person who has felt welcome in the church is Brecon-born Karen Hesketh, who first joined St Mary's choir in the 70s, before moving to England. Upon her return to Brecon, St Marys was the first place she returned to. "I've been coming here nearly two years since moving from South Yorkshire. Within a few weeks of moving back, I came back. I started at the Tuesday morning service, and then Sunday service."
Her affinity with the church kept bringing her back. "It felt a natural thing to come back to the church. What brought me back initially was the history I had here, but what kept me coming back was the friendliness and warmth of the congregation. I felt a strong sense of belonging quite quickly."
"It felt like I was part of an influx of people," Karen says on the growth of the church. "I felt like there was positivity. I was so pleased to come back."
The hope is that as the church continues to thrive, it can offer support to people from all walks of life for the next 900 years.