The People’s Priest

St Matthew’s Church, Carver Street, Sheffield

It’s difficult to visualise the hatred and vituperation that poisoned the nineteenth-century Church of England as clergy and their congregations attacked each other’s beliefs about worship.

High-Church Anglo-Catholics, who sought to move closer to Roman Catholicism, fought holy wars with strongly Protestant Low-Church Evangelicals over matters of ritual.

In Sheffield, the focus of Anglo-Catholicism was St Matthew’s Church, Carver Street, from the arrival of the third vicar, Rev George Campbell Ommanney (1850-1936), in 1882 until his death, both for his pastoral strengths as the “People’s Priest”, resident among parishioners in a congested slum area, and for promoting Anglo-Catholic worship in the town. 

Fr Ommanney came into immediate conflict with his predecessor’s churchwarden, Walter Wynn, and their disputes led to brawls in the vestry, court-cases and representations to the Archbishop, William Thompson, until eventually a commission of Sheffield clergy backed Ommanney’s right to minister as he thought fit.

St Matthew’s did not receive episcopal visits until the 1930s because of alleged illegal practices such as the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.  Yet, the second Bishop of Sheffield, Leslie Stannard Hunter, appointed in 1939, described Fr Ommanney as “that great man of God”.

As well as upsetting the sensibilities of the predominant Evangelical Anglicans in Sheffield, and caring devotedly for the inhabitants of the surrounding streets, Father Ommanney found the means and the artists to embellish his church.

The chancel was extended by the Arts & Crafts architect and designer John Dando Sedding (1838-1891) in 1886:  the reredos, to Sedding’s design, was carved by the Sheffield sculptor Frank Tory (1848-1939), with a painting of the Adoration by Nathaniel Westlake (1833-1921). 

J D Sedding also designed the altar, crucifix, candlesticks and the processional cross which was made in 1889 by Henry Longden & Co and bears a figure of Christ by Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) and figures of the Virgin Mary and St John by Richard Arthur Ledward (1857-1890). 

The choir stalls were designed by Sedding’s partner Henry Wilson (1864-1934).  The font and the pulpit (both 1903) were designed by H I Potter and carved by Frank Tory with Art Nouveau copperwork by Henry Longden.

The east window was apparently designed by Fr Ommanney.  Westlake’s partnership, Lavers, Barraud & Westlake, designed the west window, installed in 1902.

St Matthew’s escaped the Blitz but was damaged by fire shortly after the completion of a restoration programme, in August 1956.  The diocesan architect, George Gaze Pace (1915-1975), undertook a further restoration and over a period of ten years the congregation raised a total sum of £15,000 to put the building in order. 

The revival of the parish was threatened by a 1970s road-widening scheme.  The City Council promised a replacement building on a fresh site, but the plan was shelved and the 1854 church remains, having been listed Grade II in 1973. 

The area was redeveloped as the Devonshire Quarter, a lively mixture of retail, pubs and restaurants and apartments. 

Although the parish entirely lost its residential community in the post-war period it has retained a congregation attracted by the continuing Anglo-Catholic character of its worship: http://www.stmatthewscarverstreet.co.uk.

St Matthew’s installed an outstanding organ by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn in 1992 and the building underwent a further major restoration, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in 2000. 

The adjacent Grade-II listed clergy house attracted a European Community grant in 2012 and has been redesigned as The Art House, opened in 2016, to provide work- and exhibition-space for local artists and community groups.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *