The Sunday service is a modern Sung Mass, with a certain Anglo-Catholic solemnity softened by country ways.
The glory of St Mary’s is its holy well, the only such one in the diocese, and the original Saxon ‘church’ for the village. The Normans began a stone church higher up the slope, to which a fine, solid tower was added in 1510. The interior may have too many pews, but it has a fine, light screen and 18th century altar; a Portuguese statue of Mary and Child; and a fine set of six bells, with an active team of ringers.
Thornton is the biggest village in the benefice, with over 400 people; the congregation also has more people from the surrounding area, who come for the liturgy and the teaching. The bell-ringers practice on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons, and welcome visiting groups from all over the country; they ring in the body of the church, not hidden away up the tower, which is another reason for its popularity.
ST MARY’S CHURCH
It is likely, in view of the age of the village, that there was a Saxon church here, well before the Norman invasion, but no physical evidence remains. The first recorded resident priest was William de Byrley in 1280; the building, therefore, dates back at least to the reign of Henry III, but most probably a good deal further.
It was rebuilt some 200 years later during the reign of Henry VI; this is confirmed by a much eroded inscription over the east window, ‘When this church and the quire were builded Thomas Lord Ros was patron. Upon his soul God have mercy and benignity. Amen.’
As the inscription on its south face indicates, the well-proportioned tower was built in 1510 by a James Carr, with parishioners contributing their labour. It still holds two of the original bells, one inscribed in Latin ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’, the other ‘St Anthony’s bell’. Further work was carried out on the bells in 1617 and again in 1743 during Mr Richardson’s time, and finally two more bells were added to the existing four in 1998.
In the late nineteenth century, the parish was much larger than it is now, including the whole of Earby and Kelbrook. During this time the interior was re-ordered, the floor being raised at the west end (check the pillars, to see how their base has been submerged by the rising stone) and as many extras pews as possible were added, to supplement the original ones from the seventeenth century; some of these have since been removed, which makes it possible to move around the church.
It was at this time that it was realized how much cheaper it would be to have a single roof over the whole church. This practical if philistine solution is found in several other churches in this area of Yorkshire, though none have been as ill-treated as St Mary’s. One can see outside on the east side of the tower where the original nave roof has been removed and how the modern one extends over the two side aisles. There must have something like 7, or more probably 9, roof slopes: there are now just 2. Lost are the north and south aisles, clerestory windows in the nave, a Lady Chapel to the south-east (now containing the organ and sacristy), and smaller aisles/chapels to the north-east and south-west. The whole of the south side was also rebuilt, with the result that the present building has, sadly, lost its coherence and proportion with the tower.
Inside, there is a fine east window, by Charles Eamer Kemper in 1898; an early-C20th window in the south aisle depicting Faith, Hope and Charity, and a later one of a more open style in the north aisle; and a spectacularly glorious Victorian horror under the tower – yes, that central figure is indeed male, none other than that great warrior the Archangel Michael (and you thought trans was a C21st phenomenon).
The carved head on the north-western pillar in the nave is a mystery: severed heads, such as St Oswald’s, are often connected with holy wells around these parts, but whether this explains anything is entirely uncertain. Incorporated into the floor under the tower are two C12th gravestones brought in from the churchyard for protection, the faint outline of a cross still visible.
The statue of Our Lady and Child in the north-west corner came originally from Portugal, probably in the C19th when it would have been sold to make way for the devotional renewal following the First Vatican Council, of 1870. It was bought by the church of St Mary Magdalene’s in Bradford, and came here when it was closed.
Note also Henry Richardson’s incongruous Georgian font of 1755, with its fine modern cover: it may look odd now, but it did then fit in with the Georgian gallery above, removed by the Victorians for an organ. And before you go, pause before the book of remembrance (with records of parishioners buried in the churchyard back to 1566) and the 2012 Diamond Jubilee window, marking 1,378 years of Christian monarchy, since St Oswald’s great victory at Heavenfield.