What Future for St Mary's Centre?

This month's open meeting saw David Wallington from St Mary's Centre set out the vision for the Centre's future for the Society's members. Firstly, with a glance at the past, he reminded us that there had been a church on this site since at least the twelfth century. Its fabric had endured both the rigours of the Civil War, several rebuilds and no less than three collapses of the steeple in 1593, 1626 and 1716. Thus, to erect a new, tall steeple in 1852 was a bold venture. A totally new church followed in 1868; but in the twentieth century decline set in as the residents deserted the City centre for homes in the newer suburbs. By the late 1970s, it was obvious that something would have to be done to save the church from demolition or conversion into inappropriate uses. A committee was formed and the plan agreed was very much what we see today - the retained Dyott Chapel and Chancel, a heritage exhibition, gift shop and café. The long established Day Centre no longer functions since the needs of senior citizens are now catered for in different ways; but the area still successfully caters for social activities such as this Society's own meetings.

However, many would agree that what was seen as a successful conversion in the late 1970s is no longer fit for purpose today. Its sensitivity towards the architectural magnificence of the church as a whole is limited, the Heritage exhibition is dated in its presentation and the café, although remaining popular, faces stiff competition in a City centre well blessed with catering establishments. These issues are reflected by the current financial challenges faced by the Centre. It remains a vital asset for the City, dominating the centre, yet forming an important link between the "cathedral quarter" and the shopping centre. To stand still and do nothing is not an option. That way lies closure. So what can be done? What are the "unique selling points" which St Mary's should capitalise on? David and his staff have been consulting on this, running a three day exercise under the banner "refresh the vision" last year. Additionally, both the Diocese and District Council have commissioned reports on the way forward.

As a consequence a lottery bid is to be prepared which seeks to ensure that the internal magnificence of the church, principally its overall height and scale and its stained glass windows, can be enjoyed once again, its story freshly interpreted, the exhibition updated and the café refreshed. The extensive photographic archive (unknown to many) needs better access and the Centre's entrance needs to be more welcoming. The Dyott Chapel, with its superb organ, needs to be more accessible, whether for services or community events. Some limited progress has already been made by David and his staff, despite the financial constraints. The café has been much improved. A new chef and a manager have produced a new menu and a partial revamp has taken place. The Tourist Information Centre has relocated to the Centre, although its opening hours (controlled by the Council) are still limited.

Of course, such proposals have their detractors but, if we wish to see the Centre remain as an important contributor to the social and cultural life of Lichfield, change will have to take place. Officers of the National Lottery have encouraged an application for funding which suggests that they see an important future role for this asset. The Society has a personal interest - since closure of the Centre would result in the loss of our meetings venue.

Roger Hockney
March 2014