Father Guy Martin Heal arrived in the Parish of St John the Baptist, Sevenoaks from British Guiana (now Guyana) on 23 December 1962 with a vision for St John’s which ushered in a Golden era and, in his words, was the highlight of his ministry.
He was a tall, erect and imposing man from a military background. He had charisma and a strong persuasive personality which, together with his outstanding leadership qualities and dynamism, enabled him in eight short years to bring about at St John’s changes from which we benefit to this day.
He quickly won hearts and minds, but met with some opposition which he addressed in his own direct way. However, the majority supported him and he attracted new members to make St John’s, to quote Bishop David Say, ‘the fastest growing parish in the Diocese’.
The first major change he made was to introduce the 9.15 am Mass, with Series 2 and 3 Liturgies, replacing the 11.00 am Mass. This enabled Holy Communion to be placed at the centre of our worship and available to the whole congregation, unlike the 11.00 am Mass in which the priest was the only communicant. There was resistance to the change of service time as it would disrupt people’s breakfast eating routine. This was met in characteristic style by Father Heal, who assured everyone that breakfast, prepared by the parishioners, would be served in the Parish Room after the service and thus spiritual and bodily needs could both be satisfied. This is why the current refreshments after the service are sometimes referred to as ‘breakfast’ by those who were around at the time.
The major works started with the installation of the Stations of the Cross in 1963 and the rebuilding of the organ and repositioning of the console in 1964, followed by the reordering of the Chancel in 1965, the building of the Clergy House in 1968 and finally the St John’s Court Flats, which were opened after Father Heal had left St John’s.
The reordering was an enormous undertaking. It started with the controversial removal of the heavy cast iron screen. This was carried out by Eric Reeves, Cecil Miller and with the ever-willing assistance of Len Sullivan, all loyal members of St John’s. It was dismantled using block and tackle supported by three poles, forming a tripod. The structure was seen to bend under the strain. However, Eric knew exactly how to work to the limits to get the job done.
The absence of the screen made way for the removal of the choir stalls and the replacement of the large stone pulpit with a wooden one, made by Cecil Miller (who burned the midnight oil to meet the deadline). This was repositioned on the organ side of the nave. The whole church was re-decorated by Eric and Cecil from ladders extending to the roof, using buckets and brushes. Both men had fulltime and demanding jobs, so all the work was carried out in evenings and on Saturdays on a voluntary basis.
The final stage was the building of the foundations and installation of the new Altar, which was designed by Lawrence King in keeping with the Lady Chapel, which was refurnished to his design in 1960. Stanley Berwick Ltd carried out the building work of the Altar under the supervison of Eric Reeves, General Foreman.
The Dedication Service of the reordering took place in May 1965.
The building of the Clergy House fulfilled a long-standing hope over the previous fifty years. It was designed by Lawrence King and Partners and was completed in ten months at a cost of £14,700. The builder was Stanley Berwick Ltd, overseen and organised by the General Foreman Eric Reeves, by then a Churchwarden. Eric ensured the construction was to the highest possible standard and the Diocesan Surveyor was amazed at its value for money.
The Service of Thanksgiving took place on 22 June 1968. The Preacher was the Right Reverend David Say, Bishop of Rochester, who also blessed the house. Father Heal wrote at the time, ‘We are deeply grateful to all who have turned this vision into reality, to all who are with us today to give thanks for it and to our Father in God for coming to lead our praises and to set the seal of God’s blessing on what has been done.’
The building of the St John’s Court Flats was inspired by the plight of two elderly ladies, both faithful and long-standing parishioners who struggled to attend church from Sevenoaks Weald. Father Heal had the idea that a row of derelict cottages adjacent to the north side of the church could be demolished and replaced by a block of flats to provide accommodation for church people in a similar situation. He pursued his idea with his customary drive and enthusiasm and the land was purchased in conjunction with Pinnacle Housing Association. The flats were built and operated on the basis that the church should have first offer of any vacancies. They were officially opened in 1968.
Another great achievement which Father Heal valued very highly was arranging for two nuns to serve in the parish. Sisters Eileen and Isobel, from the Community of the Holy Family at St Leonards, lived at 14 Quakers Hall Lane and fulfilled a very special ministry of love, care and devotion to the people of St John’s and the wider community.
Father Heal’s ministry was further supported by churchwardens Ed Shirras and Frank Woodhams, readers Jim Cheeseman and Dr Gerry Sichel, and three outstanding curates – Fr Peter Hawkins, Father Brian Whatmore and Father David Barnes, who all moved on to have fulfilled and fruitful ministries, underpinned by the training and example of Father Heal. Twelve young men from the Parish came forward for ordination during Father Heal’s Ministry at St John’s and one eventually became an Archdeacon.
Father Heal was not musical and there was no choir but there was hearty singing in the congregation, boosted by the would-be choristers. He had a strong tenor voice and on one occasion sang a different psalm to the congregation. He was wondering what was wrong with their singing and only discovered his error when they finished before he did.
There were joyous occasions during his eight years, many supported by the Bishops of Rochester and Tonbridge with whom we enjoyed a warm relationship. Two such occasions were the 9.15am Mass being broadcast on BBC National Radio morning service, in which Father Heal preached a very powerful sermon. He was never one to miss an opportunity for good publicity. The other occasion was a reciprocal ecumenical visit to St John’s by fifty Roman Catholic parishioners and clergy from Notre Dame de Boulogne. We shared our church and our homes with the visitors. The following programme and entries in the weekly bulletin provide an insight into the great occasion when history was made at St John’s.
Father Heal celebrated Mass for the last time at St John’s at 8.00 pm on Tuesday 2 February 1971, followed by coffee and farewells. He left for St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square early the following morning.
Perhaps the most fitting way to end this piece is in the words of Father Heal himself, contained in his last weekly bulletin:
“This is my last bulletin to you, Dear people of St John’s, at the end of eight years as your Parish Priest. A chequered time, but the joys so far outweigh the sorrows, that we can look back and praise God over and over again for more signs of his presence amongst us than I had dared to hope for.
These signs of His blessings are evident on every side. We have trodden together the way of faith and passed many milestones on this road home to God. All of us can look into our own lives and see the good hand of our God upon us in ways too numerous to mention.
One thing must be emphasised, which has been at the heart of my teaching throughout this time – it is our primary duty to worship God. Nothing can ever be more important for the Christian because for this end has He made us.
This does not mean we should not concern ourselves with the needs of others and work hard to help our neighbour but it does mean that all our good works must be secondary to our Honour for God for what He is in Himself – so worship, the Mass, Daily Prayer, Devotion to Our Lady and the Saints must come first.
St John’s stands four-square upon this teaching and I am deeply grateful to all the Assistant Priests who have helped convey this truth and to the faithful who have received it with thanksgiving; together we have tried to worship the Lord in his own appointed way.
I thank you all for your loyalty and love, you have been a constant source of encouragement to dare yet greater things for God and his Church. Many will be the memories I shall carry away with me of you – the People of God in this place. Bless you, my Dears!”