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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

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The Cumbrian priest with a chapel in his attic

It is a treasure tucked inside a tiny two up two down terrace sandwiched into a blink-and-you-miss-it side street. It is a work of art, an amazing display of dedication, almost a minor miracle.

John Musther photo
Father John Musther

Up the narrow, steep, stairwell, in the attic of the terraced house is a stunning chapel, decorated with the fresco of a dozen saints and a tiny altar.

The golds glisten, the reds glow on the walls. It is a jaw-dropping sight.

It took iconographer Aidan Hart three weeks to paint onto the wet plaster (which preserves the colours), working up to 15 hours a day.

It could be Greece, it could be Russia, but it is Cumbria.

Among the faces staring back are Cumbria’s own Saint Cuthbert, St Mungo, St Herbert and St Bega.

The chapel measures not much more than three metres by three and belongs to Father John Musther, the only Orthodox priest in the county.

He ministers to a community of almost 40 and holds services here twice a day.

Usually just three or four people attend the early morning and evening prayers, though up to 19 have crammed into the tiny space and spilled down the stairwell in the past.

The door to the staircase is marked by an icon and more of the pictures and postcards of saints line the stairs up to the chapel.

The only clue to what might lie behind the front door of his home in Greta Villas, Keswick, is a slate plaque on the wall outside declaring it as an Orthodox chapel.

His wife Jenny is busy in the kitchen as we settle in the living area dominated by a huge bookcase groaning with books on the history of the Orthodox church, the lives of its saints and their teachings.

Dressed in a long navy blue robe with a golden crucifix and white beard, Fr John would not look out of place in Greece or eastern Europe.

There’s an easy calmness to the 71-year-old. He smiles as much as he strokes his beard when he considers the questions.

Home is opposite a car park, does the plaque get much reaction from passers-by?

He smiles: “As they drive slowly by you can see the passengers go...” he makes a face with a gaping mouth.

“We have had people knocking on the door saying ‘what is this then?’ We’ve had some really good conversations and when they go up to the chapel, it blows most people away because it is not what they expect.

“When people see the word Orthodox, they have nothing in their head to connect it to. Some say ‘are you Jewish?’ Some might have heard of Greek or Russian Orthodoxy.”

The work done by Fr John is so impressive that the head of the Orthodox church, Archbishop Gabriel, will be visiting him, and his tiny chapel, from France next month.

There are just 50,000 in the Orthodox church in the UK, he is the only priest in Cumbria and it would be a fair bet that he has the smallest congregation in the country.

The priest smiles shyly at the thought of such a massive honour and says: “We feel we are a long way away from anywhere here.”

Not that he or Jenny are complaining about life in the north, they are delighted to have made the move from Brighton five years ago when Jenny retired from her work as a palliative care nurse.

They had holidayed in the Greta Villas cottage for years and jumped at the chance to buy it.

For 10 years before their move north, they lived in one of Brighton’s poorest estates, opening their home to the needy as a drop-in centre.

“There were a lot of struggling families and the druggies and alcoholics came along, it was a wonderful learning curve, a great test of your faith,” he says with a stroke of the beard.

“I found Orthodoxy to be the only one spiritually robust enough to cope with it.”

He joined the church in 2002 and when his bishop heard he was planning to move to Keswick, he was ordained as a deacon and told: “We don’t have anyone up there.”

Fr John was shocked to discover he had a ready-made congregation waiting for him.

“Just up the road there is a fish and chip shop run by Greek Cypriots, connected to a wider family of other Orthodoxes running fish and chip shops in Workington, Distington and Cockermouth, some of the best chippes in the region,” he smiles.

“They all used to go to Leeds once a month for a church service and were delighted that we had arrived.

“We started in the attic because there was nowhere else. I met the chap who did the fresco and said I wanted to make it into a chapel and he frescoed the whole thing. Amazing. Amazing.

“We had to do something with it, so we thought we might as well do the best.

“I translated what I had learned and written in 50 years into the chapel.”

What started as services for a select few upstairs has grown steadily and now Fr John holds his Sunday services (all are conducted in English) at a Methodist chapel in Braithwaite.

From the outside, it looks like a typical Lakeland whitewashed chapel, inside, the walls are festooned with dozens of saintly icons.

While most of the congregation is Greek Cypriot, he has been joined by a few English converts. The religion appeals to them because, he says, “It is about having integrity and authenticity.”

He maintains that Orthodoxy is a continuous lived tradition of holiness traced back directly to the apostles and that church leaders are a direct continuation of those who were in the church in the first century.

“There is always a feeling of a deep sense of mystery rooted in reality that comes across in our worship,” he explains.

Ordained as an Anglican priest when he was 26, Fr John says he has gradually moved towards Orthodoxy since he was studying law in his early 20s when he met a Russian monk called Father Sophrony.

“It was the turning point in my life,” he recalls.

“He told me that the purpose of Christian life is to ask the Lord Jesus to send the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts so that he might cleanse us and make us like Christ.

“That was quite a potent thing to say, it stuck with me and I wrestled with it in my mind.”

After gaining a degree in law, he studied theology and travelled, visiting Orthodox sites and churches in Greece and eastern Europe, never feeling ready to join the faith.

“But it was always niggling away at the back of my mind,” he says.

He started his religious work as a curate in Crewe, then joined an Anglican monastery for 17 years.

His parents back in Manchester weren’t happy and his father actually cut him out of his will.

“They did come round eventually, he says. “My mum realised that the happiness of her son was most important.”

When he left the monastery, he got a job working for Wandsworth Borough Council running a public skip service.

It seems a bit of a leap, but he says: “It went very, very well. I got lots of bonuses, bought a flat, then a house.”

He married Deirdre, who had cancer. She sadly died seven years later and he later met and married Jenny.

The chapel and his work as a priest has all been financed by Fr John from his savings and pension and he and Jenny plan to leave their home with its amazing attic to the Orthodox church.

“We are expecting this to stay as it is when we have gone on and moved up,” he smiles.

For more information, go to www.orthodoxcumbria.org

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