Birmingham & Black Country

St Barnabas Church in Erdington is a 'phoenix from the ashes'

Image caption Reverend Freda Evans is the church's first female vicar, appointed in 2007

For five years St Barnabas Church in Erdington in Birmingham stood derelict, a blackened, charred shell of a Victorian building, gutted by fire.

Following a £5m restoration and transformation in 2012 the church is now celebrating a year since it reopened its doors. Local people say its become more important to the community than ever before.

Dance teacher Marie Mulrennan, 57, has been going to the church since she was 7 years old.

She now takes her four grandchildren to services and goes to Women's Institute meetings there.

She said the suspected arson attack in 2007 was "a complete shock to everyone".

"I passed it pretty much every day and it gave me a horrible sinking feeling to see it damaged, we were all worried it was going to be knocked down," she added.

'An important place'

Ms Mulrennan was one of an 80-strong congregation which had to attend services at the local primary school for five years while the church was rebuilt.

"It's good to have the church back because the school never really felt like home," she said.

"It's not absolutely perfect as I remember but they've retained what they could.

"With the new cafe it's become an important place for a lot of people to get together whether that's for a meeting or just to have a cup of coffee."

More than £5m, which came from insurance payouts, was used to replace the roof, install new stained glass windows and repair the whole church interior.

A glass annex with a cafe and three conference rooms, known as the Harbour Centre, was also built.

The church operates as a charity, which relies on donations, but the cafe and conference rooms are run like a social enterprise with any money going into the church coffers.

Image caption The church was devastated by a suspected arson attack in October 2007
Image caption A glass fronted cafe was built as part of the church's £5m restoration scheme
Image caption New stained glass windows and a stainless steel roof were installed
Image caption Groups including the Women's Institute use the three conference rooms

Reverend Freda Evans, the church's first female vicar, said: "It's a real phoenix from the ashes, it has a completely new energy, a new ethos of inviting people in.

"When it was a very traditional church it was gloomy, it felt unapproachable. The glass front gives people a window on our world and every Sunday we're seeing at least one new face, if not two or three."

'Warm and welcoming'

The traditional church notice board has been replaced by an electronic screen flashing messages about upcoming pilates classes, NHS drop-in sessions and adult education courses.

The church also ran two employment fairs in partnership with the job centre earlier this year that more than 1,000 people came to.

Harbour Centre manager Paul Hanna said: "The role of the church is changing, you need to help people through their lives if you want to be relevant to them on a spiritual level.

"It's about always being open to people and meeting their problems and issues which is why we had a jobs fair, why we put on counselling sessions, why narcotics anonymous meet here, and so on.

"It's one thing standing up giving a sermon about helping people but it's about actually doing it."

Gary Little, 46, said he had visited the church for the first time this year for the jobs fair.

"I had never thought of coming to the church for help before but I got a lot of good advice, like a CV writing workshop which I'd probably had to go to Birmingham for before.

"I think this is vital for Erdington to have a place like this, churches are normally seen as old, cold places but this is modern, warm and welcoming and there always seems to be something happening."

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