Our tour of the stained-glass windows here at Saint Mary’s church Heaton Norris began with the east window – which depicts the Calvary scene.
Either side of it we discover a pair of windows which mirror each other. Together, they acknowledge the English and Irish origins of the parish – one portraying two saints associated with Ireland, the other portraying two saints associated with England. Like the east window, these were already installed when the church was opened in 1897.
Today, we’ll look at the one we see to the right of the east window. This is the ‘English window’ of the pair, depicting Pope Saint Gregory on the left, and Saint Augustine of Canterbury on the right.
A native of Rome, Gregory quickly became an able civil administrator of the city – but gave up his promising secular career to enter a monastery. Gregory’s considerable abilities came to the attention of the Pope, however, who frequently called upon him to leave his monastic seclusion and travel, as the Pope’s representative, to resolve problems in far-flung parts of the Church. Missing greatly the monastic life’s quiet calm of prayer and study, Gregory would try to recreate as much of it as possible on his journeys, among the community of helpers who accompanied him. He left many edifying writings – such as his commentary on the Biblical book of Job, and several volumes of his collected sermons. So divinely inspired was Gregory in his compositions, it is said that the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove could be seen resting on his head as he wrote.
When the Pope died of a plague, Gregory was unanimously chosen to replace him. He refused the honour as long as he could – even disguising himself, or seeking refuge in a cave – though his hiding place was miraculously betrayed by a fiery pillar. He was at length persuaded, for the good of the Church, to accept, and he became Pope in September 590. He was assiduous in caring for the poor, and would invite pilgrims to share his own table – among whom he entertained (in the guise of a pilgrim) not only an Angel, but also Our Lord himself. Gregory achieved so much in spite of his often being in ill health, sometimes in severe bodily pain.
But what is Pope Gregory’s connection with England?
Saint Bede tells us that Gregory joined the crowd in the market place one day when merchants had just arrived in Rome with fresh wares. Among these were some boys for sale as slaves, remarkable for their pale complexion and fair hair. Gregory asked what region they’d been brought from, and was told the boys were from the island of Britain. He enquired whether those islanders were Christians, and sighed deeply to hear they remained in a slavery far worse than to any earthy master – for they were in bondage to paganism. “How sad,” said Gregory, “that such bright faced folk are still in the grasp of the author of darkness. What is the name of their race?” “They are called ‘Angles’” he was told. “That is appropriate,” said Gregory, “for these Angles have faces like angels, and should become joint-heirs with the angels of heaven. And what is the name of the province from which they are brought?” He was advised that this was ‘Deira’, and (making a pun on the Latin de ira, which means ‘from wrath’) replied “We need to rescue the people of Deira from the wrath (de ira) of God, by bringing to them the light of the Gospel”. Finally, Gregory enquired after the name of their king. “Aelle”, was they reply. And (using the likeness of the king’s name to the word ‘Alleluia’) Gregory said, “Let alleluias in God’s praise come to be sung in those parts”. From that moment, Gregory was intent on converting the English people to salvation in Christ.
Once he became Pope, it was impossible for Gregory to come to England in person, of course. So, he entrusted the task to a group of monks led by Augustine – the saint on the right-hand side of our window.
Augustine was consecrated a Bishop, and sent off to England. Daunted by the uncertainty and possible dangers, the missionary band hesitated several times along the way – and Pope Gregory had to write a letter to encourage them. They eventually crossed over to the Kent coast of England in the year 597. At that time in Kent, there ruled a mighty king named Ethelbert, whose sway extended as far north as the Humber. Ethelbert received them kindly, and – much impressed at the perfect blamelessness of their monastic life, as well as with the power of the heavenly doctrine they were preaching, which God confirmed with miracles – invited them to base themselves in his capital city of Canterbury. On its outskirts was a Church built in honour of Saint Martin, where the Queen, who was a Christian, used to pray. There, Augustine and his companions first began to meet together, to sing, to pray, to celebrate Masses, to preach, and to baptize – until the King was turned to the faith, and the majority of his people were led by his example to take the name of Christian. Augustine built a cathedral church for himself in Canterbury – the forerunner of today’s Canterbury Cathedral.
In our window, Saint Gregory (on the left) is dressed in his Papal robes, wearing on his head the triple Papal tiara, and holding in his left hand the Papal staff – with its three crossbars of successively shorter lengths bottom to top. Peeping from beneath his alb are his red Papal shoes. When Gregory became Pope, he removed his own shoes (as it were) to step into the shoes of his predecessors, the Shoes of the Fisherman – bound, as they were, to uphold the Faith Our Lord taught his apostles, carefully preserving it and handing it on. Traditionally, the shoes are red, the colour of blood, representing readiness to die for that Faith. In Gregory’s left hand is a book of his writings, and you can just make out, perched on his right shoulder, a white dove with a halo round its head – the Holy Ghost that was seen inspiring Gregory when he was busy writing. Gregory’s right hand is giving a blessing.
Saint Augustine (on the right) is dressed in his black monk’s habit. In his right hand is an archbishop’s staff with a cross – for he was the first Archbishop of Canterbury. And in his left hand he holds what looks like an architect’s model of a church – that’s the first Canterbury Cathedral, which Saint Augustine built.
Finally, – in a tiny little window right at the top, above the two angels – England is represented by a rose.