IF SOMEONE asked you to list the holiest places in Britain, it’s unlikely Dewsbury would ever cross your mind.
But thanks to a collection of unique Anglo-Saxon treasures linked to the West Yorkshire town, it has been recognised as just that.
Few will know that people have worshipped on the site of Dewsbury Minster for 1,400 years and it was once the “mother church” of an area stretching 400 square miles from Wakefield to Burnley.
And it is also home to the only remaining fragments of the Paulinus Cross, an intricately carved monument to the first Bishop of York dating back to AD 850.
Paulinus, popularly known as the Apostle to Yorkshire, is said to have preached on the banks of the River Calder in AD 627 and a wooden church was built nearby shortly afterwards.
Now, a book, Britain’s Holiest Places by Nick Mayhew Smith, has confirmed Dewsbury’s holy status by awarding the town an eight star rating.
By comparison places as sacred and famous as Canterbury, Lindisfarne and Iona were given eleven stars.
Dewsbury was one of three sites in West and South Yorkshire mentioned in the book, alongside Ilkley Parish Church and Fishlake in Doncaster.
The author spent five years touring Britain and rating sacred sites according to their authenticity, heritage, accessibility and vitality as worshipping communities today.
And it’s a rich tradition that the Rector, Canon Kevin Partington, is keen to emphasise, aiding the recovery of the town’s reputation following a perception of economic problems, high crime and cultural tension.
“We know we’re a special place,” he said. “We’re on the pilgrim trail and the tourist map and we’ve been a place where ordinary people bring their joys and their sorrows for the last 1,400 years and we want people to know we are here for everyone.
“We were delighted with the rating in Nick’s book. We’re holding our own with eight. We have a fascinating Christian heritage and throughout history Dewsbury has been a place of teaching and training.
“This book mention gives us both immense pride and a great sense of responsibility. The Gospel has been handed down and entrusted to us and we have to use that the transform and move forward.
“We want to act as a hub to harness all the good will in the community. We want to celebrate our town’s history, our heritage, our volunteers and our businesses.”
The three sandstone fragments of the Paulinus cross are believed to form part of the upper column, where the enthroned figure of Christ surrounded by his Apostles was carved.
The out-of-proportion right hand, with the palm facing outwards, was carved deliberately to emphasise Christ’s blessing, in accordance with Anglo-Saxon tradition. The left hand grasps a scroll.
Other surviving sections illustrate events of the age in some detail. The naturalistic faces and bodies, visible under the classical garments, are also characteristic of the time.
The fragments were loaned to the York Museum Trust five years ago to commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of Constantine becoming Roman Emperor while in the city, making them a central part of the “most important archaeological-historical loan exhibition to have been held in a British provincial museum ever”.
Now, two of the stones are on display in the Minster Heritage Centre, with the Christ in Majesty segment in the Paulinus Chapel.
“This would have been a real statement piece,” said Canon Partington.
“It was a great column with a cross mounted on the top. Originally, it would have been quite garish, with the eyes of the figures filled with colourful paste glass.
“We also have Saxon stonework dating back to AD 980 and some beautifully coloured stained glass.”
In order to ensure this ancient place of worship can continue to make a difference in the 21st century, Canon Partington has launched a support group called the Friends of Dewsbury Minster.
The former Archbishop of York, Lord Hope, became the first honorary patron of the group at a launch last week.
“We would like to encourage people to sign up and become better informed about Dewsbury Minster,” said Canon Partington.
“Every week, people are coming in who have lived in Dewsbury their whole life and had no idea about the rich history we have.
“We have always been a little oasis of calm; a place for ordinary people to find peace away from the mess of their lives and we feel we can play a part in building up our community life and celebrating all that is good.”