Peter Hoffmann: The church bell tolls for the spirit of community

One of the loveliest memories of living in Oxgangs in Edinburgh between 1958 and 1972 was the sweet sound of the St John's Church bell ringing out each Sunday morning, calling the parishioners to worship.
St John's Church in Oxgangs is demolishedSt John's Church in Oxgangs is demolished
St John's Church in Oxgangs is demolished

Hogmanay 2014 was the first occasion in 56 years that the church bell did not ring out over the festive period.

The church closed and the congregation amalgamated with Colinton Mains Church to form St John’s Colinton Mains Church.

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Even more devastating for many, however, is that the former St John’s Church, Oxgangs has now been demolished.

Whilst the community was aware it was imminent, seeing the photographs of it happening took your breath away. Within the grey urbanity of Oxgangs three fine buildings had stood out: The Riach designed St John’s Church from 1957; the strikingly Modernist St Hilda’s Church, from 1965 – also razed to the ground – and the remaining St John’s Colinton Mains Church.

These buildings anchored and rooted the community.

They helped to provide a sense of community and were an important link with the past.

And if no longer the beating heart of Oxgangs, they were still AT the heart of Oxgangs.

Because whenever you passed by, the buildings triggered memories.

Not just memories of church going and the key stages of life -the christenings, the weddings and the funerals – but all the community events that were held there over the past half century.

The Reverend Orr’s daughter, Lesley Orr, wrote of what the church meant to many: “I was the first baby baptised in St John’s in the hut which was used before the Riach building was opened and later was married there too.

“I loved the clean and elegant lines, the combination of warmth and light, the fantastic chancel space. It spoke so eloquently of the spirit of optimism, hope for the future, participation of all, and community building which characterised the best of Oxgangs in the 1960s and 70s.”

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An abiding memory for many was the annual summer fête held in the grounds and the main hall. A variety of imaginative stalls were set up to raise funds for the church and the whole of Oxgangs seemed to drift in and out throughout the day.

The church bell itself came from the Trinity College Church in Jeffrey Street and previously was one of Edinburgh’s town bells, rung out each morn and at evening-tide.

It was cast in the Netherlands in 1632.

The sound of a church bell ringing out signifies something important. For when poet John Donne spoke of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls, It Tolls For Thee’, it does indeed, because when something dies we all die a little.

I guess what he was really saying was that whatever affects one, affects us all . . .

Peter Hoffmann, local historian, Strathpeffer