Mysteries of Paraclete

July 8, 2022 9 Comments
Paraclete Chapel, Newton

Five minutes’ walk away, where Summerland Lane reduces to a narrow neck of tarmac to meet Newton Road, is Paraclete Chapel.  In every respect it’s unremarkable, except for one thing, its highly unusual name.  Till recently I’ve not thought much about the word ‘paraclete’, beyond knowing that it was vaguely connected with the Holy Spirit.

Thomas Thomas (photo by John Thomas)

The chapel was first established in 1818 at the behest of Lady Diana Barham, but the current building, as a plaque on the façade announces, dates from 1880 (there were later modifications in 1900).  The architect was a local minister, Thomas Thomas of Landore, also known as Thomas Glandŵr (he came originally from Ffairfach, Llandeilo).  He was a prolific chapel architect during the golden age of chapel building in the 1860s and 1870s – he was responsible for well over a hundred chapels – and became known as ‘the first national architect of Wales’.  Among his notable buildings were Capel Als in Llanelli, Salem in Llangennech, Sardis in Ystradgynlais, Salem in Porthmadog, Jerusalem in Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethania in Bethesda. 

Thomas left the Congregational ministry in 1875, amid accusations that he drew rents from slum dwellings he owned in central Swansea, some of which were being used by prostitutes.  He retired to live in Mumbles, but continued to work as an architect until he died in 1888, and was presumably an obvious choice to work on the rebuilding of Paraclete.

Thomas’s architectural trademark was the large arch implanted into the centre of the pediment in the chapel’s façade.  Paraclete, by contrast, has no arch and is relatively modest.  A plain pediment, supported by corner pilasters, features just two circular ventilation windows.  Underneath, two long windows flank, above, a large round quatrefoil window, and, below, a central door with a plain semi-circular arch.

The title ‘Paraclete’ dates back to the original building paid for by Lady Barham.  She lived in Kent, but came to visit Gower in the early nineteenth century.  A pious woman, she was shocked by the lack of places of worship and ‘the darkness of the place and the spiritual destruction of the people’.  She came back, in 1814, to live at Fairy Hill, where she stayed till her death in 1823.  She used her wealth to found dissenting chapels, including Paraclete in 1818, where she installed as minister in 1820 her ex-secretary, Rev. William Hammerton.  This proved controversial for the Calvinistic Methodists and the chapel became Congregational (as it remains today).  Hammerton stayed till his death in 1820, and lived in a manse built for him.

Later Frances Ridley Havergal, the hymn-writer and obsessive Calvinist, worked with children in Paraclete during her short life in Newton (a new extension is labelled ‘Havergal Hall’).  A later minister was David Rees, whose wife was the ‘Aunt Dosie’ of Dylan Thomas.  Thomas sometimes stayed with them at the manse next door, and was obliged to go to chapel and Sunday School (possibly, Rees’s delivery influenced his own style of public reading).  He wrote a eulogistic article about Rees in the Herald of Wales on 5 November 1932 to mark his retirement.  Its title, ‘End of a great ministry’, was hypocritical.  Thomas clearly disliked the man. An unpublished teenage poem included the line about him, ‘I hate you from your dandruff to your corns’, and another calls him ’Reverend Crap, a pious fraud’. A plaque on the wall of the manse facing Summerland Lane marks Thomas’s visits.

So what about ‘Paraclete’?  What is its significance, and why did Lady Bareham choose it?

Paraclete is from the Greek παράκλητος, itself a version of the Latin ‘advocatus’.  Literally it means someone called to the side of a person as an advisor or consultant, as in a law case.  In the New Testament it occurs rarely, and only in the writings of John.  In his gospel he writes (14:16-17), ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you forever. This is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.’  This passage is the origin of the link between paraclete as ‘advocate’ and ‘breath’ (πνεῦμα).  It was this ‘breath’ that the early church developed into the idea of the third person of the Trinity, the ‘holy spirit’ or ‘holy ghost’.  Elsewhere, though, John identifies πνεῦμα directly with Christ.

‘Paraclete’ remained a rarity until in the early 1120s, when Peter Abelard named the Benedictine monastery he founded in Ferreux-Quincey the ‘Abbey of the Paraclete’.  When in 1125 he was called to be abbot of the monastery of St-Gildas-de-Rhuys, he handed over Paraclete to his lover Héloïse, and it was rededicated as a nunnery.  She became the abbess and remained there till her death.  Today Héloïse is remembered as a philosopher of love and friendship, and a proto-feminist, critical of the institution of marriage.  Her highly-charged correspondence with Abelard became famous and later helped to inspire the epistolary novel.

The only church in Britain with a dedication to the Paraclete is the Church of the Holy Paraclete in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland, but the name was only attached to it when the church was comprehensively rebuilt in 1869.  I can find no nonconformist chapel bearing the name that pre-dates Newton’s Paraclete.  Could it be that Lady Barham borrowed the name direct from Aberlard and Héloïse?

George Romney, Lady Barham

Like Héloïse, Lady Barham (1762-1823) was a remarkable woman, even if she had every conceivable advantage in life.  She was born Diana Middleton, daughter of the MP for Rochester and First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Charles Middleton, who became Lord Barham in 1805.  The Middletons were not completely conformist members of the ruling class.  They were evangelical in religion and were strong advocates of abolitionism, lending strong support to William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.  In 1780 at the age of seventeen Diana married Gerard Noel Edwardes, a wealthy Whig MP, profligate and cricket enthusiast, with whom she had eighteen children.

Diana appears to have shared little of her life with her husband and continued to spend much time in her parents’ home, Teston, and moved in intellectual circles, which included Samuel Johnson.  When her father died in 1813 she inherited his money and title, and took the opportunity to turn her back on her wastrel husband and settled at Fairy Hill in Gower, in ‘the obscure and long-neglected peninsula of Gower’, to quote William Hammerton.  She founded six new chapels in Gower, including Paraclete, and several schools, together known as Lady Barham’s Connexion.  The five other chapels were Bethesda, Burry Green (1814), Bethel, Penclawdd (1816); Trinity, Cheriton (1816); Immanuel, Pilton Green (1821) and Mount Pisgah, Parkmill (1822). 

Burry Green was Lady Barham’s local place of worship.  According to her biographer,

On Sundays, after being carried across the fields by two flunkeys in a sedan chair, she occupied a separate room behind the pulpit at Bethesda Chapel; warmed by an open fire, it contained an elevated box pew which was entered by a flight of steps and was reserved exclusively for the Fairy Hill household.  When her ladyship grew tired of the sermon, the door of the room was closed and she departed for home.

Diana Barham may have been aloof, but she was a cultured and an independent as well as a godly woman, who would have been familiar with the story of Abelard and Héloïse, one of the most dramatic Christian stories of medieval Europe.  Did she, I wonder, name her chapel in Newton Paraclete in honour of a woman, Héloïse, whom she admired and perhaps viewed as a forerunner of her own destiny in life?

Burry Green chapel

Comments (9)

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  1. M Davies says:

    Interesting. A slight correction (typo?) –
    Thomas Glandwr, not Glyndwr. ‘Landore’ from Glandwr of course.

  2. Richard Saville says:

    Wonderful! Thank you. Did the Greek term come from the Latin? Or the other way around?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Lochlan Shelfer in 2009 thought that the Latin came first, and that the Greek term was a ‘calque’ or loan-translation. But according to my Liddell & Scott, Aeschines, Lysias and Demosthenes in the fifth and fourth centuries BC all use ‘parakallo’ as word for summoning a legal counsellor, so maybe that’s not right.

  3. Peter Wakelin says:

    A couple of hours before reading this blog I got to a passage in O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker. You may remember, the book is set in a Scottish castle with a great stained-glass window lighting the stairs.

    ‘After Twelfth Night they took down the Christmas tree which had stood so proudly in the hall, by the foot of the stairs, its gold and blue and crimson lights vying with the great stained-glass window; the dying white cockatoo in his circle of leaves seemed to hover above it like the paraclete and at times the blood drops from his breast were scattered over the piled and gaudy presents.’ (p. 80)

    I was racking my brains trying to think how I knew the word paraclete, and then there it was in your blog. The personification of the paraclete as a bird of course appears in paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The chapel architect Joshua MOrris of Newport, Pembs, was very fond of putting a dove above the doors of his chapels, perhaps making this association. It’s interesting that the Newton chapel has the name but not the symbol.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, Peter. I’ve not read ‘O Caledonia’, but clearly now must. Any novelist who can work the word ‘paraclete’ in somewhere deserves admiration. James Joyce, unsurprisingly, has it in chapter 4 of ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’, in the context of the hero’s religious self-tortures. ‘… the divine gloom and silence wherein dwelt the unseen Paraclete, whose symbols were a dove and a mighty wind …’

      I’ve never succeeded in getting inside Paraclete, Newton: it would be interesting to see if there’s any Paraclete imagery there.

  4. Ric says:

    Really interesting to read this. By some strange turn of fate, the house that I bought in Seaford, East Sussex some eight years ago, contained the last will and testament of William Hamerton, the former Minister of Paraclete, who was I imagine buried beneath the altar there as per his instructions. (Yes – it has taken me this long to Google him!)

    It is a fascinating document, and hard to read in places, but filled with the religious commitment that one would expect from a man of his stature. I will at some point try and return this to Paraclete where I feel that it should belong, but in the meantime, I can send photographs if they are of interest?

  5. Ric says:

    Ps. I should add, the spelling of Hamerton with one M is the way that it is written on his will. The will also appears to have been sent to Canterbury for approval, or even written before the court there. I imagine this was a requirement for all Ministers at that time.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Many thanks, Ric – this is fascinating. Please do send any photos (I can add them to the blog if you’re content.) I don’t know the good people of Paraclete, but I’m sure they’d be happy to hear from you about the will.

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