From 1968 to 1981 Canon Paul Oestreicher was Vicar of the Blackheath Church of the Ascension in South London. From 1697 this church had been the private chapel of the Earls of Dartmouth. A miniature gem, it was almost certainly designed by a pupil of Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Church’s vicarage in Dartmouth Row lies directly opposite the Chapel which in 1883 became a parish church. It lies on the pilgrimage path from Canterbury Cathedral to Southwark Cathedral, by London Bridge.
In the 1970s its glass panelled doors were open by day and night, the lit sanctuary inviting the men of the road to make it their shelter for a night or more. The parish had become part of Bishop John Robinson’s bold ‘South-Bank Network’, hearkening back to the South London Peasant Revolt in 1381 when Wat Tyler’s priest, the Revd John Ball, declared on Blackheath that ‘under God all people are equal’. Tyler and Ball were made to pay with their lives. Hard times then, hard times for Jesus (as in Palestine today), hard times for the poor right here and now.
Church of the Ascension
London SE10 8BF
One Sunday morning, as the vicar went to preside at the early Eucharist he almost tripped over four parcels by his front door wrapped in plain brown paper. He returned to take a look, an hour later. What he found were four remarkable, expertly painted modern icons. This was not classical iconography but nevertheless paintings that radiated good news, bringing Jesus and his disciples to life.
Why were these icons there? Who put them on the Vicar’s doorstep? It remains a mystery. There is no artist’s signature. There is nothing pointing to their origin other than the unknown artist’s devotion. Had a thief possibly stolen the icons and, unable to make them pay, decided that this was a better place? But no theft had been reported. They were, it seems, where they were meant to be, probably brought by the painter him or herself, expecting no reward. An Angel maybe bringing sacred gifts.
The icons lived on in a busy vicarage, admired by guests from near and far. Two were gifted to others.
These two were kept:
Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper and before that supper
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples
Fast forward to 2023. Paul Oestreicher has moved to Te Aro. In our one world, the Gospel of Jesus has no borders. Icons speak everywhere. The former South Bank vicar is now a St Peter’s person ‘in, of and for the people of Te Aro’. The icons are calling for a new home, a place of peace and prayer where Jesus says to his friends, “fear not little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” That Kingdom is present on Willis and everywhere else.
May this then become the home of the Blackheath Icons, dedicated on this 6th day of August 2023, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, and of the Disfiguration of Creation on the 6th Day of August 1945 by the atom bomb that turned to ashes the city of Hiroshima and its people.
Lord Have Mercy. Christ Have Mercy. Lord Have Mercy