By LARRY PHILLIPS
• Leader & Times
OLNEY, England — Olney, England, is not only a small, quaint village in the English countryside, but it is also home to some remarkable history.
When driving into Olney or walking her narrow streets, one is constantly aware of its central landmark — St. Peter and St. Paul Parish Church sitting on the bank of the river Great Ouse.
Its spire is nearly visible from everywhere in Olney.
First constructed in 1325, the church has been expanded and added to throughout its early centuries.
A sign posted in the entrance foyer of the church, dedicated to Kate Hollingshead — who was born in 1886 and died 16, May, 1969 — declares the church the official church of Pancake Day. Kate, apparently, had something important to do with the race as at the bottom of the sign, it has a painting of a woman running with an apron and headscarf on, and she is carrying a skillet with a pancake in it.
This is the church that gave birth to the now-famous pancake day race.
In 1445, lore has it a woman was using up her perishable food supplies and cooking pancakes in preparations for Lent, which requires fasting. Suddenly, she heard the “Shriving” bell chime at the parish church, signifying the start of Shriving Service. In her haste, she bolted out the door wearing her cooking apron and her headscarf — and her frying pan with a pancake in it — and ran to the church.
Church patrons and townspeople decided it would make for a spirited race and provide fun if they would put on the race annually on Shrove Tuesday (also known by some as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras).
The Shriving Service is still conducted at St. Peter and St. Paul Church every year following the pancake race.
It will happen again Tuesday afternoon - 566 years after that first race to the church by an Olney housewife.
The pancake race is not the only thing well known about Olney’s parish church.
It also is home to some of the greatest hymnists in Great Britain. They included Henry Gauntlett, the so-called “Father of English Church Music,” Moses Browne “of many parts (and many children)” as the sign reads and Thomas Scott, “the Bible Commentator.”
But perhaps the most famous were William Cowper, the poet and man of letters, and John Newton, a former seafarer and slave trader turned abolitionist who became curate of the church and served there from 1764 to 1779. Both are known for their “Olney Hymns.”
There is a stained glass window in the church with an image of Newton and his ship, when were both caught in a storm - and he converted to Christianity.
Newton is credited with writing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which has been sung in churches throughout the world for nearly three centuries.
Visitors to St.Peter and St. Paul can walk along the grass paths on three sides of the church and take in the old headstones (some overgrown with vines and lichen or weathered so bad as to make them unreadable). The headstones and monuments, made from numerous kinds of rock from limestone to Italian Marble, are in the graveyard surrounding its old stone walls, and, of course, its towering steeple.
The spire reaches a height of 185 feet, and its steeple top was restored in 1884. The top of the spire has a weather cock which is inscribed with: “I never crow but stand to show whence winds do blow - 1829.”
Hundreds of people are expected to be lining High Street Tuesday at 11:55 a.m. local time to root on Olney’s women, who, since 1950, have been in a friendly competition with the women of Liberal, Kan., to produce the winning time and the title of International Pancake Day Race champion.
And many of these people will walk down the narrow pathway to the open iron gate of Olney’s magnificent St. Peter and St. Paul Parish Church for Shriving Services.
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