Canon Tony Shepherd is leaving St Peter’s Church in Harrogate after 27 years. NINA SWIFT takes a look back at his time in the town.
When Canon Tony Shepherd walked into St Peter’s Church in Harrogate 27 years ago, the building was in disrepair, the worshippers were dwindling and Marks and Spencer wanted to turn it into a superstore.
It’s been a wonderful period in our lives. I will be very sad to go but I’m looking forward to retirement.Canon Tony Shepherd
Desperate to preserve the town centre landmark, he launched a major fundraising campaign to restore it, boosted the congregation and eventually oversaw its expansion.
Now the much-loved vicar is set to hang up his dog collar after almost three decades and bid farewell to the now thriving church, leaving behind a lasting legacy for the Harrogate community.
Looking back at his time at St Peter’s, he said: “When I started at St Peter’s there weren’t that many people there because the church had got quite run down and a lot of the stained glass windows were broken.
“Pretty quickly on we raised about £50,000 to replace the windows and paint the church, which at one time was going to be sold to the neighbouring Marks and Spencer.
“Once we did it up, more and more people began to come and we now have something like 600 regular adult worshippers and 300 children and young people who are involved regularly with the church.
“This boost in numbers has been the biggest change I have seen, with St Peter’s bucking the national trend.”
Following a major fundraising drive, which included Canon Shepherd abseiling from the roof of St Peter’s, a massive £2m was raised by the community for the church’s restoration and expansion, which was eventually completed in 2013.
Canon Shepherd said: “In my time we have raised a lot of money and expanded the building so we now have meeting rooms and exhibition facilities . If you go in now you find a light and vibrant church with a lot of people.
“Our focus has always been on serving the town as best we can. I suppose we are best known for our daily breakfasts for the homeless and giving away food every night. Our programme of hospitality is something I am very passionate about.”
Canon Shepherd was ordained a deacon after leaving Westcott House in Cambridge in 1974 and served his curacy in Folkestone before coming to Ripon in 1979 as the Bishop’s Chaplain and Diocesan Communications Officer from 1979 to 1987.
He arrived at St Peter’s with his wife Ann and his two young children David and Judith on December 7, 1987. Over the decades the family, who have all been heavily involved in church life, have got to know hundreds of people.
“We are going to miss all the people immensely because we are like one big family,” he said.
“Everyone works together and there are so many things going on all the time. I’m going to miss the variety of worship and I’m certainly going to miss the music as we have some fantastic choirs and groups.”
Over the years there have been a number of major events and services held at St Peter’s, which is Harrogate’s civic church.
But it is his day-to-day duties - the bread and butter of being a vicar - that he will miss the most.
“As a vicar we are very involved with families so I have been involved with taking baptisms, weddings and funerals for them which is a huge privilege,” he said.
“So I will really miss the every day things just as much as the big special events.”
As well as being at the helm of St Peter’s, Canon Shepherd has a number of other strings to his bow.
Among his many roles the vicar, who is also a Queen’s Chaplain and Canon of Ripon Cathedral, is chair of governors of St Peter’s Primary School, sits on the CCTV panel for the town, is a member of the Harrogate Chamber of Trade and is on the executive of the Local Strategic Partnership. He also has long associations with a variety of charities in the town and has been a trustee of Harrogate and Ripon Centres for Voluntary Service.
So it is unsurprising that he plans to put his feet up when he retires - for a few weeks at least.
“I will be retiring to Nidderdale and no doubt I will get involved with the churches there in due course. In the mean time I’m a keen golfer so I’m going to enjoy playing. I also have a lot of projects I want to be getting on with so I shan’t be idle. But I shall look forward to a bit of relaxation,” he said.
Celebrations are planned at the church this weekend to bid a fond farewell to Canon Shepherd and his family, including an evening of entertainment on Saturday and a a faith lunch on Sunday.
It will also be a chance for the vicar to thank those he has met along the way.
“It’s been a wonderful period in our lives. I will be very sad to go but I’m looking forward to retirement. I want to say thank you because we’ve learned so much from everyone we have met and people have been really kind. We’ve had a tremendous time.”
• Pick up your copy of this week’s Harrogate Advertiser for more tributes from the Harrogate community.