Blue Christmas - A Sanctuary away from the longest night

The Sanctuary, a community cafe based at St Ambrose church in Widnes celebrated its first birthday in November. Rev'd Laura Leatherbarrow reflects on the growth of the project and how it is helping people in the community at the point of need for mental health and well-being.

How do you tackle the growing problem of mental ill-health and social isolation? Particularly at this time of year, during the long, dark winter nights, memories of past experiences and the pain of present experiences and situations can become overwhelming. Rev'd Laura Leatherbarrow with the support of the PCC opened up the doors of St Ambrose church as a community café last November. This Christmas they are hosting a special event to invite people to participate during a time of year when people can feel particularly ‘blue’. 

“A Blue Christmas- for when it feels like the longest night”.

Laura explains more about the event being held on 20th December 3pm at St Ambrose Church Widnes. "Part of the name for this service comes from the fact that we are approaching the longest night which is on the 21st Dec. But the name, “Longest Night”, also describes the feeling that a number of us have during this season.

We are holding the service as near as we could to the longest night as we know that’s how it feels for people when they are struggling with bereavement or mental health issues. We want to acknowledge Christmas but also recognise that it can be really hard to get through. For some, Christmas Day is the most difficult. For others, Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve and knowing that it’s the beginning of another lonely year.

The service allows people to listen, pray and sing. There is a time to meditate upon the pain and anguish they may bring – and we invite you to offer that pain to the Christ child.  In this service we trust that people will find hope and comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

At ‘The Sanctuary’ we believe in caring for our community, in some cases we are just there week by week, for some it’s the chat, for some it’s the laughter, for others it’s the silence but for all who walk through the doors it means we are no longer alone. We hope this service allows for some that peaceful sanctuary we all need at some point in our lives."

How the Sanctuary has been making a bigger difference

“A safe space to meet new friends” is how they describe it. “Extravagant hospitality” is another of their mottos, as they seek to offer good quality food and drink in a beautiful setting, and all for free.
Every Wednesday from 10:30-2:30, between 30-60 people come along for lunch, tea/coffee, homemade cakes and fellowship. People can join in the banter on one of the “noisy tables” or play board games or do craft on one of the quieter tables. If they want to talk to someone, then the vicar and a support worker from MIND are always available for a 1-to-1 conversation in a private space. And anyone who wants further help can now be referred to a trained counsellor, based in the church vestry.

The café attracts people of all ages – from young mums, some of whom are struggling with postnatal depression, through to older ladies who are bereaved and lonely, as well as residents from the local nursing home, who are suffering from early stage dementia – “It’s an eclectic mix, but it works”.

The Sanctuary has recently extended its opening hours and is now open from 10:30-2:30. It has continued to grow and as well as the offering courses such as the Cash Savvy course run by Julia Webster, and Mindfulness courses by health and wellbeing. They are excited by the prospect that from January 2018, MIND will be using the vestry within the Church to hold counselling sessions. This is amazing as it means people will be able to have the counselling session in Widnes and won’t have to travel to Runcorn which is the current situation at present.  It will be the usual feed into it, which is either by NHS referral, MIND referral, but also the Sanctuary will be able to refer into the service which is fantastic. 

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My Sanctuary

Jimmy, who was one of The Sanctuary’s first visitors, and was suffering from depression after the breakdown of his marriage, is one of a committed group of [3-4] volunteers that helps out each week. As well as setting up the tables, he does the stock-taking, provides a taxi service for less mobile customers, and even cooks a mean stew.

Tracy, who also started coming soon after it opened about a year ago, says that The Sanctuary has been the difference between sinking and swimming: “I started coming a year ago - just a hollow shell. I could not face the world, my work life and family life deeply affected by my depression. Then Jimmy told me about Sanctuary, and asked if I could come along. I took a deep breath and walked in. From that moment on, my life has changed beyond belief. The support and the friendships I have, have given me my life back. I love helping were I can, and reaching out to people in the community. It’s given me a purpose in my own life.”