Hildegard Atherton 1923-2019

In thanksgiving for the life of Hildegard Atherton.

I am conscious of the particular honour of being asked to speak of Hildegard on the day of her funeral. We are all here because we loved her, but also because we knew she loved us. She was special to us, but she made each of us feel special to her. She was interested in what we did, and what we thought. We are all aware of her recent ‘failing strength’, but today I want to remember Hildegard in her prime, and especially as someone who effected significant changes within her local environment, which made waves not just ripples in a much larger pond.

So, it is with some trepidation that I am the first to address you today. But I know that I have been asked to speak first because of the primacy for Hildegard both of her life-long commitment to her faith as a Catholic Christian, and her on-going commitment to Christian Unity. This commitment was not blind. She always questioned. This questioning underpinned her approach to everything in her life. She was the ‘critical friend’ who did not fear speaking out when it seemed right. She remained a Catholic throughout her life, even when other churches might seem more welcoming, and easier in their strictures. She was content to ‘await the coming of the kingdom’ of Christian Unity from within the Catholic Church. She was a perfect example of ‘loyal dissent’ whenever she discerned an injustice or foolishness. She didn’t wear her faith lightly, but she never imposed her beliefs on others. She was always interested in the ideas of others, especially when they differed from hers.

This need to question, to explore, and for intellectual stimulation and academic rigour led to her, together with Desmond and others, becoming a founding member of the Coventry Circle of the Newman Association in 1957. 

The Newman is an organisation committed to discussion and the development of understanding of the Christian faith, aimed at meeting Newman’s wish for ‘an educated laity’. The Association takes its name from Cardinal John Henry Newman, who “wanted a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but those who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it… an intelligent, well-instructed laity…”. (The Present Position of Catholics in England, 1851)

Hildegard would come to the monthly meetings, engage in the discussions which would often continue into the social events. This stimulation and support was to last her all her life. It led to her hosting a variety of visitors with varying approaches to the church in the world. I especially remember meeting Daniel Berrigan, then an American Jesuit priest who actively opposed the Vietnam war: not a favoured position then. 

She had come to Coventry as a young wife and mother in the 50s, to a city severely impacted by war, not least the destruction of the cathedral by incendiary bombs. Her own young life had already been seriously disturbed by conflict and war, and she was attracted by the message of peace and reconciliation which the visionaries of Coventry Cathedral, and its city conveyed.

She had a real gift for friendship, and in parallel with Newman friendships, developed many local ecumenical contacts in the late fifties and early sixties, from the Free Churches as well as Anglicans. This small group of like-minded, Christians, mainly local and not clergy, was the active group which formed around the incipient Chapel of Unity.  

The principle of a Chapel of Unity binding the Church of England and the Free Churches together for Christian service in Coventry was born out of the sufferings of war and the visionary ecumenical enthusiasm of the church leaders. By November 1945 the West Crypt was dedicated to this principle and, with the building of the new Cathedral, the opportunity was taken to create a purpose-built chapel.  A stone of witness was laid in the entrance on 24th September 1960, and the Chapel of Unity was dedicated on Whit Tuesday, 12th June 1962, a fortnight after the Cathedral itself.

By the time I came to Coventry in early 1964 there was already a very well-established Wednesday morning Prayer Group, followed by a simple breakfast, meeting at 7.30am so that everyone could go straight on to work. Hildegard was a leading light. For a couple of years Brother Gerard and another Taize brother lived at Cheylesmore Manor House. Hildegard especially was inspired by their lived vision of a united church and with Desmond visited the Taize community several times.

The official record states: ‘In 1962 there was virtually no formal communication between the Roman Catholics and other denominations, but by 1970 the constitution of the Joint Council had been changed to include them on equal terms’. Hildegard Atherton was at the forefront of this ecumenical engagement who, with other Catholics, was active in making this major shift. 

These were heady days full of hope and expectation of greater unity as people prayed together, studied together and worked together. As a Catholic Hildegard will have been buoyed by the openness of the second Vatican Council which spoke not of a ghetto church but of a church which engaged with  the world: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ’. Gaudium et Spes. 1965. As a woman committed to a vision of Church Unity she was confirmed in her work by the Decree on Ecumenism, Church Unity: ‘The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council’. Decree on Ecumenism. 1969

When Desmond’s health, and then her declining health meant she could no longer attend the early Wednesday service, which continues to meet, but at the gentler hour of 8am, she maintained her interest in the work of the Chapel. It was a special joy for us all when she was able to attend the Thanksgiving service for the refurbishment of the Chapel of Unity last September.

Her commitment to church unity and drive for a more inclusive faith practice was not confined to prayer and discussion, but it also led to action. I know the next speaker will describe the setting up of CCHA which led to Extra Care. This was an embodiment of the ecumenical covenant made to promote the unity of all Christians. ‘Under this Covenant we agree to work together whenever possible and not to do separately those things which we can do together’. We would do well to remember this today. 

Hildegard was a woman who heeded the teachings of Christ as she prayed, argued, discussed and acted according with faith, hope and above all love in her heart. We have been blessed to know and love her.

May she now rest in peace, reunited with her beloved Desmond. 

Janet Ward, Co-Chair, Coventry Chapel of Unity CIO

Prayer for Christian Service – Monday 1st July 2019 4 – 5pm

Neighbours Coventry is an exciting initiative developed by local churches) in
partnership with Age UK Coventry to reduce isolation and therefore improve
health and wellbeing amongst older people, engaging with them by developing
existing social networks and using existing community resources to enable
residents to help each other.
Introduced by: Jess Day-Pollard

Pray for this ongoing and growing ministry to Coventry local communities

More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476
413004   [email protected]

Prayer for Christian Service Monday 3rd June 4pm

Genexis is an evidence based case for a creator God over 7 topics presented by world leading speakers, asking questions about beginnings, numbers, life, DNA, ethics, consciousness and life after death.

Introduced by: Ben Jacobs

Pray for this opportunity to introduce people to the Christian faith
More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004 [email protected]

Prayer points arising:_

1) For preparation for the event in September

2) For good relationships with ecumenical partners

3) For the June 12th dinner for church leaders at the
Guildhall and the speaker Martin Bashir

4) For links with the universities and their chaplains

5) For contacts to be made with atheistic and non-faith groups

6) For wisdom in “angling” publicity to attract enquirers

Prayer for Christian Service Monday March 4

Monday March 4th, 4 – 5 pm

The Salvation Army offers support, friendship and practical help to homeless families in the city.

Introduced by: Kelly Salisbury
(Service Manager, Hub and Outreach)

Listen to their story – encourage them with your prayer!

More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004 [email protected]



More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004          [email protected]

Salvation Army Homeless Families Support Prayer Points


  • For families to progress rapidly from temporary to settled accommodation


  • For peace of mind for homeless families


  • For guidance for the City Council as they allocate the contract for work with homeless families


  • For the team of support workers and the Service Manager, Kelly


  • For more accommodation for homeless families


6) For the support workers as they negotiate with Council officers  and housing agencies


December 2018 Prayer for Christian Service

Monday December 3rd, 4 – 5 pm

Chapel of Unity

Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Foodbank

gives out emergency food, plus other vital support services, seven days a week via their sixteen partner churches: find out more!

Introduced by: Hugh McNeill
Listen to their story – encourage them with your prayer!

More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004 [email protected]

Coventry Foodbank Prayer Points
1) That no-one in need will be missed
2) For ongoing support from the general public (Coventry is very supportive)
3) For those affected by issues arising from Universal Credit
4) For volunteers to assist in the warehouse and as trainees for the Resilience project

October 2018 Prayer for Christian Service

Monday October 1st, 4 – 5 pm

Chapel of Unity

Coventry Cathedral

The Light House

is a counselling agency based in Coventry, which offers timely, confidential and sensitive counselling help for a wide range of difficulties which people experience.

Introduced by: Julie Lancaster

(Agency Manager)


All welcome!


More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004             [email protected]

Light House Prayer Points

  1. For continuing finance for ongoing support from individual supporters          and churches
  1. For all clients with their varying needs
  1. For ability to cope with the demand from the 450 clients, involving                3000 sessions
  1. For an increase in the number of qualified counsellors
  1. For greater awareness in the churches of the ministry offered by Light House
  1. For success in applying for finance from trusts

September Prayer for Christian Service

Monday September 3rd, 4 – 5 pm

Chapel of Unity

Hope into Action Coventry provides homes for the most vulnerable in society in partnership with local churches, built on the belief that when people have a safe, secure home surrounded by loving, non-judgemental relationships they will find the strength and motivation to make positive life choices.

Introduced by: Nobby Clarke 

(Chair of Trustees)

All welcome!

More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004   [email protected]

Hope Into Action Coventry Prayer Points

  1. For homeless people nationwide: on the street, in B & B, sofa-surfing.
  2. For communication between agencies in the city.
  3. For those being supported in housing e.g. “Tick”, Ian, Adrian.
  4. For our nation and local authorities, for changes in legislation to provide more support for the vulnerable.
  5. For those entrenched in homeless, for whom other schemes have failed.
  6. For HIA to get families out of B & B.
  7. For church members to volunteer as mentors.

July Prayer for Christian Service

Monday July 2nd, 4 – 5 pm

Chapel of Unity 

Keeping Health in Mind offers a Bible-based coping skills course, the LIFE course, combining biblical wisdom with practical skills, enabling all people, however their lives have been impacted by mental health problems, to grow and to function more effectively.
Introduced by: Ali Hogger-Gadsby 
(Director of Keeping Health in Mind)
All welcome! 
More information: John Lloyd (Co-Chair, Chapel of Unity Joint Council) 02476 413004   [email protected]

Ali Hogger-Gadsby (Director) spoke about Keeping Health in Mind, which offers a Bible-based coping skills course, the LIFE course, combining biblical wisdom with practical skills.

Prayer points:

1) The need for new trustees, especially younger people who can identify with the needs of e.g. students suffering from mental ill-health.

2) The ministry has grown organically, often by word of mouth.  What comes next? – prayer requested for new direction and opportunities.

3) For the churches to become aware of the resources available to them through KHiM and for courage to reach out to the mentally-ill who come to them.

4) For needy people to discover the help offered by KHiM through the Breathe! sessions and on the Facebook page.