MANY of us unthinkingly walk past it but a new project is hoping to bring life back to Lewisham borough's oldest building still in use.

"St Mary's Church has stood here, at the mid point of Lewisham’s long high street, for about 1,000 years," said church historian Julian Watson.

"It's the most important building in the community - the centre of worship and of all local government."

The congregation, currently 150 strong, have always been struck by the building's beauty and tranquillity, seeing it as an oasis of calm beside Lewisham's busy high street. But many people do not understand it's importance, Mr Watson said.

He explained: "Up until about the 1850s the church was not only a place of worship but it was the town hall as well and all local government operated from the vestry.

"The vicar and church wardens did everything - collected the rates and taxes, spending money on looking after the poor and the roads."

Because of its place on the high street - almost dead centre - the historian claimed it has always been "the hub and heart" of the community.

The oldest section is a medieval tower, forming part of an early church built between 1471 and 1512, though the main building we see today was built on the site in the 1770s.News Shopper: Lewisham's oldest building St Mary's Church in history project

Alongside it, the tranquil churchyard is notable for a host of fine tombs, many featuring finely sculpted cherubs, clouds, skulls and bones, while some of the 19th century graves are huge and opulent.

Those buried there include the poet Thomas Dermody and Charles Weller, a Captain in the East India Company Navy.

Now, thanks to £5,561 from the Lewisham Central Assembly, a series of heritage boards have been unveiled, telling the story of some of the people buried in the graveyard.

Mr Watson said: "From the Anglo Saxon period until the 19th century this was the only burial ground in the huge parish of Lewisham, making this a very significant historical site.

"Leland Duncan, the eminent Lewisham and Kent historian said of this churchyard in 1892, ‘Surely if there is any spot in this rapidly changing parish which will help us in recalling the past, it is the old churchyard'."

News Shopper: Lewisham's oldest building St Mary's Church in history project


A brief history of St Mary's

- The original church is believed to date back to the 10th century, when Lewisham and Greenwich were owned and run by the Abbey of St Peter's in Ghent, Belgium. Back then, the Ravensbourne had working mills, Forest Hill and Sydenham had 500 acres of woodland while Greenwich raked in money with an ancient port.

- It was rebuilt in the 15th century, with the floor around 10ft lower than the current building.

- In the 1600s, Abraham Colfe was the vicar. He went on to establish Colfe's School along with Lewisham's first library "for gentleman only".

- Structural problems due to the proximity of the Ravensbourne led to a structural survey in 1773, followed by plans for a new church on the site.

- On Boxing Day in 1830, the church was ravaged by fire, destroying many early records.

- The churchyard closed for burials after the opening of Ladywell Road cemeteries in 1856. In 1890, the local authority started managing it as a public open space.