A vicar who has taken the gospel to the front line of efforts to improve lives in her community during her ministry in Wigan is leaving.
Rev Denise Hayes brings the curtain down on more than five years of ministry at St Barnabas’ Church in Marsh Green and St Francis’ Church in Kitt Green, with her final services on Sunday, June 2.
The Ashton-raised minister has thrown herself into trying to raise the prospects of some of Wigan’s most deprived areas as they went through tough years of austerity, overseeing the opening of a foodbank and combatting the use and sale of illegal drugs on estates.
She is now moving on to spread the Christian message among another left-behind community, in Hattersley in east Manchester, and says it is the Transforming Wigan shake-up of the Church of England in the borough which has prompted her to move on.
Rev Hayes said: “The changes in Wigan are a different ministry and I know I haven’t got the skills and gifts needed to be a hub leader. I’m handing over to somebody who does.
“It’s probably the hardest decision I’ve made, because I do love these churches and the community.
“The changes are good in themselves, there’s nothing wrong with them, but it requires a different skillset which is not mine.
“It has been a privilege serving the people here. Marsh Green can have a bad name but it’s a brilliant place.
“The people are fantastic. They have faced so many challenges and they can teach us an awful lot. St Barnabas’ is a brilliant place where people are so encouraging and supportive.”
Rev Hayes has become a familiar face in drives to improve the fortunes of those on the breadline, and she paid tribute to the political and civil leaders who she has worked closely with during her time as a faith leader.
She also offered a strong riposte to the oft-repeated mantra that religion and politics should always stay apart, saying her faith very much drives her determination to bring about social justice.
She said: “Jesus did not think religion had nothing to do with politics. God says all the way through the Bible that we should care for the poor and vulnerable and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. We are not good at that.
“Churches are not here by accident, God has placed them where He wants them.
“We are called to be light and hope and to show the love of God.
“It’s looking round and seeing how we are being called to do that. That’s what we’ve done here.
“People have been through tough times. The welfare reforms have hit our community really badly. The extra bedroom tax, Universal Credit, these are cruel systems which hit the most vulnerable. The UN report that has just come out is quite strong on that.
“Everybody working together makes us stronger, and Wigan is a great place with great communities. Lisa Nandy MP really gets the heart of the place and you can see she genuinely cares for the people.
“There’s everything Donna Hall has done with The Deal, linking workers in the community.
“That’s brilliant because you don’t see it everywhere.
“We’ve been able to work with partners like Addaction, the school in Marsh Green, Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles, Westfield Children’s Centre and our local PCSO. They are tremendous.”
Throughout her time in the pulpit in Marsh Green and Kitt Green Rev Hayes has been outspoken on social issues.
She offered no-holds-barred criticism of the Government over issues such as cuts to which youngsters are eligible for free school meals and was so concerned about people unable to afford to eat properly she set up a foodbank in the church to give out emergency food parcels.
She also spoke openly about problems with illegal drugs in her community, repeatedly calling for action to tackle illicit substances after a youth group had to be closed due to the behaviour of teens under the influence.
She also helped residents battle to prevent The Bell in Kitt Green being used for housing, compering public meetings and urging those concerned to write letters to the authorities.
Her final day in the job is a typically packed schedule, with three services to be led across the two churches in what she admits will be a very emotional goodbye.
However, she said she is leaving the church in good hands and described supporting and encouraging the new leadership team to reach its potential as a very proud achievement.
She will then head off to her new congregation on the other side of the region, saying she sees many of the same challenges there which Wigan faces.
She said: “The people there seem lovely, the hard part is starting again and not knowing where anything is.
“It’s following where God leads us. Sometimes it feels a bit like Laurel and Hardy and you want to say: ‘This is another fine mess you’ve got me into!’ but he always guides us through.
“I’m just grateful for the time I’ve had here in Wigan. Coming back will depend on seeing what God has in store for me.”
Church leaders in the borough heaped praise on Rev Hayes’ work during her time at the two churches and said the ongoing structural changes would not mean ministers’ skills and gifts would be underestimated.
Rev Philip Anderson, area dean, said: “We are sorry to be losing Denise. She has been a great blessing to Marsh Green and Kitt Green. She has built strong partnerships, bringing vital services to the local community, reimagining what the Church can be.
“We are deeply grateful that she has created an excellent team to continue her work.
“Like all Christians, Denise has been asking where God is calling her. We will be praying for her as she moves to her new church in Hattersley.
“As we look to the future in Wigan, finding new ways of working together more closely as a church, we will continue to value the work of priests like Denise, full of God’s passion and creative vision.
“We look forward to building closer partnerships among the local churches, lovingly serving their communities, asking God to help us make a bigger difference.”