St. Mark’s English Church Community Outreach

James Short and Eleanor Walker at St. Mark’s, Florence (photo by Breanna Assumma)

Despite experiencing setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St Mark’s English Church has adapted in order to continue to provide various services to the Florentine community. Located on Via Maggio since 1880, the English-speaking church has been and is not only known for offering worship in the Anglican tradition, but also for its many arts and cultural programs.

A tradition at the church that is indicative of their collaboration of faith and the arts is the choir. Those who attend weekly service at St. Mark’s can expect to experience a vast variety of music. 

“Music is integral to St. Mark’s and St. Mark’s really prides itself on the fact that it has this really strong choral tradition,” said James Short, the director of music. “A lot of people come, and their experience of worship at the church is really lifted by the presence of the choir. You can be walking down the stairs and you will hear an opera aria from one room, you might hear someone practicing the organ, you’ll hear the choir, you’ll hear a harpsichord.”

Other programs at St. Mark’s include the increasingly popular Armchair Drama, which meets once a month in a hybrid format. This is due to regular participants from Germany, the United Kingdom and other areas of Europe who can only attend via Zoom. Florence Writers, another popular club, was restarted through Eleanor Walker’s direction, the former Artistic Director and current Administrator at St Mark’s. Yoga classes have also been offered, and the space hosts a book club.

The newest initiative that Walker and Short are launching is a Language Café.  Hoping to be held monthly by the organizers, its purpose to offer a no-judgement space for non-native Italian speakers to practice their conversational skills and socialize with others who are learning as well. Starting in April, the church will welcome a group of musicians from Rome, who will be starting a regular concert series on Wednesday evenings.

These many projects have been the fruits of labor of Walker and Short, who both arrived after that St. Mark’s had been closed in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Once the church reopened in Sept. 2020, both have gone to work to make the most of this opportunity as a chance to rebuild and increase the reach of the cultural and arts programs. 

Walker has a background in art history and completed her master’s degree at the Courtauld in London on Florentine art. In the fall of 2020, her previous career in London with luxury art travel was coming to an end, so she spoke to the then chaplain, whom she had met the previous summer singing in the choir, who offered her a job. 

“It’s a very special place full of lovely people,” Walker said. “That’s why I felt safe to move there on my own in a pandemic, because I knew that there would be a community to look after me.”

Short, hailing from Kent, applied for the job just before the pandemic’s start in 2020. Out of all of the job opportunities he applied for, St. Mark’s was the only one that was still viable. He saw this as a chance for change, so he decided to move here. He completed a bachelor’s degree in music at Oxford, was an organ scholar and has a background in church music.

In this effort to start new projects and bring back old ones, Walker and Short hope to bring back the LGBTQ socials, which are run by Short. He feels it’s important to have this group because similar groups in Florence are geared towards locals. This group creates an opportunity for all languages and backgrounds to gather. 

Said Walker, “This social space is just there to talk and it’s not political, nor is it pointed at the church; it’s just merely providing a place for everyone to feel included and to meet.”

As an English-speaking church in Italy, St. Mark’s not only caters to foreigners in Florence, but to local Italians as well. It is through their selection of cultural programs that they hope to bridge the divide between foreigners and locals. 

“There’s always been a very strong contingent of English people who are living out here ever since the grand tour and the 1700s,” Short said. “There’s been an English-speaking church in Florence since the early 19th century. The primary purpose of St. Mark’s has been to offer worship in the Anglican tradition to anyone who wants it in Florence.”

St. Mark’s does not receive any money from the Church of England, or the government. 

“We have the collections from the congregation who worship there regularly, but through the cultural program, we hope to provide some kind of sense of community whilst also raising funds for the maintenance of the place,” Walker said.

Another future step Walker and Short are looking forward to is the selection of a permanent chaplain. After the departure of William Lister in Dec. 2020, the position has been filled by a series of locum (interim) chaplains. With the arrival of a new, permanent chaplain, they hope it will help with this new chapter in St. Mark’s history.

To learn more about the cultural programs hosted by St. Mark’s, the main events of which has now been handed to another member of the team, please send an email to events@stmarksitaly.com.  Those who are interested can also learn more by visiting the events page on the website, check out St. Marks English Church on Facebook and Instagram or contact the church to be put on the mailing list for their newsletter.  (marissa conter)