Twenty five years ago members of St Michael’s Church stared in disbelief at the smouldering remains of their building, after a blaze had completely gutted it.

Little did they know that the church would recover and come back stronger and more resilient than ever.

It is thought that someone had broken in to the Workington church to steal the takings from a flower festival that was held the night before.

It is understood that a candle was knocked over, setting fire to vestments, and starting a chain of events that would change the church forever.

The town rallied together to get the church rebuilt and Canon Brian Rowe, who took over the church in 2001, shortly after it reopened, summed it up well when he said: “This church is a great resource for the town.

“We are the church of the 21st century.

“Everyone was drawn closer together through adversity and all held dear to the goal to see the church rebuilt from the ashes.”

Twenty five years later a book has been launched detailing the findings of archaeologists who investigated the site after the devastating fire of September 28 1994.

At a recent weekend of discovery, over 150 people listened to archaeologist Adam Parsons’ intriguing lecture which detailed the main discoveries and the book, St Michael’s Church, Workington: Excavation of a Medieval Cemetery, which he co-authored with John Zant, was launched.

Archaeologists who excavated the site found over 300 sets of human remains. They said the site was of national interest and was much older than originally thought.

It could be one of the oldest sites of continuous Christian worship in the North.

Radiocarbon dating of the skeletons and examination of the sculpted stones and the metal artefacts that were found all point to there being a worshipping Christian community based at the site where St Michael’s Church now stands going back over 1,300 years or more to the early half of the 7th Century.

Experts say it is highly likely that there was a monastic community based here and that there were at least three clear phases of burials relating to the early medieval period (roughly 630-940 AD), the late medieval period (1010-1040) and from Norman times onward (1200-1500).

The site was disrupted and changed with later building, especially for the 1770 church after the previous medieval building was demolished and again when this was replaced, after a previous fire in 1887, with the Gothic-style structure which can be seen today.

The external structure survived the more recent blaze.

The Rev Dr Peter Powell, from St Michael’s said: “It shows that people from this town were living out fascinating lives that seem in many ways far removed from our experience of life today and yet offer us a chance to see the many strands of continuity they also hold.

“In so many ways their lives were very different.

“They lived and loved and died here, worshipping the same God that we do today.

“They suffered many hardships with evidence of rickets and scurvy not uncommonly seen in the skeletal remains.

“But what is striking is the common humanity that links them to us today across the centuries; most of all their lives speak to us of a common bond and a heritage that is so precious.”

The metal findings and the sculpted stones that were found are displayed in St Michael’s Church and over the next few months a more detailed display and explanation of the findings will be made available.

Now, the church is a hub of activity with events almost every day of the week.

The community building is used by local and central government, charities, the NHS, private firms, local support groups for counselling, schools, one-to-one outreach, and the church youth group and Sunday school.

When the conference centre is open for activities, it also provides an opportunity for the congregation to come in and use the church too.

The church has seen its first ordination, with a service for Dr Powell receiving his priesthood from the Right Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, at a service on June 29.

Dr Powell said he was honoured to step into the continuing history of the church and to serve the people as their latest priest.

Twenty five years ago, a congregation was devastated at the loss of their church, but a new community building has risen out of the ashes, and just as the site has proved to be a meeting place for people for over 1,300 years, so it is hoped it will continue to be a community hub for many years for future generations.