It All Began At Sunday School
Vernon and Connie Vail were the founders of a small Sunday School which in the space of a few short years grew to become what is now Old Lodge Lane Baptist Church. They were a remarkable and, some might have said, an unlikely couple.
Connie was the daughter of a bank manager and Strict Baptist lay preacher. Vernon was raised in a pub, the Park Tavern in West Norwood. When Connie, mischievous and adventurous, landed a job as Vernon’s typist, love blossomed. In 1933 they eloped.
Vernon was not a Christian, but he dutifully accompanied Connie to the evening services at Ewell Baptist Church. It was there that he experienced the transforming power of Jesus. Connie’s faith moved from her head to her heart. Vernon applied himself with characteristic thoroughness to the Christian walk and deep study of the Word. The rest is history!
A move to Woodmansterne just before World War Two drew Vernon into ministry as a Sunday School teacher, then in 1948 the family moved to Old Lodge Lane. However, there was no Sunday School within easy reach.
So Vernon had some cards printed inviting children aged 9-13 to a new Sunday School at number 236. He then went to every house within walking distance, introduced himself and left a card with an invitation to join the class. The response was not encouraging. The first two weeks there were only three children – the Vails’ own two and a visiting friend.
Nothing daunted, Vernon went door-knocking again, dropping the age restriction and extending a second invitation, and this time children started to come. Every child was given his or her own Bible, which had to be brought every Sunday at 3pm. As attendance grew, so did interest from the children’s wider circle of family and friends.
Many of these asked to observe the class – so many that the children would be taught in the lounge while the audience crowded into the dining room and watched through the double doors. Some visitors stayed for tea and then joined the family for the evening service at Purley Baptist, after which a crowd of young people returned to the house for hymn-singing. The piano was from the Park Tavern bar.
The highlight of the early years was the annual trip to Littlehampton in June. A camp would be set up on the beach around a pole with a banner which said simply: TRUST. The day ended with a celebration tea before a coachload of tired, happy children headed back home.
When the option arose to build a new church in nearby Reedham Park Avenue, the pressure on 236 was relieved, but Vernon and Connie continued to be active at Old Lodge Lane and in the wider church. After retirement they moved to the New Forest, linking up with the Baptist church in Milford-on Sea, where of course they started a Sunday School.
Vernon died in December 1981 and was buried in the cemetery of All Saints parish church in Milford. After his death Connie found expression for her energetic faith at Lymington Baptist Church where she hosted visiting preachers, ran a house group, helped with Alpha, was on the interview panel for new church members and initiated a Friday shoppers’ coffee stop in the church basement. She also took on speaking and singing engagements.
At the age of 85 Connie emigrated to Canada to be near her family. At first she lived independently, then moved into a newly built seniors’ residence. She died on 6 June 2017 at the age of 106. In a family gathering in September 2018, Connie’s ashes were interred in Vernon’s grave.
The last word must go to Vernon and Connie’s daughter, Mary. Mary Lautard lives in British Columbia and has lovingly prepared a set of illustrated display boards for our 60th anniversary celebrations which tell the story of Old Lodge Lane’s earliest years.
Mary said: “When Dad died the pastor preparing for the funeral service asked me how I would sum up his life. My response was, ‘He was a man who never did a sloppy job’. From the very start, wherever he ministered, the Sunday School lesson was always prepared on Monday evening, to be kept in mind and prayed over all week long. Dad shut himself away and we would never disturb him but we could hear him praying aloud. When Old Lodge Lane Baptist Church was opened, all Sunday School teachers gathered on Monday evenings in the back room for a time of prayer and preparation for the next Sunday’s lesson.
“All that Dad achieved was with the complete support, engagement and effort of Mum. Leaving for church on a Sunday morning, the roast was in the oven and more potatoes could be dropped in the pot to feed anyone who turned up. Through everything she was the principal carer for Raymond, profoundly handicapped by encephalitis as an infant.
“Prayer was her life-long foundation and ministry. At the seniors’ residence she opened her door for prayer every Tuesday morning. To all at the church and beyond, What A Friend We Have In Jesus is still known as Connie’s hymn.”