IT WAS 1930 and Verna Paul’s first day at her new school in Bugbrooke village, Northamptonshire. She was very shy, so it was a tremendous relief when her new teacher greeted her with a beaming smile and said:
“Now, Verna, come with me and I’ll show you which is your desk. I’ve a got a really nice little girl for you to sit next to!”
This was Verna’s first introduction to Lily Curtis – and the start of a close friendship that, to date, has lasted 76 years.
Nobody looking at the two seven-year-old girls sitting at their old-fashioned desks could have predicted that, in their mid-forties, they would play active parts in the remarkable events which transformed their village Baptist chapel.
“We were born eight days apart in July, 1923, from very different backgrounds” says Verna. “In those days, the division between ‘church’ and ‘chapel’ was rigid. Lily’s family were ‘church’. Mine were ‘chapel’. Lily was born in Bugbrooke into a big family who worshipped at the Anglican church. Her father and grandfather worked in the shoe industry.
“My family were Primitive Methodists and newcomers to the village. I was an only child, born in a remote shepherd’s cottage on the Warwickshire-Staffordshire border. The isolation made my mother depressed so, when I was seven, Father moved to Bugbrooke to work as a shepherd right in the middle of the village, where Mother could have friends and neighbours.”
In spite of their different backgrounds, the friendship blossomed. In 1939, when the girls were sixteen, war with Germany was declared. Their paths temporarily took different directions: Lily joined the Women’s Royal Airforce; Verna moved to Watford for a wartime teacher’s training course. In 1949, Verna came home to teach in Northampton and in 1960 became deputy head of Bugbrooke School, where she worked until her retirement in 1983.
Meanwhile, in 1947, Lily married Arthur Curtis, who was a chapel member. When their children, Jane and Geoffrey, were born, they were dedicated at chapel and later joined Sunday School. Verna, by now, was chapel organist and Sunday School teacher, so the lives of the two friends became even more closely bonded.
“In 1957,” says Verna, “we heard the chapel was to have a new minister and Noel Stanton arrived. In 1969 Noel received the baptism in the Spirit. Soon the whole village was talking about ‘strange goings-on at chapel’ – speaking in tongues, dramatic healings, demons being cast out, lives being transformed. Our quiet village chapel attracted widespread publicity!”
Amidst all the joy and excitement of this powerful work of the Holy Spirit, personal tragedy came to Arthur and Lily.
“The day after his twentieth birthday, in September 1969,” says Lily, “our son Geoffrey was rushed to hospital with serious stomach pains. After five operations he was taken into intensive care with septicaemia. Verna, Noel and Geoff’s young friends were constant visitors. For three months the whole chapel prayed for his healing but in January 1970 he died. He was very fond of Verna and loved it when she came to pray. One of the last things he did was to ask me to buy Verna a present – a brand new song book called Youth Praise.
“Noel took Geoff’s funeral and six friends carried his coffin right across the village from chapel to the churchyard.
As a family we were heartbroken. But God brought good out of Geoff’s death because it was Geoff’s illness and death that brought me into the fullness of the Holy Spirit and membership at chapel.”
By 1971, as the work of the Holy Spirit gained momentum, the Fellowship went on retreat to Malham to seek God for the way ahead. Prophetic teaching focused on two ‘hot topics’: community of goods and celibacy.
“We have friendships of all ages and we’re proud of the generations that have followed us.” – Verna
“By now, “says Verna, “my parents had died and I was living alone in our cottage. I loved children, but I’d begun to suspect God was calling me to stay single for Him. “One night at Malham, I got out my little torch to read my Bible. A verse jumped off the page: ‘For your Maker is your husband’. The words made me feel full of joy and worship. As I switched off the torch, the room filled with bright light and I saw a figure, who said: ‘Yes, that’s what it’s about – your Maker is your husband and you will have many spiritual children!’
“Two days later, as if to confirm what Jesus had said, the elders asked if I would take a young girl into my home to live. For some years my cottage had been bursting at the seams in the evenings with young people. Now, with the cottage next door, where a leader, Kelly, and his wife Norma lived, it became one of our pioneer community houses. Over the next seven years, many young people began community life there. In 1978, we moved from the cottages to open a big community house called Living Stones in Flore, the next village. It’s been my home to this day.”
Over thirty years have passed and Verna and Lily are still active in serving the Fellowship they both love.
Sadly, in 1999, after fifty years of happy marriage, Arthur died, aged 85. Lily’s ministry of ‘hospitality to the saints’ has continued without a pause. “Every day I think we’re such a blessed and privileged people,” says Lily. “Trust and understanding are the keys to friendship. I can tell Verna anything and she always knows what’s confidential.”
“I now have no close natural relatives,” says Verna. “Lily is like family to me – that’s real, isn’t it! My sight and hearing are going now. I can’t give myself to practical things as I used to – but prayer is my great consolation.
Many of the girls who lived with me now have children and grandchildren themselves. Lily and I have plenty to pray about and we’re proud of the generations that have followed us!”
Three years ago, chapel was packed with people of all ages who’d come to celebrate Verna and Lily’s 80th birthdays. Many were challenged and inspired by their friendship, which has spanned seven decades and produced rich treasure in God’s service.
‘Living Stones’ is the name of a large New Creation Christian Community house in Flore, Northamptonshire. One of the Jesus Fellowship’s first big community houses, started in 1977, Living Stones has now produced a second and third generation and started a ‘daughter’ house in Northampton called Living Light. Read these other stories of three generations of living stones: ‘Faith of our fathers‘ and ‘Dream home‘. Separate stones – one building. Separate accounts – one story.
“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” (1 Peter 2:5)