The church was founded by St.Brynach about 550 AD. He was an Irish monk probably from a Monastic Order that had originated in southern France or Gaul and adapted its own Celtic overtones. Many of these monks set out, made land-fall and set up churches around the seaward boundaries of Western Europe. Brynach is said to have spoken with the angels on Carn Ingli the rocky peak overlooking Nevern. Other legends are told about him some of which are beautifully carved on the pew ends of Braunton Church in Devon, Brynach’s last foundation and resting place.
The church probably owes its site to the fact that it lay beneath a fortification where the monks could retreat and withstand a siege by the Norsemen who plagued this coast in the last centuries of the first millennium. St.Davids was also an important place of pilgrimage and Nevern lay on one of the principal routes to the Cathedral. Not a great deal is known of the pilgrims but the astounding footprints embedded in the slate steps above the Pilgrim’s Cross are evidence of the large number that passed this way. The church was then still a small building, stone built, rectangular, with the barest of decoration, principally carved Celtic crosses some of which can still be seen. Worship would have been very prayerful with the occasional Mass.
The Normans, arriving late in the Eleventh Century, drove out the Celtic Chieftains from what had now become Nevern Castle. Robert FitzMartin, the new Lord of the Manor, imported monks from Tiron in Northern France to create a new Abbey at St.Dogmaels. The Abbey, though suffering mixed fortunes during its active years, was the provider of priests for Nevern Church for over 400 years. The Church was rebuilt during this time in the familiar Norman Perpendicular style and evidence remains in the Church of where the incumbent monks resided. The Church interior and worship were very different in those days, the walls would have been painted in biblical scenes because very few of the people could read, and worship would have been principally Mass and much more colourful. Saints Days were strictly kept and the local population required to attend. The Nave was not then consecrated and was the site for any large gathering in the Parish that had to be indoors, meetings, games, even markets. The Church was the centre, but, because people lived almost exclusively in their own square mile, there were also chapels, wayside Crosses and Holy Wells dotted around the Parish.
The Reformation in 1534, the abandonment of the Catholic rule of the Pope from Rome, was a great shock to the people, mitigated only in that it took place slowly. The gentry of the Parish knew what was required of them but were not always willing to be part of it, and the population, who worked for them, took their lead from whatever their masters said. The Catholic Faith continued to be practised in the Parish albeit dangerously and illegally and the ‘gwerin’ or country folk continued to revere their Saints and shrines for well over 100 years after the Reformation, in fact it wasn’t until the ferocity of the Puritans during and after the Civil War of the 1640’s that these practices finally ceased. The new religion of the Puritans appealed to the ‘gwerin’, and paved the way for the nonconformist chapels and a much simpler plainer form of worship in the Anglican Church in rural Wales. Nevern was very involved in this,. the vicar for 51 years from 1783 was David Griffiths who, though opposed to the ordination of Methodist Ministers, believing that they should come from the ranks of ordained Anglican clergy, was very close to the Methodist cause. There was a Methodist chapel in Nevern and worship in Church and Chapel was almost indistinguishable.
From the early years of the 19th Century sons of the gentry were sent to public schools in England and subsequently to Oxford and inevitably came under the influence of the so-called Oxford Movement. The sons of the Bowens of Llwyngwair were not immune to this and gradually the Movement began to influence Nevern. In 1864 wholesale changes were introduced into the interior of the Church by London architect R.J.Withers producing the interior which one sees today. The Oxford Movement was inspired by a wish to re-establish worship as it had been before the Reformation, this was based as much on vivid imagination as it was on fact, and resulted in what is sometimes termed High Church. At Nevern this led to a curious admixture of traditional Welsh Nonconformity and Victorian Anglican practice that thanks to a plentiful supply of good singers amongst the Bowen tenants had a most pleasing effect.
The Church has become a favourite on the tourist trail in west Wales; the numbers signing the visitors book would suggest about 15000 a year, unfortunately their interest is drawn to the so-called ‘Bleeding Yew’ more than the Christian heritage and relevance of the place. To attempt to rectify this and to show each visitor that Jesus is alive and here as much as He was when the first mud floor was tamped down 1500 years ago, an ‘interpretative square’ is to be introduced into the back of the Church explaining how Christ is the raison d’etre of this place. Far more people come through the door of the Church as visitors than ever sit in the pews on a Sunday morning and it is to them the ‘interpretation’ will appeal, together with a small ‘quiet area’ at the front of the Nave where they can sit and think on these things. The Church is not a museum, it is a living vibrant community of parishioners who come together in fellowship and thanksgiving, believing as it says in John 3:16 “ For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that all who believeth on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”.