From Tehkummah farm to fairy tale: Island girl gets dream job

ESTHER MEETS THE QUEEN––Esther Anstice, left, Deputy Virger at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, U.K., smiles at Queen Elizabeth Friday morning as the Queen and Prince Phillip, right, chat to cathedral staff during Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday thanksgiving celebrations. Ms. Anstice is wearing her formal virger’s robes and carries her sterling silver ‘virge.’ To her right is Chief Virger Charles Williams, Dr. David Ison, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (maroon robes, between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillips) introduces the Queen to Ms. Anstice and her colleagues. photo courtesy of the CBC

Esther Anstice part of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday celebration at St. Paul’s Cathedral

by Isobel Harry

LONDON, ENGLAND—It’s a long way from being a server at St. Francis of Assisi Anglican church in Mindemoya—and Esther Anstice herself calls her new job at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London “surreal”—but the determined young woman who grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Tehkummah and last weekend met Queen Elizabeth II during the monarch’s 90th birthday celebrations takes it all in stride.

Born in Mindemoya, Esther Anstice attended public school there and then onto Manitoulin Secondary School before obtaining a teaching degree from Nipissing University in North Bay. She returned to the Island and got her first job at The Expositor as circulation manager, which she held for four years. After her stint in the newspaper business, Ms. Anstice resumed studies at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, thinking she’d become a paramedic. (She had worked in a volunteer capacity as a member of Tehkummah’s unique First Response Team and felt the urge to take formal paramedic training.)

But Ms. Anstice felt the pull of England, the birthplace of both her paternal and maternal forebears, and in 2010, as a newly graduated paramedic, she moved to the UK on an ‘ancestry visa.’ “I have Yorkshire and Somerset roots,” explains Ms. Anstice. “My maternal grandfather was born in Shrivenham, my paternal great-grandparents were born in Axbridge, Somerset and arrived on Manitoulin in the first years after WWI. So, in a way, the UK was already a family home when I got here!”

Sharing a moment of levity with the heir who is second in line to the throne is all in a day’s work for Deputy Head Virger Esther Anstice of Tehkummah, who has been in the job a scarce eleven months. To Prince William’s right is the Duchess of Cambridge, and to Ms. Anstice’s right is the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Diocesan Chancellor.
Sharing a moment of levity with the heir who is second in line to the throne is all in a day’s work for Deputy Head Virger Esther Anstice of Tehkummah, who has been in the job a scarce eleven months. To Prince William’s right is the Duchess of Cambridge, and to Ms. Anstice’s right is the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Diocesan Chancellor.

She had visited before, “regularly travelling to the UK many years ago as part of a choir, conducted by noted organist Ian Saddler. We would fill in for the regular cathedral choirs when they were on holiday and sing the services in their place. I suppose that’s when the real attraction to working in a cathedral started. On one of the trips we sang services at St. Paul’s itself, and of course it was an overwhelming and wonderful experience.”

Living in the UK, Ms. Anstice worked first for eight months at Oxford University, digitizing mediaeval manuscripts before applying for a job as Weddings and Baptisms Administrator at St. Paul’s Cathedral (prompted by mom Dorothy, who is still St. Francis of Assisi’s organist while dad Jim is a former church warden, who saw the posting on the Cathedral’s website). She snagged the job handily and worked in London at the famous church for the next four years. When the post of Deputy Head Virger (spelled verger in Canada) became vacant 11 months ago, she applied and got that one, too.

“I liken the job of virger to that of a stage manager,” says Ms. Anstice by way of clarification, “and St. Paul’s to a theatre. We ‘put on the show,’ we’re responsible for the props, sets and costumes. That includes the ceremonial plate and furnishings, the candles, vestments and the order of the service.”

St. Paul’s Cathedral, however, is no ordinary stage: the massive Anglican Cathedral sits on a site that first saw a church built there in 604 AD; the current cathedral was rebuilt by the prominent architect Christopher Wren after the great fire of London in 1666, opening its doors for worship 30 years later. Its spectacular dome, at 365 feet high, was the tallest building in London until the 1960s.

In addition to daily services, the church continues to play a seminal historical role in the national life of the country, hosting significant services for the jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, the peace services at the end of both world wars (St. Paul’s survived the London Blitz despite being bombed twice, in 1940 and 1941), the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and the funerals of Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill, who are buried in the enormous crypt beneath the church.

“St. Paul’s is a very busy cathedral,” says Deputy Head Virger Anstice. “There are four services a day and five on weekends, plus baptisms and weddings. There are 70 or 80 special services a year, and concerts and recitals, with 200 employees who carry out all the necessary functions. A regular weekday might start with five to ten people attending a small morning service while Palm Sunday will bring 2,700 to 3,000 people into the church.”

The Cathedral began planning the June 10 national service of thanksgiving to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday one and a half years ago. “There were multiple meetings with the Palace and 10 Downing Street,” says Ms. Anstice. “Also with the BBC, the musicians, and with clergy from all over the UK. “In addition to the pivotal roles of the members of the Cathedral’s Chapter (including the Dean, the Very Reverend David Ison and the Precentor, responsible for music and liturgy, the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel), the six virgers are in charge of “ensuring the order” of the day’s service.

The day before the Big Day, there were two rehearsals held at the Cathedral, one at 2:30 for the readers and other participants and the other, a full-dress rehearsal with stand-ins, at 5 pm for a full walk-through with timings.

On the morning of Friday, June 10, with the service scheduled for 11, the Royal Family entered through “the Great West Doors, the ones Charles and Diana came through on their wedding day” at 10:20 and first were introduced to the staff of the Cathedral, walking along a long line of employees and greeting each in turn.  More than 50 Royals attended the service, including Princes Charles, Edward, Andrew, William and Harry, the Duchesses of Cambridge and Cornwall, and of course Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Esther Anstice stood in line with her colleagues, dressed in the traditional virger uniform for special services: “a black floor-length cassock with a gown that goes over top trimmed in red velvet on the front with red tassels down both sides. I carry a virge, a traditional thin silver rod that is about 32 inches long. Mine is 310 years old.” On her feet she wears “Doc Martens, very comfortable.”

“We were introduced to all the Royals by the Dean. When he came to me and the Dean’s Virger, we were introduced and it was mentioned that my boss Charles Williams has worked at St. Paul’s for 31 years, and that I’d been the Deputy Head Virger for a few months. The Queen remarked that this will all be very new for me, and I said that it was but that it was a lovely day indeed. We exchanged a smile and she was then introduced to the Diocesan Chancellor to my right. It was a very quick moment, but one to remember!”

During the service, as Ms. Anstice led the Archbishop of Canterbury to the pulpit and the Bishop of London to the altar, among other duties, her mobile phone silently buzzed with comments from more than 50 friends and relatives who had seen her on television.

“I can’t think about how I feel when I’m working,” says Ms. Anstice. “I need to focus and do my job. St. Paul’s Cathedral is a machine and my job is to make sure everything goes according to plan.” Which it did, with 2,200 guests in attendance, pomp, circumstance, very strict protocols in place and a 28-page program.

“When I do stop to think about it, I feel incredibly honoured and privileged to have participated in this historical event for England’s longest-reigning monarch, and proud and humble.”

While Ms. Anstice finds it difficult to be away from her family in Tehkummah, and misses the “fresh air and open spaces” of the Island, she tries to return home once a year. “I’m still a country girl at heart. I enjoy the English countryside, the people are lovely, but once an Island girl, always an Island girl. I’ll always be a Haweater.” Her parents, “real Anglophiles,” visit every 18 months or so. Despite the challenges, her “exciting, tiring, diverse” job is “a unique and special opportunity” that she is thrilled to hold.

“This is not a job for me, it’s a vocation,” Ms. Anstice confides. “I’ve always been interested in history, liturgy, music and architecture. What better place to combine all four interests? St. Paul’s, and many other cathedrals in the UK, bring these wonderful things all together, and I’m very blessed to work in a place that speaks so deeply to and represents in such a beautiful way these things I love.”

Back home on the farm, however, other priorities also prevailed.

Esther Anstice, centre, in her role as Deputy Head Virger, during last weekend’s national service of thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth. She wears traditional ceremonial robes and carries a ‘virge’, a long silver rod that is 310 years old. photos by Graham Lacdao
Esther Anstice, centre, in her role as Deputy Head Virger, during last weekend’s national service of thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth. She wears traditional ceremonial robes and carries a ‘virge’, a long silver rod that is 310 years old.
photos by Graham Lacdao

Because the Queen’s 90th birthday thanksgiving event was televised worldwide, anyone watching got to see Ms. Anstice too.

Bill and Mary Caesar from White’s Point were among these early-risers last Saturday. “Mary got me up at 6 am to watch the Queen,” Bill Caesar told The Expositor.

“And there was Esther at St. Paul’s.”

Ms. Caesar said she was particularly interested as she is a graduate of St. Paul’s Girls’ School.

Mr. Caesar tried to call Ms. Antice’s parents Jim and Dorothy Anstice right there and then, he said, but there was no answer.

That would have been, Dorothy Anstice explained matter-of-factly to The Expositor on Monday, because she and her husband Jim and Esther’s brother Alex were in the barn milking their 48 Holsteins as usual between 5:30 and 7 am as their daughter and sister were live on television.

“We watched it later on YouTube,” Ms. Anstice said.