On Thursday 20th July 2023 at 5.30 pm, a final liturgy of Solemn Vespers of St John took place in St George’s Cathedral to mark the closure of St John’s Seminary, followed by the launch of 'These Walls Have Spoken': a beautifully illustrated book commemorating Wonersh. Many former students were present, alongside those who taught and served there as support staff, as well as benefactors and friends.
Solemn Vespers of St John
Archbishop John Wilson presided at the service and the Right Reverend Richard Moth, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton Diocese, and Vice-Chair of the Seminary Trustees, gave the homily, in which he noted that it was good to be able to gather to ‘pray once more the Vespers of St John and to reflect, once more, on the gift that was St John’s Seminary’. He went on to encourage the congregation to concentrate on their fond memories of Wonersh, and congratulated Monsignor Gerald Ewing, the former Rector of St John’s, for the work that had gone into the production of a commemorative book that would be launched after the service, describing it as:
‘a fitting celebration of St. John’s and all that the staff and students, the sisters anf others associated with the community brought to the life of the Church in this country’.
View Bishop Moth's Homily above
Also present at the service were Archbishop Emeritus Kevin Macdonald and former St John's Seminarian, Archbishop Bernard Longley, now the pastoral leader of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Contributions to the liturgy came from recently ordained priests and deacons, including two Cantors, Fr Joseph Meigh and Fr Thomas Lawes, both from the Diocese of Clifton, whilst Deacon Eddie Hopkins (Arundel and Brighton) read the Gospel. Deacons Frazer Bellfield and Gustavo Campanello, from Southwark and Arundel and Brighton respectively, assisted Archbishop Wilson as acolytes.
Book Launch: These Walls Have Spoken
After the service, invited guests repaired to Amigo Hall for the launch, where they were cordially greeted with a glass of wine and gentle flowing jazz. The joy of brother priests and deacons, who at one time had studied and been formed together, was tangible. Warm greetings and laughter filled the room, whilst many took the opportunity to view an excellent archive display of artefacts that once resided at St John’s Seminary, curated by Jenny Delves, the Diocesan Archivist. Among them was a cartoon relating to the lack of hot water in the seminary (please see the photographs below), which Archbishop Wilson later joked about with a reference to his own seminary days at the English College in Rome, recalling a student noticeboard on which were pinned the words 'Remember Brothers, many are called, but few are frozen'!
Monsignor Ewing opened the launch of the commemorative book by introducing the Editor, Elena Curti (pictured opposite), who thanked everyone present for coming and went on to acknowledge that, at 320 pages the planned book simply 'grew and grew', had rather exceeded its original remit of 96 pages. She acknowledged the considerable talents of the book’s designer and illustrator, Andrew Bates, with whom she shared a desire to ‘get it right’ and photographer Alex Ramsay, who contributed to the 572 images in the book. She particularly noted the many people associated with the seminary who provided over 50 articles, remarking that
“These personal accounts, perhaps more than anything else, sum up the spirit of St John’s. From these, it is clear that Francis Bourne’s vision of the seminary as a family survived. In fact, tonight is evidence that this sense of family lives on”.
Elena recalled that during her time collating the book at St John's she had learned how to make the famously strong ‘St John’s Trinity Cocktail’, indicating some relief that it was not being served during the launch, which caused great amusement among the assembled guests, She also expressed her surprise at hearing the confession of one former seminarian in relation to masterminding the re-location of a staff member's car from outside to inside the Seminary. quoting his words 'formation takes many forms'. Elena concluded by thanking Monsignor Ewing for being their ‘Editor in Chief’ and congratulated him on achieving ‘a good ending’ for St John’s Seminary.
Monsignor Ewing, who now fulfills the dual role of Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese of Southwark, spoke fondly of St John’s, saying
“if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard said of Wonersh ‘if only these walls could speak’, I would be a wealthy man…really, there was no other title for the book… we hope we have done our forbears proud".
Mgr Ewing went on to add his grateful thanks to all involved in the Wonersh Commemorative Publication Working Party (WCPWP):
Sophie Andreae: a powerhouse in connecting people.
Andy Bates: a brilliant graphic designer
James Crowley: his 5-volume inventory of every item in Wonersh was a work of art!
Elena Curti: Editor and proofreader
Fr Sean Finnegan: a Wonersh man and as author of ‘In Hope of Harvest’, an inspiration and the provider of a solid foundation for ‘These Walls Have Spoken’.
Joanne Halford: a dedicated archivist
Jon Purcell: Librarian and a ‘still small voice of calm’.
Fr Julian Shurgold: meticulous secretary of the Working Party, accomplished historian, and fount of knowledge and support.
Canon Luke Smith: fellow co-worker in the closure of Wonersh
He also thanked the Patrimony Committee, who advised on suitable destinations for the sacred and secular objects associated with St John’s, which now grace churches, seminaries and museums across the world. He closed his speech with the following words:
“St John’s opened well, and we hope in the final piece of the jigsaw, the publication of the book, and all it records, we have closed it well too. This book is our attempt to honour all those connected with Wonersh, in any way, over is 132 year history… this book has been written in celebration, and using the words of our beloved Patron, St John, from the reading at Vespers this evening… ‘we are writing this that our joy may be complete.’ .. and it is!”
Monsignor Gerald Ewing offers his Address at the Book Launch in Amigo Hall
Archbishop Wilson followed by giving thanks for “the many who have been called, and formed and shaped and sent out from St John’s”, and enthusiastically described the installation of the Altars of St John and Our Lady, which had previously resided in the Seminary Chapel, but now have a new home in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark. He also remarked on the sense of deep gratitude and joy amongst the guests and offered his thanks to Monsignor Ewing, noting his rare skills in achieving a good outcome at a challenging time,
Photo: opposite Archbishop Wilson and Sophie Andreae
Honouring St John's Seminary, Wonersh
Monsignor Ewing then led a final toast to the ‘memory of St John’s, Wonersh’ and the speeches were closed with a moving rendition of ‘Ad multos annos’, sung in full harmony by former students, who now serve as clergy throughout England and Wales. This rendition can be heard at the end of the recording of the speeches below.
These walls have spoken is an exceptional tribute to St John’s, produced with great care and meticulous attention to detail, Although we must now say a fond farewell to the building, the heart of St John's lives on in the spirit and legacy of the clergy who were formed there. The book will doubtless be treasured by many as a final ‘good memory’ of the Wonersh Seminary.
"Since the news that Wonersh will cease to function as a place of priestly formation has broken, I have been thinking of how the building itself formed me, and gave me a little of its spirit, how the building itself is part of the priestly tradition of our diocese. Place matters, geography and architecture matter. The soul lives in the body, and the body lives in a place - and the place seeps into the soul".
- Reverend Tom Lynch, Parish Priest, Strood
Purchase 'These Walls Have Spoken'
These Walls Have Spoken costs £25, plus P&P