Hunston Convent and Chichester Free School

Posted by RDN under Mind & body on 22 April 2017

Chichester Free School is taking over Hunston Convent, a 19th Century Carmelite monastery to the south of the city, on the threshold of the Manhood Peninsula. It’s a brilliant and exciting adventure, since the school is a mint-fresh sort of institution and the convent building is a Victorian classic, and its community had roots which go centuries deep, and all over the world. The convent’s fabric is being reborn in spectacular fashion – and I hope something of its spirit, too.

Hunston Carmelite Convent, seen stripped and ready for rebuild as Chichester Free School. This snap was taken around 6am in May, the time of day and season when the sun shines on the 1872 building’s north face. The east side is now bare, but from 1930 the chapel abutted it. It was too ruined by a fire in 2009 to be kept. Pic by RDN

Hunston Convent has for years been a rather mysterious presence just south of Chichester, on the Selsey road. It was an 1870s working convent until 1994. For several years after that it was used as agricultural housing. Following a 2009 fire in its 1930s chapel, it was near-derelict until last year. Then came news of its planned reuse as a home for the expanding Chichester Free School, now well-advanced for a planned opening in September 2018.

RDN’s research
Long a fan of monastic life, I spent part of 2016/17 researching the building and its community. The main result is a c7000-word PDF document which summarises their history, and the Order of which they were part. In particular, it discusses what such a building and background might mean to a school. Here it is:
RDN on Hunston Convent (25 April 2017)

Steve Tattersall’s photographic record
Rob Matthews, a CFS governor, offered RDN and Stephen Tattershall, a distinguished local photographer, unparelled access to the building as it was readied for reuse. A sample of Steve’s photographs is available here:
Stephen Tattersall photography

Two Hunston Carmelites on monastic life
In July 2016 Sister Mary Clare and Sister Mary Helen spoke to me from their convent in Terre Haute, USA, about their period in the Hunston Carmelite convent but also more widely about their monastic vocations. It is fascinating to hear about what drew two young women of the Beatles and Mary Quant generation to the life of traditional prayerful seclusion, and how it holds them still.
MC & MH transcript July 2016 PDF

SS Fawn and the nuns’ Channel crossing
I did some work on the little 1870 steam ship which brought the exiled community of Carmelite nuns from Cherbourg to their new Sussex home in 1870. It is here:
SS Fawn and the nuns”

Hunston Convent’s legacy to the homeless
As a parting gift to the world around it, Hunston’s Carmelite community in 1994 donated a part of their land to Stonepillow, a local (religious) charity which works with Chichester’s homeless,  disturbed and addicted people. It was a cottage sitting on a plot across the B2145 from the convent itself and proved vital to the charity’s work. Here is that story:
The story of Stonepillow’s birth

1872 newspaper story on Hunston Convent
The West Sussex Gazette
, 29 February 1872, wrote a piece about the new Hunston Convent, just before it was fully occupied by the Carmelite Community. Here is a transcript:
WSG Hunston Convent, 1872

The nuns’ story by one of their own
A member of the Hunston Carmelites recently wrote the history of their community, until the first few years of the Hunston period. Here it is:
I Carried You”, Chichester Carmel, September 2008

Hunston Convent plan, mid-1970s
Geoff Breeze, whose work on Hunston Convent is invaluable, gave me a photocopy of a plan of the Hunston Convent as it was in the mid-1970s, when the attic floor was converted into rooms to accommodate sisters from a Cambridgeshire Carmel which closed. The ground and first floors are pretty much as they had been for 100 years. My annotations are clumsy, I’m afraid. Here it is:
Hunston Convent 70s plan, annotated by RDN

Mother Superior Mary Baptist (1805-86)

When years of undergrowth had been cleared away from the east wall of the convent, we found this striking memorial to the Hunston Carmelite community’s first Mother Superior. We hope to find out more about her. Here is a transcript of the latin inscription, and my amateur translation:
Mary Baptist memorial stone text (Word doc)

RDN on Thérèse of Lisieux
I did some work on one of the great Carmelite saints: my secular but not merely sceptical account is here:
RDN on Thérèse of Lisieux.


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