Hunston Convent and Chichester Free School

Chichester Free School has taken 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 was a Victorian classic. The Chichester Carmel, as the Hunston community were known, had roots which go centuries deep, and all over the world. An offshoot of the Chichester Carmel is now to be found amongst the Carmelites of Terre Haute, Indiana. Vestiges of the old convent’s fabric have been reborn, and its footprint largely preserved, in spectacular fashion. I hope something of the community’s spirit lives on, too.

Hunston Convent was for years 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 2016. Then came news of its planned reuse as a home for the expanding Chichester Free School, since September 2018 now open.

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 SS Fawn, 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

Chichester Carmel’s Normandy back-story
A brief note on the Hunston convent’s previous home in Valognes, near Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula, Normandy. For 40 years before crossing to England, they were established in a re-purposed hotel there.

Click here for a Word doc download:
Before Hunston, Valognes (Word doc)
Click here for a PDF:
Before Hunston, Valognes (PDF)

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

The Chichester Carmel at Hunston, a short history
A local Catholic, Geoff Breeze, undertook a short history of the Chichester Carmel and its convent at Hunston. Mr Breeze’s work was done for his local parish, St Richard’s in Chichester. It was based on authoritative documents (including, I think, I carried you…, see above) and conversations with the generation of nuns which lived at Hunston and had in the end to leave it. Here it is:
Breeze’s History of the Chichester Carmelite Convent

Hunston Convent plan, mid-1970s
Geoff Breeze (see above) 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

Architect’s plan for Hunston Chapel, 1930

Sebastian Pugin-Powell’s 1930 drawing for the Chapel at the Hunston convent of the Chichester Carmel

In 1929 the distinguished Catholic architect, Sebastian Pugin-Powell, was commissioned by the Chichester Carmelites to design a chapel for their 1972 convent home at Hunston. Siome of that story can be read in the Chichester Carmel Annals, snippets of which are in a separate post about the Arundel & Brighton Diocese holdings on the Chichester Carmelite convent at Hunston.

To see a full-size version of the chapel drawing click here:
Pugin-Powell 1930 drawing of chapel for the Chichester carmel

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. She appears often in the document, “I carried you…” as a leading figure in the move from Normandy to Chichester, and as the founding Prioress at the latter. I 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)

Hunston Convent in the diocesan archive
I have reproduced some material garnered in 2019 from the archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton [ADB]. I was limited in what I was permitted to do with this material, but am thrilled to share such as was allowed. The material includes extracts from the Carmel’s Annals, and data derived from its annual returns to the Diocese. There is more material in the US which might become available for researchers in the future, as may the material in Brighton & Hove. An appendix charts where the Hunston nuns went on the closure of Hunston.
To see this document as Word docx:
Hunston at Arundel & Brighton diocesan archive (Docx)
To see this document as a PDF:
Hunston at Arundel & Brighton diocesan archive (PDF)

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.

RDN on Edith Stein
Also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Stein was born Jewish, lost all faith, and then converted to Roman Catholicism, becoming a Carmelite nun and Holocaust victim. Along the way, she was a strikingly clever student, a stirring and touching memoirist, an important writer on women’s rights, and a valuable philosopher on empathy. She was also valuable on the spiritual life. My admiring account is here:
RDN on Edith Stein


Ann Harding
I am doing family ancestry and have found a Nun who is buried in Emsworth churchyard with several others. Would this be the convent she lived in? I’m looking around the 1920-1940s. Do you have or know of registers for the nuns of that time? Kind regards Ann
RDN’s reply
Hallo Ann, Thanks for your question. My initial impression is that your Emsworth nuns won't turn out to be Hunston nuns. That's because my impression is that nuns who lived in Hunston would have been buried there. But I going to check with a few people and sources that know much more than I do. By the way, if you get the chance, can you get me the names of the nuns buried in Emsworth, including but not limited to any you are specially interested in? Thanks.

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Publication date

14 October 2019


Mind & body