Chilworth Abbey

The History of...

History of the Abbey & Monastery

The Franciscan Friary, Chilworth, 1892-2010.

The foundation stone for the new friary at Chilworth was laid in 1890. The architect was F. A. Walters, who also designed St John's Seminary at Wonersh and Buckfast Abbey. The overall cost of building the church and friary (about £7,000) was met from a bequest of Mary Anne Alliott, an aunt of Father Arthur Wells, who is regarded as the founder of the friary.

The first friars took up residence in 1892. While most Franciscan friaries are to be found in urban settings, this friary was built in a relatively quiet place to be the Novitiate for the order. Every friar spends his first year of Franciscan life as a Novice, and the purpose of that year is to make a break with the previous way of life, and to embrace the new way of living. In those days, novices did not generally have holidays or meet with their families, although they did write, and could receive letters.

Since 1892, therefore, for the next hundred years or so, every man who has entered this particular branch of the Franciscan Order has spent his first year at Chilworth. Towards the end of the last century, the English friars joined with their Irish brethren for the initial training of new members, part of the time being spent in England, and part in Ireland. Though Chilworth is no longer used as the Novitiate house, it has been the location of the Postulancy for the past three years. This is a year prior to the Novitiate, and the Order introduced it to help prepare the candidates more thoroughly for the Novitiate year.

In 1945, the friars were asked to take on the pastoral care of a newly formed Catholic parish, largely a rural area between Guildford and Dorking. They had already been celebrating Mass and other Sacraments for small groups of Catholics in the area. From then on, a small congregation gathered at the friary on Sundays, but since the1970s the congregation has grown, so that now there is a full church for the main Mass on Sunday morning. Another chapel was built at Gomshall, and opened in 1964, to accommodate parishioners at that end of the parish.

It may be of interest to hear of one small claim to fame in which the friary rejoices. The music publisher Joseph Larway visited Chilworth when his brother, Edgar, was in the Community. With him was the composer, Albert Ketelby, and it is said he was inspired to compose his well-known In a Monastery Garden on that occasion.

For many years, the friary, apart from the church, was 'enclosed', which meant that members of the public were not allowed in to the residential areas, except for maintenance work or emergencies. With the growth of the parish, and the renewal of the life of the friars after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, efforts were made to open up the friary, so that it became a sort-of pastoral centre for the parish, and for other groups who wanted to come for meetings or quiet days. It was at this time that the annual Garden Fête was launched, first as a parish social celebration, but later as an important fund-raising event for the friary, parish and other charities. Some of the major refurbishment work of recent years has been partly funded in this way.

The last few years have seen the numbers of friars decline in the United Kingdom, and generally in Western Europe. This fact, taken with the ageing of many of the brethren, had led the friars, on more than one occasion to review their commitments, and to withdraw from friaries. All the friars were invited to take part in a period of discernment and prayers, and eventually the Minister Provincial, who is in charge of the friars in the United Kingdom, together with his Council, decided we would withdraw from Chilworth. This decision was made early in 2010, and communicated to the friars at Chilworth, and then to the parishioners. Understandably, many parishioners were saddened by this decision, both because the friars would be leaving Chilworth, but also because it could mean that the parish would cease to exist in its present form.

At the time of writing, it is not clear what will happen to the friary, its church, and the parish. It is doubtful whether another Community would be able to take on the parish, but there is hope that another religious Community will occupy the friary. From many points of view, this would be the best outcome, as it would keep up the tradition of prayerful presence which has been such a part of the friars' life and witness over the last one hundred and eighteen years.

There is as yet no firm date for the withdrawal of the friars. The expectation is that they will be at Chilworth till the end of 2010. Meanwhile, the friars and parishioners aim to mark the remaining months with celebrations of all we have shared together. Plans are afoot for the Garden Fête on 13th June, and for the annual 'festival' around the feast of St Francis in October. There is much to be thankful for, and this in itself should give us hope for the future.

Fr Patrick Lonsdale OFM (Guardian) – March 2010.