Worth Abbey Church, designed by Catholic architect Frances Pollen and considered one of the finest examples of 1960s church architecture, was re-opened for worship in a service on Pentecost Sunday, 12 June 2011 after a year-long re-furbishment project.
Noted for its striking circular design, the Abbey Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians is one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in southern England. It had been in daily use by the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey, the pupils and staff of the 550-strong Worth School on the site and a sizeable local Catholic parish since it opened in 1974. The iconic building which was made familiar to many through the BBC television documentary ‘The Monastery’ in 2005. But it did not have permanent seating or fixed water stoups, which were integral to Frances Pollen’s design.
“Lack of funds prevented us from adequately furnishing the church and completing the interior until now,” said Abbot Kevin Taggart.
Generous support from the Abbey’s benefactors enabled the monks to engage the internationally-acclaimed designer Thomas Heatherwick, currently noted for his re-design of the London Routemaster bus, to re-create the interior space of the church. This includes a unique set of monastic choir stalls built from American black walnut wood with matching congregational furniture capable of seating up to 676 worshippers. A Portland stone ambo now provides a powerful partner to the Church’s famous altar and baptismal font, completing the previously unfinished sanctuary space. While work was in progress regular events and daily worship, which includes monastic prayer sung in English six times a day, had to be moved to adjoining buildings.
“Worship of God is the central event in any monastery”, the Abbot said. “The renewed church building will help the monks of Worth lead many more people to God. By completing the Church we began building forty years ago, we are expressing our confidence in the contribution the monastery makes to the Sussex and Surrey area in strengthening spiritual lives. In these difficult times we need beauty to lift our hearts.”
Over the past year Worth Abbey continued to welcome more than 2,000 people who visited the monastery’s guest houses on retreat. However, many regular events at Worth School, the co-educational day and boarding school on the campus, had to be re-located and some regular events, including the Christmas carol service, were cancelled.
Worth School Headmaster, Mr Gino Carminati, said: “The pupils are not only overwhelmed by the transformation but above all have expressed their joy in being able to be back in the heart of our community. Not only will new sound and lighting systems enhance daily services but they will greatly improve acoustics for the school performances and events.”
The Friends of Worth, an association of Worth School parents, has donated a hand-made set of silver altar vessels, commissioned from the well-known Sussex firm of Pruden and Smith, which will be used daily in the celebration of Mass in the Abbey Church.
Worth Abbey is an English Benedictine Monastery with a community of 23 Roman Catholic monks The brothers seek to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ within a framework provided by the Rule of St Benedict (circa 500 AD) and the traditional rhythm of prayer and reading, work and recreation is at the heart of their community life.
Worth Abbey was founded in 1933 when Abbot John Chapman of Downside bought the property, then called Paddockhurst, from Viscount Cowdray. Worth was a dependent Priory of Downside until 1957 when it became an independent Priory in 1957 and then an Abbey in 1965. Father Kevin Taggart became the fifth abbot in June 2010.
At Worth the monks have created a sanctuary within which they express the Benedictine tradition of hospitality and education by running Worth School, a parish, retreat houses and a day centre. Their ‘Outreach Peru’ project supports work in health, education and the development of sustainable livelihoods to help people out of poverty in Peru.