Book Review: These Walls Have Spoken

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Celebrating St John’s Seminary, Wonersh

On Thursday 20 July, a final liturgy of Solemn Vespers of St John took place at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, to mark the closure of St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, a house of formation for men training for the priesthood that served the Catholic Church in England and Wales for over 130 years.

The occasion also marked the launch of a book celebrating the life and history of the seminary and the people that inspired, taught and learned within its buildings. It also heralds the remarkable collection of artefacts and items that were housed there. These Walls Have Spoken not only presents the history of the place that so many men over the years have called ‘home’, but also offers a visual and beautiful record of around 600 items in its collection.

Archbishop John Wilson presided at Vespers and the Right Reverend Richard Moth, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, 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 the commemorative book, describing it as: “A fitting celebration of St John’s and all that the staff and students, the sisters and others associated with the community brought to the life of the Church in this country.”

Monsignor Ewing, the last Rector of Wonersh, wanted the book to be part of the ‘good ending’ he planned for the seminary. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs by architectural photographer Alex Ramsay – 572 of the 5,000 images he took appear in the publication – the striking visuals give a clear sense of the place that was St John’s.

These Walls Have Spoken records the memories of more than 50 people and gives a detailed history of the buildings, artefacts and people that passed through Wonersh. Sophie Andreae, the Vice Chair of the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops’ Conference, brought the editorial team together that produced the book, including editor Elena Curti, former Deputy Editor of the Tablet, and designer and illustrator Andrew Bates. What started as a small publication to celebrate the life of the seminary grew into a thorough and visual tome that beautifully tells the story of St John’s.

The founding vision for the seminary was that of two towering figures who remained part of the identity, and indeed fabric, of its life right until the end. John Baptist Butt – fourth bishop of Southwark, and its first Rector, Francis Alphonsus Bourne – later Cardinal Bourne. Both shared a passion for education, particularly the encouragement and nurturing of vocations to the priesthood. The desire for St John’s to be a ‘family’ is evident in the lives of the many priests who were formed there. The body of Bishop Butt, who was buried at Wonersh, and the heart of Cardinal Bourne, which had been enclosed in a wall at the seminary, were re-interred at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, in July 2022.

The Collection

Whilst the closure of the seminary and the dispersal of its contents carries inevitable sadness for all who studied and worked there, These Walls Have Spoken is a fitting celebration of the history and identity of St John’s.

The collection of objects accumulated at Wonersh over more than a century owes much to the generous donations from a number of students and benefactors. There are many notable historical objects to laud, thanks to Canon Daniel Rock, church historian and collector who gathered and preserved items relating to the history of the Church in England and Wales, with items dating from the medieval period until the 20th century.

Early vestments from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries are a rare survival from recusant times when being the Church operated ‘underground’ and being exposed as a Catholic priest in England could mean torture, and a gruesome death (see page 71). Thirteenth century pyxes, made in Limoges and decorated with blue enamel of a type familiar to visitors and pilgrims to the Twelfth Century Becket Casket now housed in the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum (page 80).

Jumping forward to the Nineteenth Century, we find a scarlet pair of episcopal gloves which belonged to Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802 – 1865) the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (page 93), and of course, the St John’s Ciborium, made in the early Twentieth century in France, and decorated with a finely wrought eagle on its finial.

All the sacred objects and items from St John’s have now been re-homed in Catholic churches and institutions within the UK and beyond, and the treasures special to St John’s have been loaned (as ‘The Wonersh Collection’) to the Stonyhurst College Museum, with the hope that they will continue to be used as an inspiration for learning, and that they will be made visible in exhibitions for years to come.

New locations had to be found for the superb fixtures and fittings in the seminary chapel which was designed by architect Frederick Arthur Walters and is listed Grade II. All of these have now been re-homed having been carefully dissembled from the locations they have held for so many years. Reinstated in their new homes, they will bring the history of Wonersh alive to a new generation.

The stately altar of St John, made in 1925, is now installed in St George’s Cathedral where visitors can hardly guess that it was not originally intended for its new home. The Our Lady Altar too will be installed at the Cathedral adding to the beauty of an already rich space, and available still as a place of prayer for all those who revered it at Wonersh. 

At the launch of the book, Monsignor Gerry Ewing, the final Rector of St John’s, said:

“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 its 132-year history… this book has been written in celebration, and using the words of our beloved Patron, St John, from the reading we heard at Vespers ‘we are writing this that our joy may be complete.’ …and it is!”

Buy the book

The book can be purchased for £25 + P&P from the Wonersh website.



Watch the homily given by Bishop Richard Moth, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, at the Solemn Vespers of St John.


You can also listen to the speeches given at the reception in Southwark.