During the second half of the nineteenth century, it became apparent that the Roman Catholic diocese of Southwark, which then covered the area of London south of the Thames, plus the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, would need its own facilities for the training of priests. The work of building a Seminary began in 1890, on a site of 60 acres purchased by Bishop John Butt, just outside the village of Wonersh , near Guildford . Meanwhile, the Seminary had already opened in 1889, making use of temporary accommodation in Henfield , Sussex , with Fr Francis Bourne as the first Rector. In later years, he became Bishop of Southwark, and eventually Archbishop of Westminster.
By the summer of 1891, the building was sufficiently complete to house the relatively small number of students present in those early years, and the opening ceremony was performed by Bishop Butt on 8th September.
To begin with, St John’s functioned both as a ‘junior’ and as a ‘major’ (or senior) Seminary. In the junior section, it gave a broad education to boys between the ages of about 14 and 18, while including some subjects appropriate for those who would later decide to move on to the senior section, to study subjects such as theology, philosophy and scripture in preparation for ordination. Over the years the number of students increased, making greater demands on the available accommodation. In view of this it was decided to separate the juniors and seniors, and in 1924 the juniors moved to a new college at Mark Cross, near Tunbridge Wells, leaving St John’s to provide for the formation of senior students.
In 1965 the Southwark diocese was divided. One part, Kent and Greater London south of the Thames , became the archdiocese of Southwark, while the other part, Surrey and Sussex , became the diocese of Arundel & Brighton. The Seminary is a registered charity, owned jointly by these two dioceses, whose bishops are responsible for appointing the trustees. St John’s also serves as a regional Seminary for the dioceses of Brentwood , Portsmouth and Plymouth , and the bishops who have students at the Seminary, together with the bishops from Southwark and Arundel & Brighton, form the Governing Body, meeting together with the Rector and Staff twice a year to decide matters relating to the policy of the Seminary.
Students from other dioceses and religious orders are also welcome. In recent times there have been students from Cardiff, Clifton, East Anglia, Menevia, and Wrexham — as well as from places abroad such as Gibraltar and Uganda. Since 2005, the Seminary has also offered a year of theological studies for groups of sisters of the Francisan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM).
A history of the Seminary by Fr Seán Finegan, In Hope of Harvest, was published by the Wonersh Press in June 2011. Copies are available from the Seminary at a cost of £18 including p&p. (Cheques only please).