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The archive

The purpose of the St. John’s Seminary Archive is to collect, preserve and make available documents relating to the history of the Seminary since its foundation in 1889. 

The archive is a unique source for the history of Catholic priestly training.  The documents provide a fascinating insight into the working life of a Catholic Seminary and are particularly useful when researching individual students. 

The main archive collection comprises papers relating to the management of the Seminary, including its financial, architectural, social and cultural history.  These documents include registers of students; diaries of the Rector and Dean; rules and constitutions; liturgical records; house records; records of student clubs and societies; financial records; architect’s plans.

Supporting and enhancing the main administrative archive are a substantial collection of photographs; several small collections of personal papers generated by individuals associated with the Seminary; and the records of the junior Seminary, St. Joseph’s, Mark Cross (1924-1970).

The documents exist in a wide variety of formats: paper records; photographs; film; tape recordings.


The Archive is part of the Network of Archives & Libraries of the Catholic Church and as material is catalogued it will be made available online through the Catholic Heritage website.

Access may be restricted whilst cataloguing work is carried out, and some record series may be closed altogether for data protection purposes, but enquiries are always welcome. 

The archives are open on Wednesdays and Fridays, 9am-5pm, by appointment only.


Contact Details

Enquiries to: Jo Halford, Archivist


Telephone: 01483 892217

The Origins of
the Seminary

First students at Henfield, 1889.jpg

In 1873 Cardinal Manning of Westminster informed James Dannell, the second Bishop of Southwark, that he must make his own arrangements for training secular priests for work in the diocese of Southwark.  It was Dannell’s successor, Bishop John Butt who eventually got things under way in 1888.  He purchased 60 acres of land near Guildford and appointed an architect, Frederick Walters, to design a Seminary.

Fr. Francis Bourne was appointed as first rector, with the Seminary opening first in temporary accommodation at Henfield in Sussex in August 1889.  Two years later, the new Seminary buildings were ready and an official opening ceremony was preformed on 8th September 1891.

Francis Bourne was later to become Bishop of Southwark, and then Archbishop of Westminster.

Further reading

For an excellently researched account of the history of St. John’s Seminary, please read:

Fr Seán Finegan: In Hope of Harvest. The Story of St. John's Seminary, Wonersh, Wonersh Press, 2011.

The Seminary Buildings

The buildings were designed by the architect, Frederick Arthur Walters (1849-1931) and built largely of red brick in the Dutch/Jacobean style. The main building consists of a large central section running east to west, with two north-south wings at either end.  At the western end is the chapel and at the eastern end the convent, which housed the religious sisters who looked after the domestic arrangements of the Seminary up until the 1990s.

Facing the main entrance is a large entrance porch with elaborate decoration in moulded and rubbed brickwork.  At the top is the coat of arms of the founder, Bishop John Butt, the fourth Bishop of Southwark , who laid the foundation stone and blessed the building on 8th September 1891.

One of the most striking features of the Seminary is the ambulacrum, ‘a place for walking’ 210 feet long and 19 feet wide, which runs the full length of the main building on the ground floor. 

After the Second World War numbers in the Seminary increased and plans were made for extensions to the buildings.  This work, begun in the late 1950s, extended the wings of the building to twice their original size.

The Seminary is a Grade II listed building.  See the Historic England website for more information

Seminary before 1939.jpg

The Chapel

Chapel Tolkien screen.jpg

The Seminary chapel was built in 1895 with money donated by Mr and Mrs Broderick of Brighton.  It is dedicated to the Sacred Heart.  Above the chapel entrance, a Latin inscription reads “The Master is here and he is calling you”.

On entering the chapel, the Lady Chapel is on the right, the ante-chapel on the left, and straight ahead is a passage leading to a series of side chapels dedicated respectively to the English Martyrs, St Francis de Sales, St Charles Borromeo and St. John.

In the centre of the nave, there is a stone marking the burial place of Bishop Butt, the founder of the Seminary.  In niches on the south side are statues of St. Simon Stock, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Anselm.  On the opposite side are statues of St Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Cuthbert Mayne and St. Bede.

In 1961 the chapel was extended at the western end, moving the altar to a position beneath the gold mosaic which originally served as a backdrop for a large wooden crucifix.  At the same time, three large stained-glass windows were added, representing Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John.

In 1989/90, following the Second Vatican Council, the layout of the chapel was changed.  In place of the high altar, a marble pedestal was constructed, on which the tabernacle now stands, and a wrought iron screen was erected on a line separating the chapel extension from the main chapel, so that the extension could serve as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  A new altar was built between the screen and the choir benches, using the mensa from the original high altar. 

At the same time, a roughly semi-circular row of benches was added between the altar and the screen, for concelebrating priests.

At the same time a new bronze rood was designed by Faith Tolkien to be mounted on the screen.  The sculpture depicts Christ upon the cross, flanked by two drinking stags.  The stags suggest the relation of the Christian to Christ, hinting at the passage in Psalm 42: “as the dear yearns for running streams, so my soul is thirsting for you, my God”

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