Trustees announce proposal to close 400-year-old seminary in June due to low student numbers and rising costs

A 400-year-old Catholic seminary that serves the north of England is likely to close next spring, trustees have announced.

Ushaw College, founded at Douai, France, and based just outside Durham, trained hundreds of seminarians decades ago but now has only 26 students in formation. It raises extra funds by functioning as a conference centre but its vast grounds and ancient buildings mean it is expensive to run.

Last week its trustees announced a proposal to close the college pending consultation with employees and the Charity Commission.

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Their decision comes after college directors failed to find a “development partner” to use part of the site as a school, university or hotel and share the costs.

Its students will probably be transferred to one of the three other British seminaries – Allen Hall in Chelsea, west London, St John’s, Wonersh, Surrey, and St Mary’s Oscott, in Birmingham.

British seminarians are also still trained at the English colleges in Rome and Valladolid, Spain.

Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, chairman of the trustees, said: “This is one of the most difficult proposals that we as trustees have had to make, not least because of the excellence of the formation our students are receiving.”

Mgr John Marsland, president of the college, said: “Ushaw has a long history within the Roman Catholic Church and words cannot express how sad we are that we are considering such a drastic step.

“We have long tried to find a development partner and it would be nice to believe that a partner will still come forward with a viable business plan, but unfortunately time is running out and we have to face the reality of the situation we are in.”

Ushaw was originally established as Douai College in the Spanish Netherlands, now France, in 1568 to train English priests and educate laymen during the reign of Elizabeth I.

It relocated to County Durham just over 200 years ago, in 1808, after staff and students were imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars.

Run as a charity, it now offers conference and accommodation facilities, and is the regional home of Cafod, the overseas aid agency of the bishops’ conference, and the ecumenical Churches’ Regional Commission, a lobby group for Christians in the north east. It also trains deacons and runs courses on the Catholic faith.

College trustees include Bishop Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle, Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough, Bishop Terence Brain of Salford, and Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury.

Kay Wightman, director of finance and development at the college, said the recession had increased costs and made it harder to find a business partner.

She said: “It’s a very, very large site. The grounds are about a mile and a quarter across. There are an awful lot of costs involved in heating it and lighting it, and those costs are escalating. It’s an old building, and it’s listed, so you’ve got to keep it in good repair. The costs are going up and the income is not.”

Mrs Wightman said that, in the two years spent seeking a development partner, directors had “looked at everything you can possibly imagine”.

“There were a number of hotel chains that were interested and then went away,” she said. “In the present financial climate no one is taking any risks.”

She added: “As you can imagine everyone is very sad. There are 62 staff here in total. We are working to find out what happens next.”

Fr Christopher Jackson, spokesman for the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, said: “Ushaw has made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Catholic Church in this part of the world.

“We have to thank God for that, but also believe that this is the right time and discern new ways forward.”

Fr Jackson added: “It will be very sad, but things have a shelf life. They come to an end and then move forward. This is not a death and burial. It’s a death to raise to new life.”

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