Historic Guildhall hosts its first mass since 1538

The Guildhall, or Greyfriars as it is known by Catholics
The Guildhall, or Greyfriars as it is known by Catholics

AN ‘iconic building’ returned to its roots, after Catholics from all over Sussex flocked to Priory Park for a very special occasion.

It had been 475 years since mass had been held in the historic building which stands in the park – and Father Graham Smith, of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, said Sunday’s mass was ‘very moving’ (August 11).

The Catholic priests and clergymen at Greyfriars

The Catholic priests and clergymen at Greyfriars

The building has a very chequered history from when it was first built in the 13th century – but on Sunday, 90 people went to the service, which used it for its original purpose.

In 1282, the building was used as a monastery, called ‘Greyfriars’, and the friars who dwelt there lived simple lives. This is reflected in the style of the building.

“The building is simple compared to the big abbeys like Westminster,” said Father Graham.

The friars were followers of St Francis of Assisi, and the first friars came to England in 1214. Within 30 years, 49 friaries had been built – including Greyfriars in Priory Park.

This way of life continued until 1538, when King Henry VIII closed the friaries around the country.

“It destroyed their way of life, they were made homeless,” said Father Graham.

“The dissolution of the monasteries was really about making sure this monastic community could not 
become a centre of opposition for him.”

Some of the friary buildings were pulled down in this movement, but Greyfriars passed on to the City Corporation, and it 
was used as a courthouse and town hall – and known 
as The Guildhall.

In 1588 four Catholic priests were tried there and two were hanged half-a-mile-away in Broyle.

“Greyfriars, here in Chichester, was a victim of the dissolution and a humble way of life centuries old was destroyed overnight,” said Father Graham.

In around 1850, the Army used the building as a drill hall, and today it is in the hands of Chichester District Council, and used as part of its museum.

Father Graham, who is part of the parish of St Richard’s, said after visiting the building that he wanted to bring the building back to its original use – even if only for a day.

“It was quite an event to organise,” he said. “I visited it once and I saw how beautiful it was and in a sense it was wasted.

“It was built as a church for the worship of god and it was about allowing that building to be used again for that purpose.

“It is such an iconic building in the centre of Chichester. People said afterwards how moved they were.

“To be able to go there and celebrate mass there, it was very special for them and very moving. We feel a great wrong was done, a great injustice. In a small way it was reminding people it is part of our Catholic heritage.

“I do not know if I will do it again, but it is possible. It is a special thing.”