The Catholic Church across Yorkshire's historic West Riding since 1878

The Catholic Church across Yorkshire's historic West Riding since 1878

Cardinal blesses Ampleforth Abbey’s refurbished Retreat and Visitor Centre

A new chapter was opened in the hospitality apostolate of Ampleforth Abbey when Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, travelled to the Benedictine monastery in North Yorkshire on 19 March to bless Alban Roe House, a retreat and visitor centre which has been extensively refurbished with the help of a generous donation. The building brings together residential accommodation, a Tea Room, Shop and Visitor Centre, all of which opened to the general public on 22 March.

One of our Diocese of Leeds Trustees, Liam Kelly, was there for the Cardinal’s visit and has kindly written this report …

The blessing on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph (19 March) was preceded by the celebration of Mass in the Abbey church attended by more than 100 invited guests including employees and volunteers, contractors who had worked on the refurbishment of Alban Roe House, representatives from local parishes, and staff and students of Ampleforth College. More than 800 people also followed the Mass by live stream. Cardinal Nichols presided and celebrants included the Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, Abbot Robert Igo OSB, with bishops and members of the monastic community.

In his homily, Cardinal Nichols recalled bringing a group of sixth-form students from Wigan to Ampleforth in 1973. ‘For the youngsters,’ he said, ‘it was an eye-opener. Some had never been away from Wigan, never experienced the pitch black of night without street lights, never sensed the spirit of prayer of the monastic Divine Office. Nor, more importantly, had some ever experienced the unconditional welcome they received from this community.’ The Cardinal said that the development of Alban Roe House will greatly enhance the outreach of the monastery, especially to today’s young people.

Referring to the qualities of Saint Joseph, whose feast was celebrated on 19 March, the Cardinal spoke of him as someone ‘who took special care to be protective of the vulnerable. Mary and Jesus were placed under his protective care’. ‘So too, here at Ampleforth,’ the Cardinal continued, ‘there is great care now exercised for the protection of the young and vulnerable. May I suggest that this Feast Day is such a suitable moment for the blessing of this new House, in which visitors will learn about the God-given dignity of their lives; in which they will grow in the deep spirit of listening for the prompting of God in their lives and the willingness to follow God’s call; and in which they will be welcomed into a safe and life-enhancing environment. May St Joseph always give his blessing and protection to this new venture.’

After the celebration of Mass in the Abbey church people made their way to Alban Roe House, a short walk from the monastery and church. There, while the Litany of Saints was sung by the monastic community, the Cardinal, the Abbot and some of the monks blessed rooms on the different floors of the building. After a buffet lunch served in the Tea Room, guests were invited to tour the refurbished building.

Cardinal Nichols blessing the entrance to Alban Roe House

The history of the building dates back more than one hundred years. The first headmaster of Ampleforth College, Fr Edmund Matthews, appointed in 1903, felt the need for a preparatory school, but, as is recorded in the book Ampleforth & Its Origins, ‘Catholic preparatory schools in the south tended to dissuade parents from sending their sons to the savage north’. Undeterred, the monastic community chose a site for such a school at the west end of the campus and the first sod was cut on the feast of St Laurence, 10 August 1914, six days after the first shots of the Great War were fired, and the work was eventually completed in summer 1916. Initially, one of the classrooms on the first floor was used as a chapel but in Spring 1918 a disused tin chapel of the Catholic undergraduates in Oxford was given to Ampleforth for use as a chapel for the preparatory school before a chapel and sacristy were added to the building in 1921. The prep school in this building closed over seventy years later, in 1993, and the building was renamed Alban Roe House and became a centre for youth groups and others visiting Ampleforth, particularly groups from other schools using the old dormitory accommodation. Leading retreats for school groups from across the North of England provided a new focus in ministry.

Over the last 20 years the monastic community has welcomed to Alban Roe House thousands of young people from Catholic schools, enabling them to discover and experience something of the monastic life, hoping that such an encounter might sow and nurture the seeds of faith. Pre-Covid, there were often as many as 50 groups a year using Alban Roe House and the Diocese of Leeds Vicariate for Education continues to organise regular retreats for staff and school leaders at the Abbey.

In October 2020, Ampleforth Abbey Trust received a significant, generous donation to develop the Ampleforth Retreat Centre project and enable Ampleforth Abbey to become a vibrant centre for retreats and for Christian life and formation in the north of England and beyond. The donation expressly desired to see the expansion of the hospitality apostolate to young people and to those who may not be able to afford such experiences as Ampleforth is able to offer.

Work on the refurbishment of Alban Roe House began in October 2021 and was completed in February 2024. The accommodation has been modernised with seven dormitories able to accommodate 56 people, as well as 8 ensuite rooms for group leaders and retreat guests. There are also recreation and activity spaces, as well as larger spaces suitable for exhibitions, conferences, training, and corporate / community events.

Alban Roe House Visitor Entrance

At its east end, Alban Roe House also includes a Visitor Centre, Tea Room and Shop. These will form a major element of commercial operations on site. The refurbished visitor experience consists of four main interpretation rooms providing an engaging and interactive experience themed around Ampleforth’s history and the monastic life. Refreshments will also be available in the Tea Room, open seven days a week from 10.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m., and gifts, including Ampleforth produce and goods, spiritual books and devotional items, can be purchased in the small retail outlet located in the Shop within the Tea Room and Visitor Centre.

Cardinal Nichols blessing the Visitor Centre

In his introduction to the blessing of Alban Roe, the Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey explained that when the event was first being planned the Trust’s Executive had approached him to ask if, among his contacts, he knew of anyone ‘big’ who could perform the ceremony. ‘That was a great lesson in humility,’ he said. ‘What a wonderful coincidence that the blessing occurred just over 50 years after a young Fr Nichols brought those sixth-form students from Wigan to experience the prayer and welcome of the monastic community.’

Abbot Robert Igo OSB, Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, at the Blessing of Alban Roe House, with the Cardinal and Fr George Corrie OSB, Sub-prior

In his homily, Cardinal Nichols said, ‘I pray that the flow of youngsters to this new centre will become a flood, enabling many, many people to share the experience of my small group all those years ago. In these days we speak much about a Church of deeper communion and mission. Alban Roe House is surely a fine expression of these aspirations being put into practice.’

If you would like further information about hospitality and retreats at Ampleforth Abbey please visit the website or contact / 01439 766089