Brief History

The Friary opened in 1873 as St. Bernard’s Seminary for the Birmingham Diocese by Bishop Ullathorne, with Dr. John Henry Newman giving the opening address. But on Ullathorne’s death, his successor Bishop Ilsley moved all the students to Oscott and sold the seminary to the Capuchins in 1889. It became their Formation house, locally known as The Friary. They founded the parish, a large cemetery and a 60 acre farm. A church & bell tower dominating the local skyline was built 1929.

The Capuchins told Archbishop Dwyer in 1980 they would move out and in September 1980 Archbishop Dwyer invited the Sacred Heart Fathers and Brothers of Bétharram to move the House of Formation from Worcester to the Friary, which happened in January 1981, happy to serve a large Parish & care for buildings & grounds which are of historic interest.

Initially the Capuchins told the Archbishop they would give the Friary to the Diocese but within 12 months changed their minds saying they meant to sell it. Archbishops Couve de Murville and then Vincent Nichols made several unsuccessful attempts to find a solution, but success eluded the Diocese for nearly 40 years until the recent settlement under Archbishop Longley.

Though uncertainty still lingered, the move was good for the Sacred Heart community, providing a home & pastoral training ground for students & a springboard for other missions. The Sacred Heart Community have been happy serving the parish and deanery with energy and enthusiasm and have always seen the service to the church as transcending parish limits.

The Present

40 years later, even with fewer numbers, the Friary is still very important, as the major centre in the UK and also as a focus for the new extended Province of England, Thailand & India (2009). The Friary is multi-purpose: a community to serve the parish, a place where elderly members can be cared for, a place of hospitality for visitors and overseas religious, and an ‘open door’ house for future vocations in this country.

But 40 years of uncertainty did create planning blight, and despite some costly repairs, no serious refurb was undertaken in forty years. The present building is somewhat dilapidated, and refurbishment is long overdue. The 2019 ownership settlement was indeed a blessing but now there are difficult choices to make. The Friary is almost 150 years old, in desperate need of repair and refurbishment and the final bill will be huge. In quick succession a Quinquennial Report, Asbestos Report, Legionella Report and a Fire Safety Report revealed significant requirements but comes after being given Grade II listed building status.

Together with parish hall repairs, Friary stonework & roof repairs, internal reordering for the community quarters and new fire safety precautions have occurred. The huge costs are now beyond the ordinary means of both parish and community. All this occurs during a new financial squeeze. Parish finances are badly hit by Covid 19 and many forecast a 35% drop in attendances. The parish is very much supported by generous volunteers, and day to day expenses by the generosity of parishioners.

The Fire Risk Assessment Report has made clear that the care of a 147 year old building in a poor state is beyond both human and financial resources. The demands on the time & energy of the Parish priest are a burden. The 5 year report and the Health and Safety demands are namely: Legionella, Fire & Asbestos. Fire risk is the tough one. After the Grenfell disaster fire authorities are very risk averse, and even the walls between our upstairs bedrooms are now deemed unsafe.

The Future of the Friary

The community met with the diocese to propose possible solutions which might involve sacrificing part of the Friary in order to gain enough money to refurbish the remainder to a good standard and put maintenance costs within our means. A Plan A would involve sacrificing the east Wing for retirement Flats and then refurbishing the North wing. Plan B would involve sacrificing the upper two stories of both wings and keeping the ground floor for parish use, offices and meeting rooms, as well as building a new SCJ community house in the grounds. There is no desire to vandalise a historic building, but moreover make the Friary complex into a situation that is workable and liveable at the human level. Thinking more imaginatively, perhaps a refurbishment of the parish hall as well an entirely new community house somewhere in the grounds. The first steering group meeting was held on 22nd October 2020. The Steering group is chaired by Bishop David Evans, with Peter Deeley, Managing Director of the Deeley Group, Peter Vince, chairman of Emmaus Consulting and a diocesan Trustee, and Heidi Davies a chartered surveyor in the diocesan property team at Cathedral House.

To date there have been six meetings. The purpose of the meetings is to discuss and make recommendations for the next stage, following work previously recommended, approved, and undertaken. All expenditure is recommended and with three quotes in writing and undertaken only after parish approval, as agreed via the parish finance committee’s approval. Expenditure over £10k including VAT, must obtain, in addition, major expenditure approval from the diocese which applied to the commissioning of the feasibility study. All professionals appointed have tendered with two others. Listed buildings, in a conservation area and with significant trees makes it more complex. A tree survey, listing in category all 133 trees on the site, and a tree constraints plan were undertaken in March 2021 along with a topographical survey. At the same time, a planning report was commissioned by Marron’s Planning, based in Stratford upon Avon, who came with a strong recommendation, experience in the area and specifically working with Solihull council planning department. Marron’s report was issued in April 2021 and emphasised how the site has significant constraints from a planning perspective. Whatever is proposed needs to be able to get planning permission.

At the 7th June 2021 meeting, the steering group made a recommendation to appoint architects Brownhill Hayward Brown (BHB) to undertake a feasibility of the development options for the site with reference to the Marrons report. As part of BHB’s team there was a quantity surveyor who costed the options. The architects were chosen for their experience with dealing with ecclesiastical buildings, in conservation areas, as well as for their market experience. At the same time the Steering Group appointed Adrian Willet of Highgate land and Development, a chartered surveyor who provided valuations for the various options. Adrian agreed to accept no payment at the valuation/marketing stage and will take his fee when there is a sale achieved, thus helping the parish cashflow.

Throughout the feasibility stage there were regular meetings with the group and BHB to discuss initially seven options. From these, three more were produced leading to option ten becoming the preferred option. From the feasibility study it showed that the care home/assisted living/retirement option showed the greatest realisation figure. One of the main problems with the residential options was that Solihull council parking requirements are high, and these schemes were significantly compromising parish parking. However, the care home does pose a planning risk due to the size and scale of a 60-bed care home which is the optimum size required by operators.

Not only is planning permission and a viability study required, but also a scheme that will sell and be of demand to the operators. Therefore, at meeting No. 6 on 8th December it was recommended that Adrian Willet’s undertakes a marketing of the site and Friary to the care home/assisted living/ retirement operators to gauge interest and likely realisation. It is proposed a 6–8-week marketing period from mid to late January 2022 from which, care would be taken in choosing the eventual partner, with interviews to follow and an understanding will be necessary that they fit with the ethos of the parish. Alternatively, it may be that the market doesn’t like this proposal and so alternatives will be required.

If this proposal is in demand, Adrian Willet advised at the meeting that after this whole period, leading up to and subject to a planning agreement with the chosen party who would then have to obtain planning permission for the scheme, it is likely to be early 2024 before a spade is put in the ground with completion in early 2025 of the new presbytery and the improved community centre. Work will start once the Order have moved out. Concerns have been raised about the loss of parish facilities with the sale of the Friary and it is agreed that more work needs to be done on the community centre element of the proposal to ensure that the facilities provided are in accordance with the parish requirements. The parish are requested to confirm their approval to the marketing of the Friary and adjacent land as set out in the Enquiry document.

Bishop David Evans’ visit to our parish on 31st of October towards the end of Homily he stated that ‘This is your own synodal pathway. It will require careful listening, courteous speaking and courageous decision making. The Holy Spirit will be your guide and the outcome will show more evidently to yourselves, the local community and the diocese the face of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’. May the Immaculate Heart of Mary who assisted the Apostles for the descend of the Holy Spirit intercede for us to have the right discernment regarding the Friary.

Along with the Diocese, the SCJ community and Friary parishioners are very happy with the settlement. On behalf of Sacred Heart Community and Friary parishioners, Fr Biju offers his heartfelt thanks to Archbishop Bernard Longley and Bishop David Evans and the team for accomplishing this monumental task.

God Bless all, Fr Biju Anthony SCJ.