For more than 100 years a group of nuns lived in a convent and built up a loyal following as the congregation grew. But the historic site is now entering a new chapter as a housing development. Jeff Travis went to visit the development as it takes shape.
Historic buildings give towns and cities an identity.
But all too often they are replaced by modern ones that can never evoke the same kind of charm or sense of place.
Not that the demolition of some old buildings is not celebrated sometimes – many rejoiced when the Tricorn centre in Portsmouth was bulldozed a decade ago.
And the addition of modern architecture, such as Portsmouth Port’s terminal building, can give places a new lease of life.
But in Waterlooville, where much of the town’s original architecture has disappeared, St Michael’s Convent has survived and is one the few remaining links to the past.
The Grade-II listed convent, built in 1895 for the Roman Catholic sisterhood, has now been lovingly restored into 17 apartments.
The beautiful Byzantine-style church next door, which opened in 1923, will become a new community building for Waterlooville.
The convent follows a succession of landmarks in the local area that have been converted into residential accommodation, such as the Gales Brewery development in Horndean, the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney and Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport.
I am given a tour of the building site by Tina Chalk, marketing manager for Linden Homes, which is leading the renovation.
Our first port of call is the church – a huge space which still has the ornate original altar and the intricate stained glass windows.
‘It’s just so beautiful,’ says Tina.
‘The church have taken everything they are keeping, so this is as it will be as we prepare it for its next life.
‘The planning is for community use but we haven’t got an end user for it yet.
‘The stained-glass windows are just gorgeous – you can’t help but admire the work.
‘It will be used in the community one way or another.’
Paul Buckley, a local councillor for Waterlooville, believes the church could have a new future, but it will require some innovation, enterprise and, principally, cash.
‘My personal view is I think it lends itself to be an arts and performance space for local groups,’ he says.
‘The three naves lend themselves to being sectioned off for rehearsal area.
‘The central bit, where the altar is, could provide an excellent performance space which is missing in Waterlooville.
‘It’s whether we could get somebody interested in taking it on with the costs involved.
‘It would require somebody to take it on as a big project.’
The church was the home for many years of the Roman Catholic congregation in Waterlooville, until the new Sacred Heart Church, which was built at a cost of £2.6m, opened in 2011.
Both sites are a great example of how the old and new can exist in harmony.
I am then taken to the convent, a grand building with a large archway door that used to have a Madonna statue on top of it.
Inside are ultra-modern apartments with all the fixtures and fittings one would expect in 2015.
Tina says: ‘When we first bought the land, there were quite substantial modern extensions from the 60s and 70s.
‘Not at all attractive and not in great order.
‘We have taken it right back to the original convent building of 1895.
‘I love the individuality of it and the quirks.
‘There’s 17 apartments and none of them are the same.
‘There are magnificent ceilings and huge windows.
‘We have retained as many of the original doors that we could.
‘There’s still the original front door with the sliding peep hole.
‘We have some old pictures of the convent that we will put in the corridors.’
On the day I visit, 35 students from Solent University are visiting the old convent, to be called Claydon House, to get ideas and inspiration for their interior design course.
The students will be designing a striking two-bedroom showroom and the five best ones will be pitching their ideas to a team of judges, made up of experts from Linden Homes Southern and one of the company’s interior design partners, Claude Hooper.
Bronwyn Wotherspoon, 20, from Emsworth, who is studying interior design, said: ‘Although we knew the windows were large, you really can’t take that in on the page – seeing it in real life really helps!
‘The windows are huge and so beautiful.’
Sixty-five homes are also being built in the grounds of the church and while not all neighbours were happy with the changes, Cllr Buckley is pleased with the developers’ sympathetic approach to transforming the site.
Tina says by the end of the summer the builders will be packing up and the area will begin a new chapter in its life.
She adds: ‘Refurbishments like this are few and far between.
‘When they do come up, they sell very fast.
‘There is a great deal of appeal in buying a beautiful, contemporary apartment that’s inside an old building.
‘You have all the character and atmosphere of the old, combined with all the convenience and style of the new.’
ST Michael’s Convent was founded in 1885.
Six sisters from Our Lady of Charity Convent in Bartestree, Hereford, came to Waterlooville at the request of Bishop Vertue of Portsmouth to establish a convent of their order.
The Order of Our Lady of Charity had been founded in 1641 in Caen, Normandy, by St John Eudes, a missionary priest.
The order was dedicated to a mission for vulnerable young women on the margins of society.
The building of St Michael’s Convent began in 1894 and completed by August 1895.
It was designed by the architect, Leonard Stokes and had his unmistakable originality, tempered with monastic austerity.
Vocations to join the community increased and the number of young women coming to seek safety at St Michael’s also increased.
When the sisters came to Waterlooville from Dublin, the grounds were a wilderness of weeds and they turned this into a working garden and farm.
The sisters were anxious to realise their dream for the building of a new church.
The architect was Wilfrid C. Mangan, of Preston, Lancashire, who worked extensively in Portsmouth diocese.
Mangan was an enthusiast for round-arched, predominantly Byzantine, styles which were highly popular for catholic churches between the wars.
Work began on April 23, 1922 and the foundation stone was laid in June 1922, by Bishop Cotter.
The blessing and opening took place on December 6, 1923. The church was consecrated and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The number of parishioners coming to worship in the new church greatly increased through the years. By the 1950s and 60s, the community numbered more than 50 sisters.