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How it all began

Stonepillow is the trading name of St Richard of Christian Care Association (CCA) which was formed in 1989 following a sermon given by our founder the Reverend Hilary Parsons. Here, in his own words, is how Stonepillow began 27 years ago.

When I was ordained in 1984 the Presbytery at St Richard’s Catholic Church in Cawley Road, Chichester, had, like most presbyteries, vicarages and manses around the country, its daily succession of beggars asking for money and food. We supplied the latter but seldom the former. Among our regulars was a burly Scotsman whom we named ‘Scotty’.

When Scotty was sober he was an engaging raconteur, a man of great kindness and human understanding and as a consequence good company. When in his cups Scotty was someone to keep at arms length. But we loved Scotty nonetheless. At the time I was heavily involved for the Rank Foundation in schemes to aid poverty-stricken young people in some of our inner cities and industrial wastelands. I became aware that the impression of the general public was that places in the south like Chichester were so well-heeled that real poverty did not exist there and that therefore charitable giving was unnecessary. I knew differently. So it was with real sorrow that I got the news one Sunday morning that Scotty had been found dead by the Police in one of the men’s toilets in the city. They came to us because they knew we had had contact with him and they could not locate any living relatives.

That same day I was down on the roster to preach at the evening mass at St Richard’s. I cannot now remember what the theme of the liturgy was but I felt I had to say something about Scotty. The words just seemed to come out of me involuntarily and I said that if we were true Christians we must do something practical for the homeless in our own city. I called a meeting in the Parish Room for the following Sunday after the evening mass. During the intervening week I went through a gamut of emotions wondering what would happened and whether I should end up with egg on my face. To my astonishment in the event the room was packed to overflowing and we set up an interim committee that evening, but I said that I thought if we were to succeed in our endeavours we should ask our fellow Christians in other denominations to come on board. This duly happened. The following Sunday a parishioner came up to me after mass and said that he had received an unexpected legacy and would like to make a contribution to my project. He put a cheque for £1000 into my hand! With this and what we could afford from our own pockets we set about looking for a property where we could establish a night refuge.

We looked at several but as soon as the local residents got wind of what we were about some of them raised protests and put about wildly exaggerated scare stories. Nevertheless we started fund-raising. I managed to get a substantial contribution from one of the larger national grant-making charities which made it possible to buy a house outright. So we purchased a three bedroom house on what had been a Council estate. We furnished it, appointed a part-time warden and took in our first three clients. All went well for several months until one day a letter dropped through the letter box from our next door neighbour informing us that he was going to take us to court for altering without authority the official designation of our property from that of a family dwelling to that of a house in multiple occupation thereby lowering the value of his property. One of the enthusiastic members of our committee was a young lawyer who, free of charge, was looking after the legal and financial aspects of our enterprise. He offered to represent us in court, but before the date set for the hearing we were shocked to discover that he himself was facing legal action. Sadly we were among several of his clients whose monies he had been embezzling. Having now no liquid assets we had no alternative but to sell the house for what we could get and start all over again.

It was at this crisis point that the Carmelite nuns at Hunston came to our rescue. Their property spanned the Hunston Road not far from the roundabout on the Chichester bypass. The convent was on one side of the road and on the other was a cottage which has been occupied by a man and his wife who had for years done their shopping and looked after their needs outside the convent because the nuns themselves lived an enclosed life and only went outside the convent walls in case of medical urgency. So it happened that shortly before the time of our crisis the man had died and his wife decided to move into sheltered accommodation in another part of the city. Thus the cottage became empty. Its name was ‘St Joseph’s’! There were no other dwellings close by so the site was ideal for our purposes.

To begin with the nuns let St Joseph’s to us for a peppercorn rent, the annual cost of which was the supply of flowers for the convent chapel on the feast of St Theresa of Avila, the foundress of their Order! The cottage was in a poor state of repair and very cramped for our needs. Nevertheless we gathered a group of volunteers, made the building as serviceable as possible and opened the door for up to a maximum of six male clients a night. Two things soon became clear if our enterprise was to succeed in the long term – the cottage would have to be renovated and expanded, and we should have to employ professional staff. I think it would be true to say that for a while we did more than limp along, but we remained hopeful and enthusiastic because we believed we were doing God’s work and that, as He had enabled us to surmount the obstacles we had already encountered, He would continue to provide the means necessary for expanding the work we had begun. While we were still at the planning stage the nuns announced that, owing to the dwindling number of the community and the advanced age of most of the remaining Sisters, it had been decided to close the Chichester convent and to disperse the remaining Sisters to other Carmeline convents. Before putting their property on the market the Mother Prioress obtained permission from the headquarters of the Order in Rome to withdraw St Joseph’s and a small parcel of surrounding land from the sale and donate it in perpetuity to the Chichester Christian Care Association. Using the money left over from the sale of our first house we were able to renovate and expand St Joseph’s to provide the attractive and serviceable facilities for both men and women you can see today.

The next local development was to provide an advisory service and daytime accommodation for our clients who had to leave St Joseph’s daily after breakfast. We established our first Day Centre in the street-level facilities of the old Chichester Swimming Baths at the Hornet which had been closed. From there we moved to the Old Glass Works, all the time learning more about the needs of our clients, how best to satisfy them and in what other ways we could contribute to the succour of the homeless and the addicted in our society. The rest, as they say, is history.

Reverend Hilary Parsons
September 2016

Twenty-seven years later Stonepillow's services continue to grow. Stonepillow Lodge is the most recent addition. The Lodge provides accommodation for homeless people who are discharged from hospital or who may not be suitable for a traditional hostel environment due to their health needs.