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St. Peter’s Seminary: a Memorial to Lost Futures

St Peter's Seminary Unseen Luke Sewell Sputnik Faith Arts-08

For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.

In the woods outside Cardross in Dumbarton, Scotland, lie the remains of St. Peter’s Seminary.

Finished in the brutalist style, a megalith of raw, exposed concrete, the seminary was designed to house up to 100 priests-in-training.

The building was made almost immediately redundant. Before it was completed, the Second Vatican Council ruled that priests should train in the parishes they would eventually serve instead of in isolation. This, coupled with increasing social secularism ultimately resulted in the closure of the seminary in 1980. It has since been reclaimed by the trees, by rain and by fire.

St Peter's Seminary Unseen Luke Sewell Sputnik Faith Arts-08
St Peter’s Seminary, by Luke Sewell

St. Peter’s was intended as a meeting place between the old and new worlds – the brutalist complex encasing a Baronial Revival mansion called Kilmahew House. Built in an L-shape, the seminary’s bedrooms formed a repeating ziggurat pattern over the central chapel complex.

Perhaps more so than ever, St. Peter’s feels like a mysterious, liminal space between old and new. The ruins are surrounded by woodland gorges, rushing streams and old stone bridges; Tolkienesque but for the steel fences and barbed wire preventing access.

Cutting through a golf course, into the woods, past an abandoned shipping container and the ruins of Kilmahew Castle takes you to the gates of St. Peter’s itself.

Again; the collision of old and new. A Kubrick moonbase of a building, created with bold intent and great optimism, reduced to the same fate as the medieval fortress it neighbours, a crumbling edifice coated in moss and graffiti.

Lost too is the way of life the building was intended to nurture. As we wandered around the site, we came across several pathways built for contemplative walks, of great isolation and beauty, bereft of the seminarians they were built to transform.

The roof of the chapel, long since decayed, is now completely absent. The walls are covered with various graffiti, messages including ‘bath time’ above one of the reflecting pools, ‘expensive shit’ along a balcony and ‘pleasure some’ along one of the roofbeams. Inverted crosses line the walls; perhaps a reference to the death of St. Peter himself, or an attempt at sacrilege.

Most upsettingly, the altar is destroyed. The great table, which fittingly took the form of a giant slab of concrete, has been reduced to rubble and is set behind an extra steel fence at the south wall of the chapel. Where the Blessed Sacrament was once given and received, is made inaccessible, and from where the precious blood flowed lies a pool of stagnant water.

Walter Benjamin, fleeing Nazi-occupied France at Midnight in the Century, wrote of Lost Futures.* Where history feigns a narrative of unbridled technological and social advancement, Benjamin describes an angel of the past, who sees nothing but wreckage upon wreckage, ruin upon ruin, piled up to the sky. The angel longs to turn back time, to mend what was broken, but is carried inexorably forward by a “storm from Paradise” – a storm Benjamin names Progress.

For every supposed technological innovation, there are thousands of lost futures – those of indigenous peoples, of ecosystems, of workers, trampled beneath the feet of history’s relentless triumphal procession. Rarely are we able to memorialise these losses. They are for the most part discarded, forgotten and destroyed.

It is intriguing how often the deep, melancholic sense of loss to which Benjamin alludes is communicated through brutalist architecture. Recent years have seen the disappearance of many of Britain’s most distinctive post-war buildings. Progress is often cited as the cause, and the buildings have largely been demolished to the protests of a very small, if vocal, minority. They are often sad, white boys like me. Some mourn loss of a unique aesthetic, others the architecture’s distinct utopian intent. But look closer and you can see the boot prints of the triumphal march of history over the lives of the oppressed and the marginalised, just as Benjamin did. They are present in the ruins of Birmingham Central Library, demolished to make way for a shiner model which actually holds fewer books. As a result, the city began disposing of surplus stock, beginning with all works not written in the English language. In Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, former social housing built as ‘roads in the sky’, now owned by ‘regeneration specialists’ who appropriated the tragic romantic pleas of former residents as PR for their gentrification project. Or Glasgow’s Red Road flats, once home to 4700 people, and more recently used as housing for asylum seekers. Their demolition was originally intended to be broadcast as a kind of bombastic comic punchline to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but safety concerns delayed their destruction by a year.

Whilst the fight to reclaim the past is important, there is also something profound in the memorialisation of the lost future.

There has always been a great struggle to reclaim and uphold the forgotten narratives of history, and it has been heartening to see this struggle brought to the fore in recent years – in our museums, curricula and public spaces. Whilst the fight to reclaim the past from the dominant, hegemonic narrative of the rulers and powers continues to be of great importance, there is also something profound in the memorialisation of the lost future.

In this guise St Peter’s may still serve us. It is important to recognise that it is in no way representative of all lost futures. It remains the property of an immensely powerful and affluent organised religion, built at the seat of one of the largest imperial projects in history. And yet it reminds us and invites us to join Walter Benjamin in clinging with grim hope to the expectation of the Last Day, when all unseen history is made known, every marginalised narrative honoured and upheld, when those crushed underfoot are raised up, and those in triumphal procession will be laid low. And no suffering will have been in vain.

In between, let us live in creative, active anticipation of that day, honouring and advocating for the lost and forgotten. To loosely quote David Blower, whose latest album was charged with Benjamin, there are not tears enough to do justice to history’s lost futures, but in facing this sorrow we surrender the hope of saving what we thought was ours, catching instead a glimpse of a future that belongs to none, and all.

* ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Walter Benjamin does not use the term Lost Futures, but it does serve as the title for a book on Britain’s disappearing post-war architecture by Owen Hopkins, in which St. Peter’s Seminary features.