Several years ago, I made a number of trips to visit a place which has a world-wide reputation in the arena of ‘Brutalist’ architecture, giving more than a passing nod to the seminal work of Le Corbusier. It is a place which was extraordinary in it’s lifetime and which retains something of that magic even now, in it’s present ruined state. That place is the former seminary of Saint Peter’s, Cardross, Scotland.
Cardross is a village on the edge of the Firth of Clyde, between Dumbarton and Helensburgh – a small and very picturesque place, the kind of place most people drive through rather than stop at, unless they have a particular reason for doing so. The old seminary, which is now generally referred to simply as ‘Cardross’, gives such a reason.
Designed by the architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, Cardross has been designated as a “building of world significance” and even now it remains a ‘Category A’ listed building – or, at least, what remains of it. This exceptional modern building wrapped itself around the old Kilmahew House, a baronial mansion built in 1865. It gave the impression of the new cuddling the old. From it’s opening as a seminary in 1966, the writing loomed large on the wall that it’s days were numbered. Practically, the building suffered all sorts of problems and quickly gained a reputation as being very cold, draughty and constantly leaking. And logistically, this building built to accommodate one hundred student priests never reached that lofty number, for the decline in religious vocations was already present – and would gather pace in the decades to come. The seminary closed in 1980. Since then, no real use has been found for it, regardless of the astonishing design, and so it was allowed to gradually fall into ruin.
At my first visit, the old convent was still present and it was possible – though not advisable – to go inside. Similarly, the central staircase of the main block was still there, allowing access to the upper floors; these, in turn, allowed the careful visitor to walk around the outside of the building, where there is a narrow walkway. And also at that initial visit, the main altar was still in one piece; in the years since, it has been smashed – first into two pieces, then again in ever smaller pieces until now, it is barely recognisable for what it once was. Various fires have destroyed everything other than the brutalist concrete shell. Street artists have used the space as a great canvas – and some of the work is, without doubt, quite impressive.
At some online sources, there exist various images and some films which show Cardross as a functioning seminary – these monochrome images bring to life the recollections I have of visiting those ruins. One such film even recreates a far earlier film, shot by shot.
For me, the ruins of Cardross seem to quietly echo a line from the Gospel of Saint Luke, where Jesus asks those to whom He is speaking – “When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on earth?” (Lk.18:8).
This thought returned to my mind at Mass this morning. Looking out across the Church interior, I saw so very many empty places – something which is, I am certain, replicated in a great many Churches in a great many places. We have all seen the decline in Church attendance.
I suppose there are many reasons why people have ceased to make the communal life of the Church part of their lived experience – but regardless, the Church is losing the vitality, the experience, the faith of all these many souls. We are both smaller and – far more importantly – poorer as a result.
I see this loss of faith reflected in so many aspects of the world in which we currently find ourselves – a world that is darker now; a world that is much less communal-minded and increasingly individualistic; a world where there is no such thing as objective Truth, only truth as experienced quite subjectively by the individual. A world where to have any religious faith is rapidly becoming something which is counter-cultural.
And I find myself echoing that question of the Lord.
And yet, despite any answer I might give myself in response, I know that hope persists. It isn’t over just yet.