Abandon hope all ye who enter into talks to find a use for St Peter’s
By Bill Heaney
First of all, let me declare an interest here. I was at the “topping out” ceremony for St Peter’s College in Cardross.
High up on the roof with my photographer Johnny Wysocki and surrounded by clergy with cassocks blowing in the wind, we watched, photographed and wrote about this time-honoured ceremony.
Topping out is a builders’ rite traditionally held when the last beam – or last stone – is placed atop a structure during its construction.
A silver trowel and cement was involved, but I cannot recall who did the honours on that cold, windy day in 1966.
It could have been, and is most likely was, Bishop James Ward, pictured right, the Dumbarton-born prelate who was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and the person in charge of its extensive – and expensive – programme of building new churches.
And this showpiece seminary, of course, to accommodate the many young men who were at that time queuing up to join the Catholic priesthood.
However, times changed. Fewer and fewer young men came forward with the necessary vocation and one by one the seminaries across Scotland closed their doors.
The steady trickle soon became a flood, when instances of clerical abuse were uncovered and the perpetrators were named and shamed – and sent to prison.
First to go was Drygrange in the Scottish Borders and then St Mary’s College at Blairs in Aberdeen. St Vincent’s junior seminary across the River Clyde at Langbank was long gone and then St Peter’s in Cardross struggled with numbers until it closed and became a drugs rehabilitation centre.
Today (Saturday) is Archbishop Philip Tartaglia’s birthday, but he had little to celebrate in regard to St Peter’s College, where he himself was once a student.
Archbishop Tartaglia, pictured left, does not have his troubles to seek.
His spokesman, Ronnie Convery, chose Friday as the day to announce that the Archdiocese had given up on Cardross.
He described the A-listed modernist building as an “albatross around our neck” and added that the Church could not even give it away.
St Peter’s Seminary was once described as a “modernist masterpiece” but it closed in the 1970s and lay empty until a plan emerged to turn it into a cultural centre.
There were plans too to turn it into a luxury spa hotel and market it in the US as a place with wonderful views of the Renfrewshire and Argyllshire Hills and the Firth of Clyde.
However, these plans – and many others – were shelved and the building is now set to remain a ruin.
The seminary, which is surrounded by acres of woodland, was designed by Scottish architectural firm Gillespie, Kidd and Coia for the Archdiocese of Glasgow.
Renowned architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein supplied the vision for the distinctive zig-zag design and concrete appearance, with internal features such as vaulted ceilings and floating staircases.
The structure came to be considered a modernist masterpiece but its working lifetime was short and when the number of trainee priests fell, the seminary was deconsecrated in 1980.
Since then, the building has become degraded by fire, rain and vandalism, but it still regularly attracts visits from architecture students and aficionados from around the world.
Its importance was recognised in 1992 when the seminary was Category A listed by Historic Scotland.
Architecture expert Professor Alan Dunlop told BBC Scotland its A-listing showed it was a building of international importance.
He said: “I would go as far as saying this building is as important as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.
“That is how high I rate its place in the pantheon of Scottish architecture.
“This is unequivocally an excellent structure that is worth saving.”
The Archdiocese of Glasgow has been trying to find someone to take the building on for decades but now fears it will have to remain a ruin.
Professor Alan Dunlop – ‘a structure worth saving”.
Its director of communications Ronnie Convery said that after 40 years they were “back to scratch”.
He added: “We would literally give it away for nothing but we can’t find anyone to take it off our hands.”
Until June last year there was hope for the building, with arts organisation NVA working on turning it into an arts venue and cultural centre.
It claims to have spent about £3m trying to make the building safe and removing hazardous materials such as asbestos.
In 2016 it staged Hinterland, a sound and light display using the ruin as a spectacular backdrop.
However, NVA closed down last year, saying the challenges facing the company were “compounded” when a core funding bid to Creative Scotland was unsuccessful.
Ronnie Convery said the Scottish government had recently ordered a study into what could be done to save the building for the nation.
He expects that report to be published soon, but interested parties are sceptical given that there are so many A-listed buildings across Scotland sadly neglected and badly in need of refurbishment before they fall into ruin.
The Church spokesman said he thought public funding was now the only way forward.
And there is no doubt that this is the case.
However, the disaster that is St Peter’s could turn into a blessing for us all if visionaries examined the possibility that St Peter’s could be a replacement for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.
Professor Dunlop says St Peter’s is a building every bit as important as the Art School, which was recently, tragically burned to the ground.
Why doesn’t then the Scottish Government get together with the Art School board and discuss the possibility of creating a new campus at Cardross with St Peter’s as the centrepiece?
There is lots of room for expansion and outbuildings on the site which has beautiful views of the River Clyde and is within walking distance of its own railway station on the Glasgow-Helensburgh line.
However, that would take courage, cash and conviction and real vision, which are attributes Scotland in the 21st century appears no longer to be able to lay claim to.
People like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein are no longer with us and we are stuck with the likes of Muriel Gray.