PRECIOUS historical artefacts will be put at risk when a Roman Catholic college closes, heritage groups have warned.
Ushaw College, on the outskirts of Durham City, is home to St Cuthbert’s Seminary, which has been training priests since its foundation more than 400 years ago in France.
But a large drop in the number of priests training there led trustees to announce the 200-year-old college will close in June.
Now organisations including English Heritage and the Victorian Society have written to Ushaw’s trustees warning there is a serious risk that buildings – including a Grade I-listed chapel – will be vandalised if they are left empty.
English Heritage chief executive Dr Simon Thurley has also written to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, expressing his concern.
The organisation said it would be unhappy to see the college buildings boarded up and warned that this should only be a temporary solution. The cost of mothballing the seminary is believed to be around £300,000 a year.
Several of Ushaw’s buildings are already on English Heritage’s “at risk” register. Campaigners also called on the trustees to act with greater transparency after it emerged that one of Ushaw’s most valuable possessions – a prayer roll belonging to Henry VIII – raised £485,000 when it was sold to the British Library at Sotheby’s last June. The prayer roll contains one of only three surviving examples of the monarch’s handwriting.
Dr Clive Field, president of the Religious Archives Group, said: “The Ushaw collection is a significant part of national heritage. While it is the ultimate decision of the governing body to decide how they wish to reorganise its private property they do operate under charity law and that confers a significant public interest on how they deal with their assets.”
Nobody was available at the college yesterday to comment on English Heritage’s concerns.
Last week the college announced it had set up a steering group tasked with strategically looking at the historic estate’s buildings, lands, libraries, archives and collections.
At the time, college president John Marsland said: “We are aware of the historical importance and value placed upon the buildings, manuscripts, letters and other items we have in our collections and are committed to ensuring they remain intact.”
A spokesman for Ushaw College said: “We are aware that there has been some debate within the wider community about the future of the historic collections of Ushaw College and of the buildings.
“We are acutely conscious of the historical importance and heritage value placed upon the buildings and on the books, manuscripts, letters and other items in our various collections and we are committed to ensuring that they remain intact.
“The historical relocation of items from the Ushaw College library or collections is a matter of public record. Speculation regarding costs related to Ushaw College is just that – speculation – and we will be making no further comment about that or the future of the estate at this time.”