Alton Abbey would seem, at first glance, to be the perfect site to house families fleeing war in Ukraine.
It has furnished rooms, a kitchen, space to reflect – it was, after all, used as a retreat.
On its website – and there is little else to go on, as the abbey is refusing to talk to the Herald – it says: “For nearly 130 years God has called men (and some women) to serve Him in this place. In that time more than 80 monks and one nun have been life- professed, but the community has never been large. Today, after some years without new vocations or the arrival of new members, it consists of five of us, with an average age of more than 70 years...”
Tony Souter, who has travelled to Ukraine with humanitarian aid, has tried to contact the monks at the abbey after learning some refugees in Alton face being homeless as their hosts need their homes back.
Mr Souter said: “These men of faith, I would suggest, have little first-hand experience of the conditions Ukrainian refugees have left behind. I have been to Ukraine. I have taken humanitarian aid there and have seen first hand what the war has done to the country’s infrastructure and its people and their psyche.
“I have interviewed and counselled Ukrainian mothers with children, traumatised from their experiences, who are now in a foreign land among strangers.
“Thankfully, those strangers are good, hospitable people who have recognised a need and responded with hospitality and kindness.
“I haven’t encountered a single person in Alton who has understood the trustees’ position. To a man and woman, they are appalled by the sheer indifference implicit in it.
“The abbey is a fantastic resource which, in better times, offered hospitality to visitors – I had friends who stayed there on retreat – and which has remained empty, barren and without purpose for months while all about is chaos with families needing shelter.
“The charity says its role is for the advancement of health or saving of lives, and the prevention or relief of poverty.”
As a commercial retreat, the abbey boasted 12 single rooms and six doubles. All rooms have a bed, wardrobe, chair, desk and washbasin.
According to the latest figures, The Order of St Benedict at Alton Abbey had net assets of almost £4million.
The Herald has asked to speak to someone at the abbey, the diocese or the trustees to discuss the plight of the refugee families, and what help is required.
Instead, the trustees of The Order of St Benedict at Alton Abbey issued this statement:
“The trustees share the concerns being expressed in the town regarding the need for appropriate accommodation for refugees.
“While we are currently considering the future of the Abbey site, we do not believe that this working monastery in an isolated rural location far from public transport links is appropriate for refugee housing.
“Also the trustees wish to make clear the charity is only able to carry out charitable activities which fall within its charitable objects, as set out in its governing document, which are the support of the Monastic Community at the Abbey and assisting destitute and infirm Merchant Seamen.”
After learning of the abbey trustees’ statement to the Herald, Mr Souter added: “I can’t remember ever having seen a merchant seaman at the abbey, destitute or infirm.”