When József Mák, student of physics at King’s College London, received notice of the impending closure of his accommodation, More House, his first reaction was not fear but sorrow. “More House is all about the community,” he tells the Catholic Herald. “That is its primary asset.”
In an increasingly busy world, More House is unique in the solace that it offers inhabitants. Based in South Kensington, the accommodation, which can house up to 70 students, gives young people from 24 countries a home in the notoriously lonely capital city.
Since the Canonesses of St Augustine, Congregation of Our Lady, acquired More House in 1950 (at the time it was a hotel that had been damaged by wartime bombs), a global community has grown here on the foundations of faith. Its mission is described as “community building across faiths, cultures, and nationalities based on Christian principles and Catholic Teaching”. Originally a hostel for young Catholic women studying in London, More House began housing students and priests in 1971. Chaplains have included Carmelites, Marists, Salesians, Jesuits, Dominicans and Benedictines.
So why has this happy home, beloved by so many, become impossible to sustain? First, the financial demands of the building “are very significant”, according to a representative of the Board of Trustees, who did not wish to be named. Secondly, and more sadly, “There just aren’t the Sisters.” There are currently 19 Sisters in England, with only one aged under 70. “The order is running out of Sisters all over Europe,” the representative laments. “It’s a terrible wrench.”
Students congregate regularly for Mass, prayer groups, Christian Life Community classes and meditation. “With CLC we regularly meet to read Scripture and then we reflect on it and discuss how to apply it to our everyday lives,” says József. During the lockdown they have continued this practice via Skype. “Most recently we reflected on John 14:1-12 when Jesus instructs his disciples not to worry, which was relevant considering our situation!”
A number of other Catholic groups meet at More House too, such as the Imperial College Catholic Society and Communion and Liberation.
The students are encouraged to consider their place in the community and in the world. Last year, they volunteered at a night shelter for the homeless and raised money for Cafod and Jesuit refugee charities. Jozsef stresses that More House welcomes people of every creed: “Although the majority of students here are Catholic, there are also non-Catholics. It’s good that Catholic students are exposed to different points of view. Every day, we all eat breakfast and dinner together – we break bread, so to speak.”
It’s not just dining together that creates this sense of community, but an innate sense of togetherness. One student told the Herald: “I worked in the house over the summer as a receptionist, and we were always being visited by ex-residents, many of whom have gone on to get married to people they met here at More House.”
“People here trust each other,” says József. “We support each other.” Olivia Butterworth, a history student at King’s College, agrees: “Losing More House would be a terrible blow. We need faith-based communities for young people – they help us become vibrant members of churches all over the world.”
A testament to the spirit of the community is that staff as well as students are anxious to see More House into 2021 and beyond. In a joint statement, staff told the Herald that “Whilst saving our jobs is clearly a key consideration for us, especially in view of the current financial climate, we nevertheless have a deep affection for this great institution and chaplaincy that we belong to and feel proud to be part of.”
Meanwhile, József and his fellow residents are growing increasingly desperate. But they refuse to give up, hoping that More House can be saved and are doing everything that they can to make themselves heard.
“Only yesterday I was looking through photos and videos of all the activities, birthday parties and fun times I have had at More House,” says Olivia. “I feel such a pang that it will not be available for students who want to have a place to belong to.
“Perhaps as a community we have taken for granted how lucky we are to be so cherished within the More House family.”