By Communications - June 19th, 2024 | Posted in News No comments

Bournemouth Oratory Sacred Heart Church in the heart of the town centre serves a demographically diverse community with specific issues around poverty, homelessness and social isolation, which presents several distinct social and economic challenges. Bournemouth is a vibrant, culturally diverse university town, but also suffers from levels of substance misuse and drug mortality which are higher than the national average.

The parish has a long-standing commitment of delivering important outreach services; both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meet weekly supporting up to 150 people struggling with addiction; and the St Vincent de Paul Society organises a monthly lunch club, attended by 50 elderly and vulnerable people. The Parish Halls also serve the Portuguese, Spanish, and Filipino communities in the town who gather to celebrate Mass and socialise, sharing their culture and language in a safe, central space.

However, the Parish’s community vision has always been to go much further – there was a genuine desire to make full use of the Grade II listed Halls (Undercroft) not only to provide for the spiritual needs of local people but to increase partnerships with local agencies to develop it as a Community Hub for numerous outreach services, specifically targeted towards those most marginalised in society, and designed to strengthen social networks, protect dignity and promote independence.

Feedback from extensive local consultation in 2021 revealed that loneliness and social isolation characterised far too many lives, particularly among the older generation. With this in mind, the Parish embarked on the most ambitious capital development project since construction of the Oratory in 1875 to transform the cavernous, under-used Undercroft beneath the Church into an accessible, flexible, multi-purpose and welcoming space able to deliver regular and structured group activities. The generosity of parishioners and assiduous fundraising by Father Peter Edwards and members of the Parish Project Team resulted in raising a staggering £500,000 in donations and grants to enable the transformation of the space to get underway.

The first phase of works involved sensitive reconfiguration of the nineteenth century entrance to the Undercroft to make it fully accessible to those with limited mobility and wheelchair users. Forming the basement to the Church above, sound transmission both ways severely limited usage times of the Halls due to noise transfer. Therefore, effective soundproofing was necessary to disconnect sound transmission from the hall to the Church, and vice versa. A separate, private space was created to accommodate a partnership with Dorset-based charity Faithworks, enabling them to host and provide counselling to families in crisis.

The second phase of the project has been the creation of a community café, ingeniously named Café Neri after the Christian Missionary Saint and founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. Building on a relationship cultivated with Autism Unlimited and the Council’s Community Outreach and Support Team, the Parish is gearing up to provide the opportunity for young people with learning difficulties to gain work experience in the hospitality sector, equipping them with the skills to land permanent paid employment.

Graham Whithead of Autism Unlimited writes: “We are delighted to be associated with the development of the Oratory’s Halls. The new café will offer a safe and supportive environment for those aged 18 – 25 with special educational needs and disabilities. People like 18-year-old Sean, who is autistic and has specific learning difficulties. Sean desperately wants to be independent, but employment prospects and opportunities to integrate into the local community are scarce. We have worked with him to create an individualised plan, tailored to his specific needs, which has seen him start a work placement in a local café, receive training in healthy eating and personal wellbeing and, I am pleased to say, Sean is about to live independently for the first time.

In partnership with the Oratory, we will be able realise the potential of many more young people like Sean, providing pathways to employability, engaging them in real-world community integration and positively impacting their life chances.”

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