The Sisters of St. Martha’s
The Convent of the Sisters of St Martha has been an integral part of the spiritual community of Rottingdean for many years.
A Potted History, by Douglas d’Enno
In 1903, there were just two Catholic families in Rottingdean village. The nearest church (St John the Baptist, Kemp Town) was a few miles away and involved a major trek for worshippers.
A handful of nuns of the Order of St Martha from the Dordogne acquired a substantial property near Rottingdean Gap in that year and opened a small chapel, then a school, on the premises. For the first few years, until the Catholic population grew, their existence was precarious but their chapel came to serve an essential need and the school flourished.
After the First World War expansion of the fledgling parish took place in the form of a lease on a tin building at the bottom of Nevill Road, formerly the ‘Rottingdean Sanitary Laundry’, which was converted to a chapel. In 1925, the Sisters opened the substantial Convent of St Martha much further up the High Street, facing The Green. These are the premises we are familiar with today.
The school they opened served the needs of many local children, a significant proportion of them non-Catholic, for the next 40 years. Then, however, changing educational requirements and rising fees for lay teachers meant the nuns could no longer continue. Yet their tradition was maintained when in 1969 the present, highly successful, Aided RC Primary School of Our Lady of Lourdes arose on part of their land. Some of their buildings were even taken over.
Until the church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built in the village in 1957, the Convent chapel remained the centre of worship for Catholics from miles around. Mass is still said there two or three times a week. Sadly, only four Sisters remain on the premises today compared with, for example, eleven in a group picture taken in the 1970s. However, one of the Sisters in that photograph, Sr Cécile, returned from France to Rottingdean in October 2004 and is a link between the two phases of the Convent’s development.