God paves the way at St Hilda’s Church

God paves the way at St Hilda’s Church

21 April 2023 by Pattie Gercke in Homelessness, Housing, Prison & Ex-Offenders.

In the run up to our event Out Of The Pandemic - Church Perspectives on Homeless Support we are exploring, and celebrating the manifold ways our London church communities support those who experience, or are at risk of homelessness.

This fourth blog in our series shares the story of St Hilda’s Church, housing women coming out of prison who would otherwise be homeless.

Do join us on 26th April where we will come together as church communities together to both celebrate, & reflect on provision for those who experience homelessness. You can sign up HERE

Heading into homelessness

Simeon talks of the mile between the prison and the train station, which he walks multiple times each week with women newly released from prison. Women often heading straight into homelessness.

Simon is the Chaplain at HMP Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, and Natalie* is one of the women who would have been released from prison into homelessness. As a victim of domestic violence, she did not feel safe to go back to her family, or hometown. Usually in this situation women would be provided with a tent on their release. Many who do not have safe and stable places to go on their release end up in repeat cycles of release and readmission.

But between the prison and the train station lies St Hilda’s church, and a three-way partnership has developed between the church, the prison and the charity Hope Into Action. A partnership that offers some of these women an alternative to homelessness. A partnership that offered this alternative to Natalie

Stepping out in faith- offering a house

Natalie was offered the opportunity to live in St Hilda’s House on her release from prison. St Hilda’s House, located in the centre of town, was historically the curate’s house for St Hilda’s Church. Since St Hilda’s have not had a curate for some years, the house has been rented out commercially. This gave them the comfort and financial stability of a regular income.

The decision by St Hilda’s Church to use their house to respond to the huge need for housing for women coming out of prison has therefore been both courageous and sacrificial. They are not a large church in terms of congregation, or income. It has been a step out in faith to use the house intentionally, as Father Joseph Fernandes, the vicar of St Hilda’s Church tells us:

We need a level of measured risk, because we have to be good stewards of our financial resources. But on the other hand, I think sometimes it’s probably good not to know everything and that trust element, that faith element, trusting that God somehow will be the one paving the way.

Fr Joseph Fernandes, Vicar of St Hilda's Church

Fr Joseph Fernandes

Simeon Sturney

God paves the way- how the partnership works

God has indeed paved the way each step of the journey. Simeon, talks of the numerous “God incidences” where they met the right people at the right time, which made connections happen between St Hilda’s Church, the prison and Hope Into Action.

The way this three-way partnership works in practise is that the prison employs Simeon, who works as an empowerment worker with St Hilda’s House alongside his chaplain role. In this role he supports and journeys with tenants of St Hilda’s House like Natalie. Empowering and enabling them to grow, live, do, and be all that they can.

St Hilda’s Church provide the property and its maintenance. They also partner with four other local churches to provide befrienders to the tenants of St Hilda’s house, and to join together to pray for them and this partnership. Both Fr Joseph and Simeon talk about the beauty of this ecumenical partnership, where St Hilda’s House has provided a focus for church communities to each contribute their different skills, rather than competing with each other. Seeing the local churches working well together is also a great witness for the women, prison and local community.

The third strand of the partnership is the charity Hope Into Action. They provide a vital framework and offer their experience, advice and support, as well as a listening ear. Simeon refers to them as “the glue and the safety net in many ways. The three [of us] work incredibly well together.”

A little bit of hope- the impact of St Hilda’s House on the women coming out of prison

Natalie talks about the significance for her of the home provided through this partnership:

Home is a really important thing. Without home you’ve got nothing…If I didn’t have that base, I wouldn’t have been able to go to work, or even get a job….you can’t do anything without it [a home].

Natalie* Current tenant in St Hilda's House

Natalie looks forward to coming home after each work day to St Hilda’s House, which she has made into a lovely home. She has been working since coming out of prison, and her hopes for the future are for a permanent contract, and for a normal life and home. She wants to be in a stable place, so that in a couple of years her two children (currently living with her Mum) can live with her again.

But St Hilda’s House is more than the stability of bricks and mortar. Natalie talks about the impact of having a local community of people who are there for her emotionally. The significance of having people care for her and listen to her, not because they have to, but because they choose to:

I know that if I feel down, I can phone them just to listen. I’ve never really had that, and so it’s really important.

I think if you want to give back to the community, want to make a change, people like me need to have a bit of hope. A lot of us don’t have hope, so knowing that there are actually people behind you who are not just family is a really important thing.

Natalie* Current tenant in St Hilda's House

Simeon similarly talks about the impact of St Hilda’s House for other former tenants of the house. Whilst their stays in the house have been of varying length, he feels all of them have appreciated that there are people willing to give them a chance and invest in them:

The fact that a church cares about them, actually isn’t as small as we think it is…to know that people care about them, and care about them with the labels they still wear…prostitute, thief, but are not judged, just loved, means so much for a lot of the women…It shows that people matter. That they matter. That they are valued, as well as being in a safe place, which also makes a difference.

Simeon Sturney, Free Church Chaplain to HMP Bronzefield

Two-way transformation- the impact on St Hilda’s Church community

Fr Joseph reflects that journeying alongside the women coming out of prison has been transformational for St Hilda’s:

I have hoped that for the church community, there would be an element of being blessed by the project, so rather than just being about the church doing something for the women and for the community, there would be a two-way conversation where in fact we are equally blessed by that, and would be changing as well.

Fr Joseph Fernandes, Vicar of St Hilda's Church

The church community have learnt with the women, and it has made them more real, more humble, and more accommodating. Bobbie (Church Warden at St Hilda’s and one of the befrienders) agrees that despite the challenges, it has had a very positive effect on the church community. It has given them a greater sense of who God is calling them to be, and what God is calling them to do in their community. They have become more engaged with their wider community, where they have developed new local networks and partnerships.

St Hilda’s House

Bobbie Bedford- Church Warden & Befriender

St Hilda’s Church

Overcoming obstacles

It has not always been easy of course, and the partnership did not happen overnight. For Fr Joseph there was some initial resistance, not from the local community, but from within the church community:

I knew that there would be prejudices. I knew that not everyone would be on board. And in fact, it was a really difficult conversation with some of the members of the congregation. We knew there was a bumpy road.

Fr Joseph Fernandes, Vicar of St Hilda's Church

But through ongoing conversations as a PCC over the course of a year, they decided as a church community to step up and step out in faith. And now, even faced with the challenges of the current financial climate, the PCC are agreed that they want to continue onwards, in faith, with their partnership with the prison and Hope Into Action, to meet the local needs and those of the women and the prison.

Dream dreams

Fr Joseph has this to say to other church communities who might consider housing through Hope Into Action:

Dream dreams. Let God be the one paving the way. Don’t try to be ahead of God- that won’t work, but if God is in it things will happen. Sometimes unexpectedly. It’s not going to be straight forward- it never is, but in the end, you will see how transformational it is for the local community….It doesn’t have to be a big resource the church has, but it can be enough to make a difference…If a woman has the opportunity of building a life, that is one woman already on the way to something else.

Fr Joseph Fernandes, Vicar of St Hilda's Church

There is a huge need for safe and secure housing for women coming out of prison. There is also a huge wider need for housing for those at risk of, or who experience homelessness. Hope Into Action can journey with church communities who have a property to explore how they might get involved to meet their local needs.

If your church community would like to explore next steps, then the Compassionate Communities Team would love to hear from you. You can contact us through email

Simeon leaves us with this challenge and encouragement: “I say do it! If you have the opportunity to support someone broken, who’s giving up, who’s got nowhere to go, who’s going to be vulnerable and living on the streets and you have a house- I say do it!!”

*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the current tenant of St Hilda’s House.

You can watch St Hilda’s story HERE

Pattie Gercke

Pattie Gercke

Pattie is the Compassionate Communities Development Worker for Refugee& Aslyum Seeker response, Housing & Homelessness. She has a background in international development and is completing an MA in Development and Emergency Practice. She is passionate about issues of justice, hospitality, and community.

View all posts by Pattie Gercke

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