Notes From Suffolk: Home Is Where The Chapel Is

The pros and cons of living in a converted ecclesiastical building.

I do believe the rector is buried underneath the altar in the living room. And the garden? Yep. I see dead people. Lots of them. But unlike the conversion I was shown in a former convent while apartment hunting in Seville, Spain, anyone buried in the lawn of the Hunter-Green house in Suffolk, England has been dead for at least two, maybe three hundred years. A comfortable distance.

While I can be a bit Billy Bob about certain conversions (the actor famously admitted to being an antique-phobe whereas I take umbrage with converted convents, monasteries, and burned-out turn of the century barns), this old chapel house is a place I could live, for a few days.

The Hunter-Green house, what the family lovingly refers to as The Chapel, was originally built in 1750 as a United Reform church in the tiny village of Rendham. It was expanded in 1834, though it remained empty from 1979 until the family bought it in 1991.

Doug Hunter and Ros Green, who produce multi-disciplinary festivals including the upcoming Polish Arts Festival, took on the task of converting it into a home – making bedrooms for themselves and their three children out of transepts, a kitchen out of the apse and a sitting-room from the nave – a process that is not so unusual in this part of the English countryside.

During the past four decades, the Church of England has declared some 1,500 churches “redundant.” About 30 new redundancies are made available each year and they often end up on the real estate market, though only 20 to 30 per cent are suitable for residential use.

The Church of England maintains a set of guidelines for converting chapels or churches into homes. In brief, it’s not easy. There are often consultations to be had with the former congregation and the parochial church council. “Planning permission” and “listed building consent” must be sought. There are the bats in the belfry to contend with, too. Seriously. Because they are legally protected, bats cannot be evicted. A real problem if the roof ever caves in, as they tend to do being several hundred years old.

And then, of course, there are the dead people. If corpses are underfoot, the law requires that they be removed and re-interred elsewhere. That is, if building proposals are likely to disturb graves. Otherwise, they stay. With the bats.

For some, the concept of living in a church, chapel or anywhere near a graveyard might seem a bit macabre or Addams family-esque. I have been a house guest at The Chapel on two occasions. The first time, admittedly, I was hesitant to venture to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night for fear of disturbing the dead vicar. Bravely putting supernatural paranoias aside, one is able to appreciate the more soulful side of living in a converted house of God.

“A Jehovah’s witness came to the door once and asked what it was like living in a church,” Doug wrote in an email. “I said it was great because you could dwell in God’s House before you die as well. He looked bewildered, but I thought it was funny.”

The chapel also serves as a community gathering place during the family’s annual village Christmas party. Friends of the couple have wed on their altar and more poignantly, it’s been a refuge for society’s most misunderstood: teenagers.

“This chapel has been a sanctuary to many people…[especially] for our kid’s friends who have had trouble at home. They still come and pour out their hearts on occasion.”

Most renovated (or restored) ecclesiastical buildings seek to maintain the original features of the structure – such as stained glass windows and original choir organs. Vaulted, double-height ceilings are a particular draw, as well as the open space and inherent character of living in a truly unique home.

The downsides, of course, which I’ve experienced first hand, are the cold nights and drafty mornings that accompany all that open space and antiquated charm. Corporal discomforts aside however, converting a chapel into a house is a fine example of upcycling at its holiest.


Images: K. Emily Bond; Travelet; Location Works

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.