His Place, the large grey-stone Victorian church that straddles Cambridge Road and Robertson Street opposite the ESK emporium, combines a place of Christian worship, a well-used community hub, and arguably the best concert auditorium in Hastings. 

PICTURE: Owen Price

Current owners, a registered charity serving charismatic Christians led by Rev Chris Sears, took over the three-floored building in November 2013, moving from their previous modest meeting hall in Silverhill. With a regular congregation of barely 30 church attenders it seems self-evidently far too big a space for their needs. Furthermore, as a Grade-II listed structure on the ‘at risk’ register, its 130-year-old stonework is eroding, particularly on the south side most exposed to the sea air: windows are in serious need of replacement or extensive repair.  But “the Lord told me we should come here”, Rev Sears says. They raised £35,000 at the outset to mend the roof and make the building watertight, and in 2017 obtained a lottery grant to install a fire alarm system. They have developed the multi-roomed basement as an art centre, a cafe and as home to a range of community groups, in particular Hastings Safe Space, an NHS-programmed refuge for young people. Rev Sears was awarded the MBE for community work back in 2009. They have also opened up the main auditorium and upper balcony as a concert venue for Opus Theatre, an enterprise that promotes musical and other arts events. 

A year’s fund-raising
Now, having been advised that another half a million pounds is needed to save the exterior stonework and windows, and that His Place will not attract any further lottery support without being able to offer substantial matched funding, Rev Sears still seems not in the least fazed. He and the church administrator Nicola Roper, together with others within the church community, have launched what they intend to be a year’s fund-raising to gather in this sum. They are looking for sponsors of the organ, of seats, of windows, even ‘adopters’ of bricks; they seek volunteers to collate historical artefacts and social history for an intended book. “We are not a community that gives up”, they say. “Our charity is small, the work we do reaches hundreds of people, but our determination is that of an army”. 

They are also immensely proud of the building. “It is a jewel in Hastings, with so much of its original decoration, such as the beautiful wooden ceiling, curved pews and horse-shoe balcony. The stone and window damage arises from environmental factors such as soot and acid in the air from car fumes. Water ingress through the stone has caused the iron parts of the stained-glass windows to expand and allow openings for the rain water to penetrate. Repair will take time, but the original glass will be cleaned and restored, and much of the original iron remoulded and used”.

The church group also aims to install a new energy efficient ‘green’ boiler and to upgrade its two community kitchens. But Rev Sears reckons it can do so from the proceeds of its hire activities, particularly from the Opus Theatre performances and from the cafe.

Support from Opus Theatre 
Polo Piatti, founder and artistic director of Opus Theatre, is keen to endorse the appeal. “The His Place building is an extraordinary space. Because of its very special architecture and fabulous acoustics we are running Opus in it, with much success. The building needs urgent care, otherwise this very new special theatre in town – as well as the very valued community church – will cease to exist. We hope that many people will support this appeal and in doing so, save this incredibly beautiful historic building for many generations to come.”

Sandra Goodsell, chair of Hastings Sinfonia Orchestra, is equally positive: “Hastings prides itself in being a centre for arts and culture, and the Opus Theatre fills a much needed gap in the town for mid-size venues. It has a cosy, intimate feel that the audience appreciates, as well as fabulous warm acoustics. And it has great character – the impressive organ makes a stunning backdrop.  On a practical side, in order to secure prestigious events to the theatre, it does need investment, especially to the dressing rooms, entrance and general fabric of the building.”

Erected in the 1880s as a Congregational church, His Place used to accommodate up to 1,000 worshippers for a single service. In the 1950s, according to current incumbent Rev Chris Sears, it used to hold two packed meetings each Sunday to satisfy demand. But Congregationalists were absorbed into the United Reformed Church in 1972, and with several alternative URC venues in town, including St Lukes, Silverhill and Clive Vale, the Robertson Street church became surplus to their needs.]

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