BY JAMES PENN
Holy Family, Reigate and St Michael's, Woodhatch
FOR MOST PEOPLE, Reigate is probably the epitome of suburbia. The town in Surrey has long been swamped by building sprawl as commuterdom sweeps south from London. It comes as some surprise, then, to learn that it is one of the county's oldest towns, the former seat of the de Warrens Earls of Surrey and once boasted a castle and a priory.
The castle is now a ruin, the historical heart of the town has been ripped out by development and road-building and the priory has long gone.
What does remain is a Catholic heritage in the form of the parish of the Holy Family, Reigate, and St Michael's, Woodhatch. It consists of some 450 souls and is run by Fr Michael Sewell, described by another former Wonersh seminarian as "larger than life".
"Reigate is a satellite town of London and a lot of people work there or at Gatwick Airport. There is a constant stream of traffic passing through and at certain times of the day you can't get the car out. But, besides commuters, there are lots of older people who've been here for a couple of generations."
Fr Sewell runs a number of groups: a Baptismal and Catechismal programme; an Initiation Ministry; "to let people find out what the Catholic church says on a number of issues"; a Liturgy Group, "to enrich, improve and make it more accessible"; a programme on parenting; "to help parents understand the finer art of growing up with children"; and a series of social events for the elderly.
"Last Saturday we fed 49; they're not just parishioners but anyone from the town,". he said.
Fr Sewell is now in his mid-40s and entered the priesthood in 1986, relatively late in life. Before that he was very much a man of the world, working as a bookseller in WI-I Smith of all places.
"I always knew the priesthood was there, but I thought you had to be brilliantly clever to enter it till my parish priest made me face up to it. He had long suspected that was what I wanted."
One of the things he has had to sacrifice in taking up his ministry is his passion for icon painting traditionally something associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church rather than Roman Catholicism.
Because it's a spiritual act of worship, the painting of an icon is supposed to be interspersed with lengthy bouts of prayer and as a result can be rather time-consuming.
"I really haven't got the time to do it anymore," says Fr Sewell. He has allowed his interest in art to extend, however, to taking a BA at the Open University and to being a member of the Society of Catholic Artists (South East Branch).
"Art is a whole new way of looking at things; it's tied up with my spirituality."