About sanctuaries and hospitality

Written by Christina Beardsley,  Knowledge Broker & UK Site Principal Investigator 


Above the entrance an inviting sign reads ‘The Sanctuary’, but a notice on the door forbids one to enter: ‘‘Keep Out: Painting in Progress’. When the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital opened in 1994, it had two sacred spaces: the Chapel, dedicated to St Stephen (named after the hospital that previously stood on the site), and a smaller, multi-denominational space, the Sanctuary. Located on the first floor, the Chapel and the Sanctuary form a single tall building. The Chapel’s height accommodates an altar painting of the Resurrection by Renaissance artist, Paulo Veronese – a treasure transferred from the Westminster Hospital when it combined with several others to form the Chelsea and Westminster.

This precious painting and other religious items make the Chapel’s appearance very Christian, but the spiritual care policy is that all spaces managed by the chaplaincy are open to all. With its sofas and Maggie Hamblin paintings of sunsets the Sanctuary offered a restful space for reflection and meditation, but by the early years of the twenty-first century it was developed for multi-faith use with mats, a screen (to create male and female prayer areas) and religious texts from world faiths. As Muslim staff and patient numbers grew the Sanctuary proved too small for Friday Prayer, which was held in various venues, and latterly in the Tent, a ‘temporary’ clinical area, whose name had positive associations for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Over roughly five years, the chaplaincy and Muslim staff worked to secure the Tent as the permanent Muslim prayer space, with washing facilities. With its beautiful Moroccan carpet it looks suitably Islamic, but like the Chapel, it is open to all. Ideally, the Sanctuary would have been retained as a quiet room for people from other world faiths and those of no religious affiliation, but due to pressure on space the Sanctuary is being converted into offices – hence the ‘Keep Out’ sign on the door. The Trust is still keen to create a third space, possibly in proximity to the internal garden recently established on the third floor.

The West Middlesex University Hospital, with which the Chelsea and Westminster merged fourteen months ago, was built more recently, and has a single sacred space which can be divided for use by different faith users. Whether single or multiple, prayer spaces provide valuable retreat in hospitals, but they can also be contested spaces, signalling ‘keep out’ as well as ‘come in’.


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