Bishop's Visit by Chris Cooper, Form IV
The White Fathers by Dennis Stevens
Taken from "Hampshire, the county magazine" dated September 1961
It was built as an infirmary, from proceeds raised by the sale of Prince Albert's life story, and Queen Victoria sent her son, Prince Leopold, to lay the foundation stone; it became, apparently, a kind of grim, institutional clearing house for the other hospitals of Hampshire, where the dying spent their last days.
Now, almost 100 years later, it presents a scene which, could they return, would bewilder and confuse those whiskered worthies who perspired loyally beneath silk hats and fine serge on that warm August day in 1864. For, pacing the turf as the summer breeze rustles through the rows of limes, they might well see a man clad in the garb of an Arab ; there, in the heart of Hampshire, with the rolling meadows and downland making the and heat of North Africa seem as remote as Mars . . . .
This is the Priory, Bishop's Waltham, once the Royal Albert Infirmary, and for the past 40 years one of the British outposts of the White Fathers, a Roman Catholic missionary order forged out of misery and strife in Algeria a century ago. This has brought about an interesting situation : while Bishop's Waltham slumbers on, a ghost of the lively market town of years ago, it plays a diminishing part in the life of Hampshire, and many folk in the county would be hard pressed to place it accurately on the map ; but, from the deserts of the north to the very heart of Africa it is possible to find men who remember Bishop's Waltham with the warmest affection.
The society was founded almost 100 years ago on the noble and prophetic vision of Cardinal Lavigerie : noble in its conception of an Africa free under God, which at the time was political heresy of the worst kind ; prophetic in that Lavigerie saw in the dark, shapeless, largely unexplored continent of 100 years ago the mighty tides and courses which could come to pass and which wretchedly and sadly, are made manifest day by day in the morning newspapers.
Initially, Lavigerie was concerned with those areas over which Islam had held sway for centuries and with the immediate problem of Algeria which, even then, was torn by misery and insurrection. Then came the notorious Brussels conference of 1876, which led to the nations of Europe chopping Africa into so many commercial packets ; it aimed, ostensibly, to civilise Africa through commerce, to turn the Africans into Europeans.
The flood-gates were open : so the White Fathers, who had already shed their blood for God and Africa in the deserts of the northern mission bound for Timbuktu was slain not long after the formation of the order - went into Central Africa. They were to convert by example, to fight slavery, ignorance and fear, to bring aid and comfort in medicine, education and agriculture.
This they have done for almost 100 years, during which time over 40 diocese have been established, where African bishops may rule over European priests : over 600 missions reach from the Mediterranean to the Rhodesias, the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
All of which is far, far away from August 13, 1864, when Prince Leopold, eighth child of Queen Victoria, arrived by special train from Southampton ; he was holidaying at Osborne, and crossed the Solent in the royal yacht. At Bishop's Waltham, the Illustrated London News recorded, he was greeted by 'a loud cheer,' the Bishop, the Mayors of Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth and the Ist Hampshire Mounted Rifles.
The infirmary, despite its notable inauguration, does not appear to have fared well and, like its patients, it too passed beyond the sphere of its operations to a kind of limbo. In 1912 a community of White Fathers from France arrived to establish a seminary.
The society had hitherto drawn its members from many of the nations of Europe, but not from Britain. Even so, the French Fathers had to wait for four busy years before the first British boy entered the house. In that time the old infirmary had been transformed.
In the 49 years since, 900 boys have passed through the Priory, receiving grammar school training to enable them to study for the priesthood.
Although the boys today see more of the "outside world" than did their predecessors a few years ago, work is still hard at the Priory : five of the 38 boys gained nine A level GCE passes last summer, and 24 of the remainder gained 59 passes at 0 level.
Said Father P. Fitzgerald, a Portsmouth man, who for three years has had the distinction as a Hampshireman of being Superior at a Hampshire house of an international order : "We believe that boys who have the idea that they want to become priests should be given the opportunity to test that deep and genuine desire but there are no commitments on either side.
"If after three or four years they say 'this is not the life for me well, we look upon that as quite a normal feature of our life here. The boys are not shielded in any way. You can find them at the swimming baths, the ice rink, the cinema."
The little burial ground beneath the trees adds amid the bustle of school-life a sense of timelessness : there are laid to rest Father Travers, leader of the community which founded the Priory; one of its first scholars, Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes, who joined in 1917 and later represented the Holy See in Egypt; Brother Modeste, a Dutchman who ran the Priory farm.
Entry to the Priory is in no way hampered on financial grounds. Of the boys there at present, some pay nothing and only one pays the full fee of £120 a year.
If many boys join because of the glamour of the Arab dress of the society the gandoura, the full-length white robe, the burnous, the white cape with hood worn by Arabs they find work at the Priory can be distinctly unglamourous.
Until 1948 boys took a complete matriculation course ; then numbers grew, and it was decided that younger boys should start at the society's Scottish school. At Bishop's Waltham now they start at third form level,
Leaving the Priory, boys go on to the senior seminary, the House of Philosophy in Ireland, for two years ; to the Dorking house for a year, and then follows four further years of preparation in either London, Canada or North Africa. At one time the White Fathers lived and died in Africa ; now they return from West Africa after five years, East Africa after seven.
In Africa the White Fathers have tackled and are still tackling, a tremendous range of tasks : taking the church into new regions, starting bush schools, training African priests, running hospitals, seminaries, even newspapers, while all the time catering for the spiritual needs of the people.
Of the north, Cardinal Lavigerie said that 100 years would pass before any sign of reward would be seen. His prophecy was accurate. White Fathers are still, as far as the priesthood allows, living the lives of the Arabs, and by example alone setting before Moslems the Christian way of love and devotion and prayer.
So throughout a large part of Africa : Gambia, Tanganyika, Uganda, Ghana, the Sudan, Nyasaland, French West Africa, Rhodesia, the Congo, the White Fathers toil on, proving the words of their founder : "There is no defence against love." The imprint of Cardinal Lavigerie is strong yet, reaching through jungle and bush, even to the quiet Hampshire countryside.
"A man's rights," Cardinal Lavigerie once said, "are as much a part of Christianity as a man's prayers." And, when asked what kind of men he wanted for the society : "Saints ! I want saints ! " Perhaps there is not a great deal more to be said than that.
And in the old infirmary set in the quiet fields, his beliefs and wishes are rooted deeply, a promise of better things.
The Golden Jubilee of Fr Steve Collins
Fr Steve Collins on the occasion of his Golden Jubilee (1947 - 1997)
"On the Fiftieth Anniversary of my priestly ordination, I thank God for the gift and the mystery of his divine election. I thank my Father, Mother, Francis Ninian, Jack, Francis, Maureen and Betty. Thank you, Holy Priests and Nuns living and dead to whom I owe my vocation. God Bless all my friends who have shared my ministry during the past 50 years. May God Bless with everlasting joy all those I have ministered to at Heston, The Priory, St Boswell's, Rutherglen, Mbarara, Usuk and Kampala. May God Bless us all on my Golden Jubilee Celebration with Canon Francis, Father Jack and Betty and my beloved AIDS widows and Orphans in Kampala on 30th of July 1997."
(source : Eugene MacBride)