The Priory at War by J O'D
The Priory 1912 - 22 by Fr A E Howell
Testing, just testing some questions unanswered
THE PRIORY AT WAR
by J. OD
Taken from The Pelican, Summer 1962 (Jubilee Number)
War-time was in many ways no doubt a bad time for a boy to grow up in England. It was a time of uncertainty, and the strange excitement and forced austerity did not help to form stable characters. Nevertheless, when one looks back it is surprising to what a very large extent life went on as before; the preoccupations of a schoolboy were much as they have always been, and as they remain: sport, school politics, examinations. There was the news of course; most days brought some exciting report, but the war was hardly more than a game for a boy in England, and having exciting news was rather like having football results every day.
Coming to the White Fathers in war-time however did make a difference. There was first of all the uncertainty of one's destination, and secondly the very small number of one's companions. Once it had been decided that I should wait a year before entering philosophy, I was told that in all probability I should be going to Newtown St. Boswells, wherever that might be. The notepaper of St. Columba's was headed, "L.N.E.R. 3135", which seemed to suggest a railway station in a remote Scottish glen. I was content to wait and see. Then, ten days before I was due to depart, there arrived the last of many letters, telling me to proceed to Bishop's Waltham, a place equally remote as far as I was concerned, and with a romantic name. It was all the same to me, and in due course I set off on the great adventure; after a journey on a packed war-time train,
I was met at St. Pancras by Father James Smith, who, after expressing surprise that I was not wearing a school cap, rather embarrassed me by insisting on carrying my case on the journey to Waterloo. There we joined half a dozen or so other boys, several of them, incredibly, wearing kilts. After the bus journey from Winchester, we eventually arrived at the Priory, and were ushered into what is now the Fathers' recreation-room, but was then the refectory for everyone. The buildings looked substantial enough, and it seemed natural from every point of view to expect a hundred or so boys. To my stupefaction, Father Michael Ryan, who welcomed us, remarked that we were now all here. "All" meant eleven boys, of whom at least one went to bed rather bewildered that night in the dormitory (now the oratory).
It didn't take long to settle down, however, and the year I spent at the Priory was very happy. We were divided into two classes, Poetry and Rhetoric; Fathers Smith and Stanley shared the teaching of Rhetoric between them and excellent teachers they were. Father Smith taught us Latin and Maths and Father Stanley Latin, French and English. The small numbers helped a lot, but the teaching itself was enthusiastic, and we all seemed to enjoy our work. Father Kingseller of course was on the staff too, approaching the end of his fourteen-year stretch; he was the Procurator and taught Mathematics to Poetry.
Father Ryan was also here but did not do any teaching. The three Brothers, Modeste, Aubert and Patrick, looked after the farm, so there were almost as many men in white habits about as there were boys. It was certainly a most happy house with a real family spirit. We boys stood rather in awe of Father Smith, as was proper, since he was Superior, and we did not see a great deal of Father Kingseller.
Father Stanley we saw most of, both in the classroom and outside
it, and he was greatly loved by us all. He joined in our games, spent nearly all
his recreations with us and really lived with us on very familiar terms, though
I think we did not lose our respect for him. He had wonderful gifts as a leader
of boys and made a deep impression on at least one of the new boys at the Priory
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Part 1The Foundation
Bishop's Waltham to-day is a quiet country town of some four thousand inhabitants. In years gone by it was a place of some importance for, standing on the main road from Winchester to Portchester and providing such excellent opportunities for hunting in the neighbouring chase of Waltham, it became the trysting place for royalty and great people generally. But more, in Waltham stood the palace of the Bishop of Winchester, a fine palace built by Bishop Henry de Blois. (The name Waltham means " home in the forest"the Bishop's home in the forest.) In 1644 Cromwell's troops reduced this majestic building to ruins. Only a long high wall and part of the tower remain, sombre reminders of the past.
In the middle of the last century, Sir Arthur Helps, a personal friend of the Prince Consort, built an infirmary or convalescent home on a small hill overlooking the town of Bishop's Waltham. The foundation stone was laid by Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, on the 13th August, 1864. The building, named Albert House, remained unfinished for many years, and was eventually bought by a Dutchman who called it The Priory, a name it has kept ever since. He and the next owner, Mr. Robson, made it one of the most attractive residences in the district.
After the death of her husband, Mrs. Robson, finding the house much too big for her, put it up for sale. It was July, 1912. Father Voillard and Father Travers, two French White Fathers, had arrived in England that very month to search for a house which might serve as junior seminary for French students. They found the Priory ideally suited to their purpose, and arrangements were made for the purchase. It was not until the end of September, however, that permission was received from Bishop Cotter for the White Fathers to open a house in the diocese of Portsmouth. On 27th September, Father Travers, the first Superior, took possession of the house and began to make arrangements for the school to open. Fifteen days later, the first term began with twenty one French pupils. The date was l2th October, 1912.
Part IIThe War Years
It can hardly be said that when the Priory opened its doors to the first group of students in 1912 all was in perfect readiness. The first months were spent in completing the furnishings but desks had to be improvised by nailing boards together. While the brothers worked hard at making necessary articles of furniture for the house, the boys worked equally hard at the construction of a playground.
The difficulties with which the pioneers at the Priory were confronted can well be imagined; an entirely French community living in surroundings utterly foreign both from the point of view of language and religious sympathy. How a staff of some seven or eight fathers and brothers with more than twenty boys managed to find room for a chapel, dining room, class rooms and dormitories in what is now the Fathers' House at the Priory must remain a mystery. Home-sickness too claimed a number of victims. With the war other, and perhaps graver, difficulties had to be faced and of these a few words will be said below.
It is interesting to note the impressions the surroundings made on the Frenchmen and to consider some aspects of Priory life forty years ago. In a report to Mother House the Superior remarked that 'the renowned fogs of misty England are still unknown to us ! But it is with some surprise that the existence of the sun is mentioned.
Great efforts were made to master the language and in the evening when classes were over the Fathers used to receive language classes from a young Englishman. The task must have been far more arduous for the boys who, in the school at least, were in a completely French milieu.
Holidays were fewonly four days for Easterand walks to Winchester and Romsey might seem rather severe to a modern Priorian.
Football was taken up with enthusiasm and it was through the French boys that the Priory made a name for itself in local football circlesa name which it has maintained ever since. Other sports too were popular, especially croquet and tennis.
In spite of difficulties plans were already being made for brighter days. In 1913, less than a year after the opening of the school, orders were received from Mother House to begin building a new wing to house sixty boys. On June 30th work was begun and on October 1st of the same year the. first occupants pants moved in. The new building was solemnly blessed by Bishop Cotter, Bishop of Portsmouth, on December 1st, 1913.
Although the students of the second year had brought an increase in the number of students, 1914 saw the commencement of the war and several of the Fathers, including Father Travers, the Superior, were called up. Fr. Forbes, later Mgr. Forbes, then passing through England on his way to Uganda, was appointed Superior and it was at this time that two veterans of the British Province arrived from Holland, Father Drost and Brother Modeste.
Father Travers was invalided out of the army in December 1915, After a brief rest he took over in February of the follow following year the post of Superiora post he was to hold until his death in 1927.
The war affected not only the staff but the students too: when they reached the prescribed age they were called into the French army. By 1916 there were only sixteen students left at the Priory, two of these Britishthe first mention we have of English pupils. When the French boys went home for holidays in the July of 1917, Mother House decided that they should not return. The house was not completely empty how ever, for in September of that year the doors were opened to forty novices and scholastics of the Brothers of the Christian Schools who had been forced to evacuate from Nantes.
Father Travers was not idle; much of his time was spent in visiting schools and parishes in search of young men and boys who might one day work as missionaries in Africa. Though hindered by many obstacles the search was not in vain: the school year of 1919 opened with twenty-six pupils.
Part 111 Father Peter Mary Travers
Six weatherbeaten crosses and a crucifix ! Five crosses of wood and one of granite ! The names can barely be discerned on the worn paint; Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes, Brother Aubert, Cornelius de Waal, Peter Joseph Flanagan, Peter Anthony Murphy. But we can easily read the words en engraved on the granite cross, "Pray for the repose of the soul of Fr. P. M. Travers who died on 17th April, 1927, aged 52."
In our first chapter of Priory history we have already mentioned Father Travers as being one of the pioneers of the White Fathers in England and it seems only fitting that the story of his life and in particular his work in England should find a special place in these reminiscences.
At the General Chapter of the Society held in North Africa in 1912 it was decided to open a Junior Seminary in England for the senior classes of the French school at St Laurent d'Olt. On the spot was the very man for this workFather Travers who was attending the chapter as the representative of his missionary territory, the Vicariate of Nyassa, then under the jurisdiction of the renowned Mgr. Dupont.
In all, Father Travers spent eight years in Africa. He was at the mission post of Mponda for two years until in 1906 he was appointed financial administrator of the Vicariate, an office in which he proved himself a capable organiser. In the November of 1910 he was nominated Vicar General of the southern half of the vicariate. But his task in Africa was nearly done and two years later he was asked to devote his apostolic energy to the establishment of the Society in England.
Father Travers was not appointed to the missions immediately after his ordination in 1900. His first nomination was to the French Seminary of Philosophy at Binson and certainly the four years teaching experience he gained there were to better fit him for the task that lay ahead.
At the time of his ordination Peter Mary Travers was not quite twenty-six, having been born at Livre in 1874. He was the first of eight children, three of whom God called to his special service, all missionaries in Africa, for two of his sisters became White Sisters.
Much has already been said of the difficult work of pioneer pioneering carried out in England by Father Travers and his companions while the Priory housed mainly French pupils, but in some respects in 1919 the work become even more difficult with only English boys and no one on the staff who had English as his mother tongue.
Father Travers went about the country giving talks and lantern lectures, seeking recruits and the means to keep the work going. It was a wearisome task and by no means easy. The response at first was not encouraging but Father Travers was not daunted and indeed an entry of sixty-one boys in 1922 shows that his work had not been in vain.
By this time the arrival of Father Prentice, from seventeen years in Uganda had lightened the burden somewhat but the English classes still had to be given by a lay master as Father Prentice was put in charge of the small group of philosophers. Two of the five philosophers were later to become illustrious; Alfred Howell and Arthur Hughes; the former ordained in I926 became Provincial of the British Province, the latter or ordained the following year was to become an Archbishop and Papal Internuncio to Egypt.
The 16th April, 1925 was a memorable day for Father Travers. It was the day chosen for the celebration of the Silver Jubilee of his Ordination. He had the joy of realising what deep affection and respect he had won from the clergy of the diocese by his never failing kindness and devotedness. His Lordship Bishop Cotter, Bishop of Portsmouth and over forty priests came to take part in the celebrations and made him a generous gift of £100 as a mark of gratitude and friendship. Thirteen of his twenty-five years in the priesthood had been spent at the Priory. He was still full of vigour and the life and soul of the school.
From the Christmas of 1925 the Superior's health grew steadily worse. Doctors in England, Paris and Algiers agreed that complete rest was essential and Father Travers was summoned to the sanatorium at Algiers but he found the inactivity very trying and begged to be sent back to his ' be loved Priory.; He thought he might still be of some use, taking small classes, hearing confessions and so on but the malady was progressing and very soon he became a complete invalid. He was granted a special dispensation to say Mass sitting but after three weeks he was incapable of doing even this.
The visit at Christmas 1926 of Father Voillard, then Superior General of the Society, was the last great consolation Father Travers had in this world. He lingered on for a few more months. The following excerpt from the diary gives us the news of the end; "At the Priory on Easter Day, April 17th, 1927 at 4.3D p.m. Father Peter Mary Travers died, fortified by the rites of the Holy Church."
May his soul rest in peace and may his spirit of devotion and enthusiasm inspire the Priorians of to-day.
I did not see the Priory until 1919, but I have been on intimate terms with people who were there from the beginnings of the House in 1912 and 1913, and from them I learned a few things about the foundation and the early years of the White Fathers in Bishop's Waltham which may not have been told before.
In 1912 our Society had no intention of opening a Missionary College for British students; that idea came later. In that year the anti-clerical movement in France was at its height and many members of Religious Orders were driven into exile. It was in England that many of them found a home often in that part of England nearest to France, the South Coast. The Mother House of the White Fathers was in Algiers, in French territory, and there too was the Society's only Novitiate; the only Scholasticate was at Carthage, in Tunisia, also under French rule. There were other training houses in France itself. This dependence on France meant, in the atmosphere of the times, that there was a real danger that the Society would be extinguished, and the Superiors decided that it would be wise to make a foundation in England to serve as a refuge and even as Headquarters if circumstances made it necessary to move from Algiers. The first move was made in October, 1912, when the higher classes of our "Apostolic School", or Junior Seminary, were transferred from St. Laurent d'Olt to the Priory. Some of the boys who arrived shared the old house, which dates from 1864, with the small staff of Fathers and Brothers until the new building was up, when more French boys joined them. Thus the Priory was originally simply an Apostolic School for about fifty French boys who wished to become White Fathers. Two of those boys were in Philosophy with me in 1919 -1921, having by then served in the French Army during the Great War, both of them became Provincials of France later on.
Father Travers, the first Superior of the Priory told me a good story of his second visit to the house. He was accompanied by the Venerable Father Paul Voillard who, as Assistant-General of the Society, was to take the final decision about buying the property. Father Voillard was a great man, but like all great men he had his little peculiarities. Wherever he was, he took charge, even on journeys; I was twice his guide in England, but he did not trust me: he wanted to know all the details of the journey and the why's and wherefore's of every move. Knowing this helps one to appreciate Father Travers' little tale. On the train from London to Bishop's Waltham, Father Travers had to explain all the intricacies of the journey; the first change was to be made at Eastleigh, and Father Voillard, apparently not trusting his companion, watched for it suspiciously. When the train arrived at that station, Father Travers got out, but his companion sat tight.
"Il faut descendre ici, mon Pere, et changer de train," said Father Travers.
"Mais non!" declared Father Voillard; "ce n'est pas Eastleigh."
"Mais si!" insisted poor Father Travers.
"Mais non, je vous dis. Regardez: c'est Va-ee oot!" and with that he pointed to the "Way Out" sign.
Father Travers explained that "Way Out" was not the name of any station, and managed to get Father Voillard on to the platform before the train went on to Southampton.There must have been a lot of fun with those French boys, exiles in a non-French-speaking country, to judge from what my two companions in Philosophy told me. We all know how hard it is for the young to change their eating habits. I was once taken with an English lad to a Restaurant in Paris. Our French host ordered the meal without consulting us. We ate a lovely steak and salad which I enjoyed; but my English companion looked very miserable, and whispered to me: "Whatno spuds?" What "spuds" meant to him, bread meant to those early French boys. On one occasion they were taken from the Priory on a trip to London where they stayed at an English college. No bread appeared on the table for the first lunch; but when the French boys came to supper that evening they each carried a large loaf of bread, having spent the afternoon visiting local bakers' shops. The Fathers who accompanied them were horrified, but their hosts just roared with laughter.
When the war broke out in August, 1914, some of the boys in the top class were at once recalled to France for military service, as were some of the Fathers. Other students followed them as they reached the prescribed age, and before long there was plenty of room at the Priory. Not for long, however. The French Brothers of de la Salle had their novitiate at Dover, and they were ordered to move, to escape possible bombardment. They took over the school building at the Priory, and I saw some of them still there in 1919. When they left, the Brothers presented the house with a beautiful monstrance, which is still in use. There is no inscription on the monstrance but it deserves one, for it is a fine memorial of the long and affectionate association between the de la Salle Brothers and the White Fathers in England. Their schools have produced several White Fathers of distinction, including the ever-lamented Father Gerald Scriven, the "Wopsy" Father, Bishop Holmes Siedle of Kigorna, Tanganyika, and Father John Maguire, who became our Provincial in 1954. Our Sixth Formers, I am told, now attend classes at St. John's College, Southsea, so the valuable association goes on.
When the war ended in 1918, a decision had to be made about the Priory. In France the danger of persecution had receded and England was no longer needed as a place of refuge. Father Travers, who had gone away into the army, was back again as Superior, and he had grown to respect the British character and to love the people over here. Our Superiors accepted his proposal to try and recruit British boys for our Missions in Africa. So it was really early in 1919 that the British foundation proper was made. I arrived at the Priory after Easter of that year, to find sixteen other students there including Arthur Hughes, later Archbishop, and Internuncio of Egypt- he was nicknamed "The Professor" because of his extraordinary brain and his old-fashioned manner.We students were of all ages and sizes. Most were grouped into small classes, but some of us received private tuition, especially in Latin and French. The only classes I attended were the singing classes. All I remember about them was that the Father in charge did not seem able to distinguish the pronunciation of the words "can" and "can't". He pronounced the latter like "cant", but the final "t" was not always audible. This naturally led to a great deal of confusion, as we set about doing some of the quite extraordinary things which it seemed he was telling us we could do. The Fathers worked very hard at their English, and took a pride in speaking it colloquially, often with comic results as with the Father who insisted on using the plural of the slang word for shilling: "it cost me five bobs," he always said.
At first there were only two Fathers with the Superior. One was a Father Foliot, whose Latin tuition was enchanting. We honestly loved Latin. He was both a Master and a lover of the classics, and possessed considerable personal charmanyhow he charmed me. His health was very poor, and many a time I and my companion sat at his bedside while he tried to teach us Latin. Another delightful person was young Father Robert, destined to die of tuberculosis in a few years. In September, 1919, Father Bouniol returned from the war and so did Father Falguiere, who had been badly gassed at the front. I saw him later at Algiers in 1922; he was then dying."Distant fields are greenest" I know nevertheless there was something about the atmosphere of the Priory in those early days which I have never experienced since in the same degree. Was it that we, even as students were caught up in the enthusiasm of a new foundation? Yes, I think so, but above all I think we were entranced by the simple, affectionate relationship inspired by Father Travers between the Fathers, Brothers and students, a relationship which, while astonishing us, delighted us. During that first summer term, we used to go out, all togetherSuperior, most of the staff and all the studentson bicycles which the French boys had left behind. Titchfield-on-Sea was the favourite rendezvous, only ten miles or so from the Priory, and there we bathed to our heart's content. I also recall a bicycle trip to Quarr Abbey; we picnicked in the grounds, and the Abbot led a procession of monks, all carrying rice pudding for our dinner.
In August of that same year I was promoted to philosophy, and went to France for it with another Englishman, Leo Gill, an ex-R.A.F. officer. In 1920 however it was decided to open a British seminary of philosophy at the Priory, so I came back again. We were five philosophers and we occupied as a dormitory what is now the Oratory. Four of those five became priests: one became an Archbishop, one a Provincial, one a Canon of Brentwood diocese, and the fourth a Parish Priest in Westminster. Our class-room was in the old house too, but we had our meals with the boys and of course used the same chapel. The experiment lasted only one year; then I went off to the Novitiate in Algiers, while the other English philosophers went to France for their second year.
That year of philosophy at the Priory was also delightful. I recall how Father Travers impressed upon us at the beginning that we were "Senior Seminarists" and that very much was expected of us. We took this seriously, and before long he was telling us that we were too serious altogether. He told us that there was no life or fun in usbut we soon changed his opinion! Practical jokes became the order of the day, and relations between the students and the Fathers were such that it was often the Fathers who were the object of our jokes. I remember one evening, after a week's planning, dressing up as an old Father, complete with enormous black beard and blue glasses, and a gandoura covered with a Father's long douillette. We waited for the last train in to Bishop's Waltham and then after allowing time for me to have walked from the station, I rang the front door bell. There I introduced myself to the Brother as Father So-and-So just back from Uganda. The Brother was taken in and invited me to the parlour, but I never reached it, for Father Travers and the other Fathers appeared to greet me. The Superior embraced me with Gallic enthusiasm, but neither my French nor my nerve was equal to the occasion, so I just stood there grinning until I was recognised. We played many other tricks on the Fathers, all of which were taken in good part; but of course eventually we went too far in proving that we were not dead. In due course Father Travers made it quite clear to us that we had proved our point to his satisfaction and well beyond!
Our teacher of philosophy was dear old Father Prentice, who had been brought back from Uganda for our benefit. When I was ordained in 1926, Father Prentice wrote to me of his joy in having an English "brother" in the Society. He had ploughed a lone furrow, as far as England was concerned, since 1897 when he joined our seminary of philosophy in France, after a visit of some months to the Mother House at Algiers. The story of how this Englishman came, all alone, to join what was then a French Missionary Society must wait, but it was, appropriately enough, through Father Prentice that I joined the White Fathers. I wanted to be a Missionary but in 1918 I had never heard of our Society. I was however introduced to the Provincial of the Redemptorists to talk things over. He told me that away back in the nineties he had been received into the Church at Clapham, and with him on that occasion also being received, was a young man called Prentice who had gone off to join a French Missionary Order and was then in Algiers. "This Order", he said, "has just begun to recruit subjects in England: why not write to them?" That I did, and Father Travers asked me to meet him at the college of the de la Salle Brothers (another link!) at Beulah Hill London.
The most interesting thing about all this, in my opinion, is the way in which out of evil so much good can come. The persecution of the Church in France led directly to the English Province of the White Fathers, and of course to the establishment in this country of many another Religious Congregation. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Have you noticed just recently that there are more answers than questions?
That your long-term memory is getting sharper by the day - and people keep leaving
your glasses in awkward places?
13. Who was the last
person to leave the building? (aaah)
ANSWERS on a postcard or by email please. And how about some better questions?
Peter (Prof) McMurray writes 31.04.04
"Shiny was John Fowles, of course, because his head glowed in the lights at his ordination in Galashiels. We were in the organ loft. Jap was Father Monaghan because of his eyes. A really great bloke who was responsible for getting the cricket nets going and carving all those bats from bits of 4 x 2. I Also I remember his fabulous French conversation walks with us every afternoon. "
(That'll be one out of twelve for effort, Pete).
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