Project Canterbury

A Life in Order: The Memoirs of Brother Francis SSF

Brisbane: The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

[13] Chapter Two: St Ives

In October 1928 I went to Westcott House, Cambridge for a year in order to pass the General Ordination Examination. Canon B.K. Cunningham was Principal there at that time. I think it was with the recommendations of Henry de Candole and Algy Robertson that I was able to enter that elitist of theological colleges. There was, at that time in Cambridge, a group of professors and others who met regularly to study Franciscan origins, among whom were Coulton the medieval historian, and Birkitt the New Testament scholar. John Moorman the Franciscan historian, and William Lash, who became Minister of the remaining Indian brotherhood and later Bishop of Bombay were both studying at Westcott at that time and attended the meetings. Ronald Freeman was also at Westcott. He and his wife later went to Poona to help Jane Latham with her leprosy work. They worked heroically under very hard conditions and became the first members of the Third Order in India. However, Ronald fell ill with dysentery and died after two years. Jane his wife also fell ill and died soon after him. Jane Latham also died not long after. When she came to Hilfield on a visit, she tried persuading me come out to India to help her but I had other commitments. In December 1928 I was ordained Deacon in Southwark Cathedral to the parish of St. Andrew's Catford in South London. The parish was then on the very outskirts of south London. The vicar was the Rev. Douglas Salmon. He was a good preacher and people came half-an-hour early to get a seat at Sung Evensong on Sundays. Of course there were few cars and no television in those days to compete with church-going. There was a flourishing Sunday school and Bible classes for teenagers. I had a bible class for about 16 teen-age boys on Sunday afternoons. There were boys and girls clubs and Scouts and Guides troops in the church hall on week days. There was a good attendance at ten o'clock Sung Eucharist on Sundays and an eight o'clock said Eucharist for communicants.

While I was at Catford a priest named Frank Dyson came to speak to our rural deanery meeting on the need to share in the poverty of many individuals and families suffering poverty after the second Great War. He belonged to a group called the "Fellowship of the Way" which had been formed in 1927 in response to the extreme poverty and distress of [13/14] the 1920s and 1930s. The aim of the Fellowship was a Christendom where Christ would reign in all aspects of human life through love.

It would aim at having three Orders, first the Tramp Preachers, having no property of their own and eschewing violence in any form, who were to spread the gospel among the poorer classes. They would be supported by a second Order of men and women giving moral and financial support to the others. This fellowship lasted all through the years of the Depression. It was also an influence which paved the way for a closer union of the Franciscan communities; the Brotherhood of St Francis at Hilfield, Christa Seva Sangha in India, Sisters of the Community of St Giles and the Evangelist Sisters of Jesus of Nazareth. Dyson had been living for a time with another priest in two huts on Dartmoor in Devonshire. Then he went to live in great poverty in the Elephant and Castle district of South London on 90 pence a week, sleeping in common lodging houses. Here he came in touch with Dorothy Swayne, later to be the leader of the Third Order in England. She had been working among girls in Bermondsey. Then Dyson was appointed Master of the College of St Saviour in Southwark. He and a few other priests and lay people pledged themselves to live on five pounds a week, giving away anything beyond that to charity. Tragically Dyson suffered a serious breakdown from which he never recovered. Dorothy, who had depended on him for spiritual direction, now turned for help to her friend the deaconess Carol Graham, who had been a Tertiary of the Christa Seva Sangha in Poona. The Deaconess lent her the Third Order Manual and a meeting was arranged between Dorothy and Fr. Jack Winslow, who was in England at that time. They called a meeting for those interested in a Third Order at Church House, Westminster on St Francis day 1930. Fr Algy was present and Jack Winslow suggested that Algy should guide the formation of the Third order in England with the help of Dorothy. They got together and published a manual for Tertiaries in England based on the C.S.S rule. A retreat was arranged at the College of St Saviour, conducted by a Community of the Resurrection father, which I and Denis Marsh attended. An inaugural meeting was held in June 1931 at the Grosvenor chapel in West London at which some of us were made novices of the Third Order. These included, besides myself, Denis Marsh, Fr Henry Lovell and his wife, [14/15] Dorothy Swayne, the Dacombe sisters and Fr Algy's mother's gardener. We were, of course, made members of the C.S.S. Third order in India.

In February 1933 my mother died of nephritis at Shalstone in Buckinghamshire, where my father had become rector. He gave up his parish and went to live at Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire near his brother Arthur. In July of that year I took my Father for a holiday in Europe. We went to see the Passion play at Oberammergau, where Alois Lang was playing the part of Christ. After that we went by coach across the border mountains to Switzerland where we walked across the Mer de Glace glacier. My father was an expert mountaineer through his experience in Kashmir, when working at my Uncle's school in Kashmir.

In 1931, in spite of his continued ill health, Algy became Vicar of St Ives Huntingshire. Before joining Algy myself, I paid a preliminary visit there. The vicarage which, under the last Vicar Canon Oscar Wilde, had been open mainly only to the elite of the parish. Now it was open to all and sundry. There was a reading going on of one of Laurence Houseman's Little Plays of St Francis - Sister Gold. There was also another group of people influenced by Frank Buchman's Oxford Group movement (later called Moral Rearmament). It was fostered by one of the local doctors, Bill Grove. They were having a sharing session, speaking frankly about their own shortcomings and those of others about which they had received guidance during their daily time of listening prayer. Having been changed themselves they were expected to change others by sharing their own experience. Denis Marsh and I arrived there just before Christmas 1932. Denis was still a deacon. On Boxing Day, Algy went off for a holiday with his mother at Ealing, but forgot to tell us that a wedding had been arranged at one of the village churches four miles away. An urgent message came asking whether a priest was coming to take the wedding. Algy had taken our only car and it was difficult to find a taxi on a bank holiday. Weddings had to take place before 3pm to be legal, but there was no way I could get there before 3pm. What could be done? I decided to take most of the service, but asked the couple to come back for the legal rite of the marriage the next day, which they did. The bride said it was the worst wedding she had ever been to!

[16] Sunday was always a pretty full day, beginning with a Low Mass at eight. Then there was Sung Matins with full choir and sermon at ten. One of us had to drive out to one of the two village churches four miles away for a Sung Mass. Then, at eleven, there was a Sung Mass or a High Mass with procession on festivals which might not be over until twelve-thirty. In those days we were expected to fast before communicating. Lastly, there was Solemn Evensong and sermon at six. Algy's sermons were long but well listened to. There were Bible classes and a Sunday School for children in the afternoon. Besides Denis and myself there were three lay brothers, Ernest Marsh from the Tyneside, Joseph Jones from Leeds and, later, Christopher, a Lancashire lad. There was also a cripple, Jack Lancaster, who, in his last year at Cambridge University, had contracted disseminated sclerosis, but who ran a literary society at which books were discussed. On one occasion I gave them a talk on Beethoven with illustrations on the gramophone and piano. In the afternoons our tennis court was often used by the young people. In the evenings the refectory table was turned into a ping-pong board, and local lads would come in and play that and other games - a rather rough crew. The top rooms were reserved for the brothers, and greater silence was observed from Compline till the office of Terce the next morning. Lesser silence was observed up to lunch time. We used the Office book of the Community of the Resurrection. Mass and the seven offices were said daily. We were not allowed to light fires until after 5pm, and Algy used to lecture to us with the windows wide open so that in winter we took down his lectures with freezing fingers. I used to give lectures to the novices on church history and liturgy. We wore black cassocks with the saffron girdle of the C.S.S.

The Oxford Group movement aimed at keeping a time of prayer every day to get guidance for the day, checked by the four absolutes - absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. This guidance was supposed to be written down and checked with either a soul friend or the local team. Having been changed yourself you should get guidance to change others a bee-line was made to change politicians and people in authority. Teams were sent to other countries and visits were arranged to their political and religious leaders. The name of the movement was changed to Moral Rearmament and a centre for the Movement became established at a Caux Hotel in Switzerland. House [16/17] parties were held in various places. A large one was held at the Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, which my brother and I attended. We heard many stories of how lives had been changed. Clergy witnessed to how their ministry in parishes had become more successful. One morning I felt that my dog collar had fallen off in my bath, and that I needed a change as much as the other people. Jack Winslow was also at the house party. It resulted in his cutting off his beard. He felt he had been acting a part by pretending to be an Indian holy man. On returning to Poona he told the brothers that he would take the vows for three years and then would decide whether to continue in the Sangha or not. As a result after three years he left the brotherhood and returned to England. Algy also was challenged by a group priest to go with a group team to Norway and that he should surrender the church if necessary. This he felt he could not do because of his commitment to the parish and to the brotherhood, so the character of the parish group changed somewhat. Instead of witnessing to what the M.R.A had done for them, they were to witness to what the church was doing for them and how their lives were being changed by their life in the church. We began to take a group out to other parishes where they could share what the church had done for them.

I often had to drive Fr. Algy the sixty miles to London to attend meetings of the C.S.S. supporting committee, Tertiary meetings, and other engagements in the evening. He was often feeling sick on the return journeys late at night. One of the influences of the group movement on our lives was to have a sharing session after the reading of the Principles and Rule after breakfast. In this session we were encouraged to confess not only own misdemeanours, but also to share honestly if we had been offended by the behaviour of another brother. Algy would seldom criticise us. He would say "I really have nothing to say about you, you are all so good." In the training he gave us he used considerably the Principles laid down for the Oxford mission to Calcutta. He also drew much from the wisdom of Fr. Benson the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist.

In the autumn of 1932 there came to us at St. Ives a young priest from the famous church of St. Mary, Portsea. He was a friend of Brother Douglas and of Frank Dyson. After a time with us he went to join the [17/18] CPSS brothers at Poona and later became Bishop of Bombay. When the hunger marchers came through St. Ives from Lancashire, we opened the church schools for them to sleep in, and people from all denominations came help them on their way The two outlying villages were now looked after by the two Tertiaries Fr. and Mrs Lovell. Also, a novice priest, Fr. Gilbert Eliot came to us, but unfortunately he died while on holiday in France, his body being found lying under a hedge in a field. In 1934 Fr. Jack Winslow returned to England, and while attending the Oxford M.R.A. house party at Oxford, (mentioned earlier), felt guided not to take the vows. He felt he had not been quite honest in appearing as an Indian holy man. So he cut off his beard and abandoned the saffron girdle and habit. He and some of the Indian brothers moved out of the Ashram, leaving Brother Bill Lash in charge of the Sangha. After this the C.P.S.S. became largely Third Order. This was a great disappointment to Algy and the supporting committee in England. The result was that our Chapter at St Ives decided that we in the First Order in England could no longer be attached to the C.P.S.S. in Poona, which had become largely third order. So we changed our name to the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ and became autonomous, though still federated with the C.P.S.S. in Poona. One of the young men who came to us at St. Ives and had been with me at Westcott house, was Ronald Freeman. He had gained distinction in philosophy at Cambridge and, after a serious illness, he decided to give his life to the Lord. Algy encouraged him to go to Poona to work in the hostel which he had founded. While he was there he was ordained priest by the Bishop of Nasik. Later at a St. Francistide meeting of London Tertiaries he felt called to offer, after getting married, to serve the poor in India, especially the lepers, working with Jane Latham another Tertiary. But after three years of reckless self-giving, he fell ill and died. Some thought it was due to malnutrition.

While Algy was a curate under Fr Fry at St George's Church, Cullercoates on the North East coast of England, he started an annual camp in July in the Cheviot Hills for boys and girls from churches in the Tyneside area. Undergraduates from the universities were encouraged to come and help in the running of the camps. The camps were first held at a place called Skirl Naked, then later near Rothbury. At the first camp I attended I was put in charge of a tent of Geordie boys, whose [18/19] dialect I could scarcely understand. In 1934 this camp was still continuing and we took up three or four boys from St. Ives there. In 1939 Brother Douglas joined us in the camp. He helped us to dig out a pool in the local stream to swim in. He had recently been on a pilgrimage for peace run by Joseph Folliet of Lyons for groups of young people called Compagnons de St. Francois. So we decided to run a similar pilgrimage after the camp from Middlesbrough to York. It took about a week. We stayed in church halls or barns, attending Mass in the village churches when there was one. During the morning rest time someone would lead us in a meditation, generally related to the environment we were going through. I remember Brother Douglas taking as his subject the Old Testament passages from Jeremiah about the water of life as we were sitting under a tree by a river. We performed one of Laurence Houseman's Little Plays of St. Francis on the village greens in the evenings. I took the part of St. Francis. The last performance took place in the cloisters of York Minster. Our little group of young men contrasted ironically with the truck loads of young soldier recruits passing us on their way to war.

Algy now began to consider the BLC linking up with other Franciscan groups. While staying with me at my father's house at Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire, I drove him over to Hilfield to meet Brother Douglas. They discussed the possibility of amalgamation with the BSFA. Meetings then began to discuss this idea, sometimes called "Algy's umbrella". I was present at one of these meetings at a church in Aldgate in East London, which was set aside for the use of religious communities.

After the meeting we adjourned for tea at a Lyon's restaurant. We astonished the other customers by the raucous laughter which proceeded from friars and nuns in brown and grey habits. On May 22nd 1933 a meeting was held at the Nunhead Friary, attended by members of the Hilfield Friary, of the B.H.C. and of the Servants of Jesus and Mary, and also some Tertiaries. It was decided to move towards a federation of the three communities, hoping perhaps that the Society of the Divine. Compassion would join in. Again in July, members of the three communities met again at Nunhead for a short retreat at which addresses were given by the Bishop of Salisbury, Clair Donaldson, George Potter, Algy, and Brother Douglas - a very exhilarating experience. Two years [19/20] later another meeting was held at Nunhead for the consideration of a common rule, based on that of the C.P.S.S., for what was now to be called the Society of St. Francis. Up till now only Dorset friars wore the brown habits. The new society was to wear the brown habit with a white cord. Fr. Northcott C.R. was to become the spiritual director of all three communities. On September 30th another meeting was held at which Algy read a paper in which he told us that it was during a retreat at Hilfield, while kneeling before a crucifix, that he heard a voice saying to him "Go to Cerne Abbas". Cerne Abbas was the postal address of the Hilfield Friary. Algy and I were then asked to draw up a common rule and principles, based on the CPSS one, including elements from the rules of the BSFA and BHC, and removing some of the more Indian elements. In January 1936, Algy and I met for three days to do this at the Tertiary Retreat house at Hemmingford Grey, near St. Ives, run by Muriel Bevan, a cousin of Bill Lash and a Tertiary. With a heavy heart at leaving St. Ives, Algy agreed to ask the Bishop of Ely's permission to go to Hilfield for a year to help Brother Douglas with the training of novices. Denis and I were to be left in charge of the parish of St. Ives.

Denis, in his biography of Fr. Algy, tells us that, while driving to Hilfield, the driver found it difficult to find his way through the tortuous Dorset lanes. Having arrived at the Friary at five minutes to six Algy began ringing a handbell calling the novices together for a lecture at 6pm! The congregation at St Ives dwindled without Algy's enthusiasm, so that when he came back a year later to preach his parting sermon he showed his disappointment by taking as his text Gal.5.6. "You were running a good race".

Of the BLC only four of us went to Hilfield, Algy, Denis, Ernest, and myself. Christopher became a Roman Catholic, Joseph volunteered to work in the West Indies and began training for the priesthood. Leo also left us. Some of them left because they would miss parish work. It was not possible for the C.P.S.S brothers under Bill Lash to become completely united to the B.S.F.A, but they agreed to become affiliated, and they hoped that any English brother who wanted to join the C.P.S.S could have a preliminary testing at Hilfield.

[21] It was on October 19th 1936 that Brother Douglas was elected by the chapter to be the first Minister General of the Society of St. Francis. In the following October Douglas, Algy, Kenneth, and George Potter took their first life vows before the Bishop of Southwark. The following year a meeting of the Chapter was held at the S.S.J.E. house at Oxford. It drew up a new constitution for S.S.F after a rather long and tedious discussion. Frankly, Algy was not too good at that sort of thing, and Douglas found it rather boring.

In1937 I began my withdrawn year as a novice at Hilfield. After Mass and a silent breakfast, nearly five hours were spent in the garden under Brother Sidney's guidance. Brother Charles was my novice master. Breakfast and supper were both silent meals during which a book was read. The gospel for the morrow was read at supper and then there were intercessions for past members of the home, cricket and soccer were played with the wayfarers on Saturday afternoons.

It was during this year that that brave woman tertiary Jane Latham came to visit Algy at Hilfield Friary. She had been a distinguished educationalist in India from 1910. In 1936 she went to Tarhabad where many people were dying of starvation. She gave away nearly all her possessions. She worked in close relations with the Freemans, mentioned earlier, and carried on their work. It was after Ronald Freeman's death that she came to England, and while staying at Hilfield she took me for a walk on the hill behind the Friary. She invited me to go back with her to work among the lepers at Tarhabad, but I felt that I must continue my vocation to the S.S.F. Unfortunately, on her return to India, she became ill with dysentery and died saying "It's alright, if it is God's will".

In Lent of this year there was launched the first number of The Franciscan, to be published twice a year. We were all much engaged for a few days addressing and folding it for post to our many friends. It was also on St. James day this year that I took my first profession of vows at Hilfield, at the same time as Brother James.

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