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Francis de Sales Buchanan: Missionary in New Guinea

A Memoir by Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923
New York and Toronto: The Macmillan Co., 1923.

Chapter I. Early Life

IT is a curious coincidence that two of the best-known and most devoted lay missionaries in Northern Queensland and New Guinea respectively were both named Buchanan--Deaconess Florence Buchanan and Brother Francis de Sales Buchanan--but there was no relationship between them, and I doubt if they ever met.

The subject of this Memoir, Francis de Sales Buchanan, was born somewhere about 1849 in the Southern States of America. His family was Presbyterian, and it seems, therefore, improbable that Francis de Sales was his original name. It was probably adopted by him when he became connected with the Benedictine Order. His family was well-to-do, his grandfather being President of the United States (1857-1861), and they held a number of slaves on their Southern estate. His boyhood must have been a troubled one. He had near relatives fighting on both sides in the Civil War, and most of them were either killed in the fighting or died of fever in [9/10] those days of anxiety and privation. His mother was left a young widow, and the tenderest relations existed between her and her son. The family estates were largely ruined by the war, but for some years he was in receipt of a considerable income, and he visited Europe several times as a young man, staying in Paris, where more than once he met the Prince of Wales (King Edward). He used sometimes to lament the extravagance of these early years, but apparently there was nothing worse than the careless use of money by a youth who had been brought up in comfort and luxury, and had never realised the responsibilities of wealth. His income, however, came to an end, possibly with the death of his mother, and he was for a time with a publishing firm and afterwards clerk for some years in one of the Federal offices in Washington. It was when quite young, nineteen or twenty, that he was attracted by the Roman Catholic Church and became a devoted member of it. Specifically Roman teaching seems at no time to have made any special appeal to him, but he was impressed by Roman order, discipline, and reverence.

Some ten years later he became a novice of the Benedictine Order at Newark, U.S.A., but for some reason or other he never took the vows, but remained an oblate--that is to say, one who lives and works in the community without taking the vows, but placing himself unreservedly at the orders of his [10/11] superiors. He remained for some years at Newark, and was then transferred to the Mother House of the Order, Monte Casino in Italy, probably about 1886. Here he was appointed Librarian and Guest-Master to English and American visitors. The famous monastery, the home of St. Benedict, is situated on a scarped and isolated hill on the borders of Campania, between Rome and Naples, and one can see from the railway its massive walls, crowning the hill like a great fortress. Brother Francis has often described to me the bitter cold of the cells, with their unglazed windows through which the wind howled and the snow drifted in winter. The Library is one of the most famous in Europe, and one would think Brother Francis can hardly have held any but a subordinate position, for of books he had, generally speaking, little or no knowledge, and he was never able to acquire any language but his native American--even English, as the English speak it, being always a difficulty to him. He spent several years in this post, and while on the one hand he came in contact with many great scholars who came to consult the Library, he also became familiar with many of the leading people at the Vatican and with the inside working of the Roman Church in Rome. He had the most extraordinarily intimate knowledge of the ecclesiastical intrigues, and could describe with vivid detail the policy and the character of all with whom he came in contact. Either because he was a foreigner or on account of the [11/12] transparent simplicity of his character, he seems to have been widely trusted and often consulted. His contact with the scholars, and especially the English scholars, who visited the Library had an effect that his superiors had not foreseen. His ideas of the exclusive authority and claims of the Roman Church became very considerably modified, especially by his conversations with Dr. Brightman, with whom he became very friendly. After one of his visits Dr. Brightman gave him a copy of "Theophilus Anglicanus," which completely convinced him of the catholicity of the position of the Anglican Church.

His intimate knowledge of Roman ecclesiastical politics did little to strengthen his confidence in the Roman Church. He used to relate with burning indignation the treatment of the learned and venerated Abbot Tosti, who was a very intimate friend of the Pope, whom he used frequently to visit. The Abbot was a Liberal, and devoted all his energies to securing a rapprochement between the Vatican and the Italian Government, with the full approval and agreement of the Pope. The matter became known to the dominant reactionary party at the Vatican, but they said nothing, and waited until the Abbot was entirely committed to the Government. They then forced the Pope to go back on all that he had said and written to the Abbot, and made him write a letter to Tosti forbidding him to see him again as long as he lived. The Abbot died of a broken heart, and [12/13] Brother Francis treasured among his few possessions a striking bas-relief of his head, done by a young American artist who was visiting the monastery. This he left with me when he went to New Guinea. He seems to have spent some eight years at Monte Casino, when, in 1894, Dr. Sheridan, a Benedictine priest from Sydney, visited the monastery, and arranged for him to go to New South Wales, to assist in the formation of a lay teaching brotherhood. On the voyage he was so ill from sea-sickness that the doctor despaired of his life, and advised him to make any arrangements he had to make, as he would probably die at sea. All his life he was a wretched sailor. The mere sight of the sea was enough to make him ill, and the Bishop of New Guinea tells us that at Boianai he always turned his chair on the verandah so that he had his back to the sea!

In Sydney he had a very unhappy time. There were few Benedictines, and the Roman authorities seemed to regard him with suspicion. At Monte Casino he had lived a life of quiet usefulness, with no inquisition into his religious convictions. In Sydney he found that he was required to accept ex animo many matters which are at best but matters of pious opinion. The final break came when he was required to teach, as a matter of faith, belief in ecclesiastical miracles, the particular one being, apparently, the belief in the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. He was quite prepared to accept such [13/14] miracles as true, for his faith was so strong that he would not limit the power of God by any claim of reason, but he was not prepared to teach belief in such matters as necessary to eternal salvation. He felt that he could no longer remain in the Roman Communion, and he went out into the world carrying nothing with him but his habit. He still considered himself a member of the Benedictine Order (just as there are at the present time Anglican Benedictines in England) and as still under a vow of poverty, and he treasured his habit as a reminder of the Order which he loved, in spite of his inability to remain in it under the Roman obedience. At his own request he was buried in it. Readers of Fogazzaro's wonderful story "Il Santo" will remember a similar note with regard to Benedetto's joy at being for a time allowed to wear his habit and his desire that he might die in it. His poverty at this time was so great that for two days he was actually without food. Among those to whom he bade farewell was the Superior of the Josephine Order, who, in spite of his having become a heretic, pressed him to accept a small cheque, which he refused with all courtesy. He spoke afterwards with the greatest gratitude of her kindness and generosity. Guidance came to him at last. He walked into the book-store kept by the Sisters of the Church at Waverley, and was by them advised to consult the Rev. C. F. Garnsey, Rector of Christ Church, St. Lawrence, and he was by him received [14/15] into the Anglican Communion after an interview with Dr. Saumarez Smith, the Archbishop of Sydney. In the Anglican Communion he found a spiritual home which satisfied all the Catholic principles to which he clung so strongly, while at the same time giving him the liberty of conscience which he rightly claimed.

It is an interesting question why the Roman Church could not retain this devout and humble soul, always so amenable to discipline and so little inclined to trust in his own private judgment. The answer would seem to be that it was because of that intolerance and desire to force all her children into one mould which is too frequently the mark of the Roman Church.

Francis Buchanan had no illusions on the subject of Rome, and the inner workings of that Church were too well known to him to leave any glamour of romance about it. He had the most sincere admiration for all that was worthy of reverence in it, but he deplored the worldliness and party rancour, which, though better hidden from the outside world, distract the Roman Church at least as much and often more bitterly than other Churches. He himself had none of the bitterness of the convert. His judgment was clear and dispassionate, and founded, not on prejudice but on knowledge.

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