Project Canterbury

Arthur Douglas Wagner

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

THE observance of the centenary of the Oxford Movement offers an opportunity to estimate, in some degree, the character and work of its leader and their successors. Not least among these stands the name of Arthur Douglas Wagner. Through passing years a veil of undue forgetting has enshrouded so much of what he was, so much of what he did. That veil Arthur Wagner would be the last to disturb--but those for whom he laboured and endured wish otherwise. It is time a saintly and illustrious memory should be duly honoured and that the name of Wagner of Brighton should take its place by the side of Carter of Clewer, Butler of Wantage, and other pioneers of the Faith. Filial devotion insists that we should 'praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.'


In a manuscript book of private prayers which he drew up for his own use, we find, amongst many other beautiful things, a petition for grace--'to take the lowest place by preference, to shun honours and publicity, to love poverty and the poor, and to serve thee with true devotion in thy poorer members.' Such an aspiration constitutes a fitting introduction to an appraisement of his life and work, since it sounded the keynote of it all and was put consistently into practice during the fifty years in which, after the highest example, 'he went about doing good.'

His family was established and well known in Brighton for many years prior to his birth in 1825. The Rev. Henry Michell, grandfather of the Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, vicar of Brighton for forty-six years, was himself vicar of Brighton, 1744-1789. The incumbency of the Rev. H. M. Wagner, father of Arthur Douglas Wagner, was notable for the first important steps in the revival of the life of the Church in Brighton, which had sunk to the lowest ebb. At the beginning of his long and distinguished tenure of that important and responsible position, the only accommodation for the poorer worshippers was afforded by the galleries which at that time defaced the old parish church of St. Nicholas. The few places of worship built subsequently in Regency days were of the type common in most fashionable health resorts, proprietary chapels owned and conducted as successful financial speculations by popular preachers. For that reason, their limited accommodation was reserved jealously for their wealthy patrons, even servants in livery being expressly excluded. Such a state of things could hardly be expected to promote a high spiritual tone in the religious life of the day. In these preaching-halls, which were straitly shut up from Sunday to Sunday, the sacraments were rarely administered, and there was little beyond a complacent sense of respectability to allure the staunchest supporters of Church and State to public worship.

The Rev. H. M. Wagner proceeded to grapple vigorously with this state of things, and, largely at his own cost, founded and built the new church of St. Peter, the present parish church of Brighton, opened in 1824, m which a reasonable proportion of free accommodation was reserved for those unable to pay for the privilege. But this is not the place in which to record the work accomplished by Arthur Wagner's father, worthy as it is of all honour and commemoration. It must suffice to say that his next important step, which was destined to provide the necessary scope for the life-long and monumental work of his son, was the founding of St. Paul's Church in West Street, soon to become one of the most famous churches in the history of the Catholic Revival.

Arthur Douglas Wagner was born in 1825. Little record of his earliest days appears to have been preserved, but he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and took a creditable degree with honours in mathematics. Destined from the first for the charge of his father's new church in West Street, he was not yet in Holy Orders at the date of its opening in 1848. Certain difficulties had arisen, which, happily, were soon removed, his ordination took place in 1849, and he was appointed to St. Paul's in 1850.

Opened on October 18th, 1848, and consecrated exactly a year later, St. Paul's from the outset took its stand very definitely as a church of the Catholic Revival, and for many years stood alone in that respect in the South of England. From the first, the new church was an object of malevolent suspicion. Its very beauty, even more striking at that time than in these days when beautiful churches are, happily, the rule rather than the exception, had sinister associations in the popular mind, which regarded every attempt to introduce the element of beauty into the buildings and worship of the Church as an infallible indication of Popish and Jesuitical propaganda. Into all its many beauties there is no space to enter here. It will suffice to say that they were sufficiently unusual and striking to attract widespread notice and remarks. First impressions were corroborated by the style of service customary there from the outset. It may seem scarcely credible now that, as late as 1850, a choral service was an almost unknown phenomenon, and the chanting of the Psalms regarded as a sinister and dangerous practice. Although Arthur Wagner proceeded with great moderation and care, and did not venture at first to institute even a surpliced choir, the unusual type of service at St. Paul's could not escape remark and hostile criticism, and mocking placards, disgracing the walls of adjacent buildings, derided ' the Sunday Opera at St. Paul's.' Yet these very features attracted large congregations, who welcomed with appreciation and enthusiasm the revelation of the beauty and appeal of the Church's services when rendered with reverence and dignity. Many eminent people were amongst the earliest supporters and worshippers at St. Paul's, and Mr. Gladstone was a frequent visitor; indeed, there were few prominent people connected with the Movement who were not associated with St. Paul's by their active interest in its work. The reputation which it soon acquired as, perhaps, the most fashionable and well-filled church on the South Coast exasperated its opponents, and made it fairly evident that trouble would arise before very long. While the ceremonial at St. Paul's was as yet very simple, the full sacramental teaching, from the first bold, thorough and uncompromising, incurred a vehement hostility which only awaited an opportunity to break out into open violence.


That opportunity came in 1865. The facts of the celebrated case of Constance Kent, which are too well known to require a detailed account, were briefly as follows: Constance Emilie Kent, living at Road, near Frome, with her father and stepmother, murdered her half-brother, Francis Savile Kent, in 1860. At that time she was sixteen years of age, and her victim less than four and a half. Taking the child from his cot in the middle of the night, she committed her revolting crime, contriving it in a manner which rendered it impossible for the strictest investigation to secure sufficiently conclusive evidence against the culprit. Everybody in the house was suspected; nobody clearly proved guilty. For several years she bore the weight of her appalling secret, until she happened to come into contact with the Sisterhood founded by Arthur Wagner at St. Mary's Home in Brighton. There the grace of repentance came to her, and her contrition was proved by confession and the determination to make reparation to divine and human justice by surrendering herself to the law. Accompanied by Mr. Wagner himself, and the Superior of St. Mary's Home, she gave herself up at Bow Street in April, 1865. At the subsequent trial, Mr. Wagner was called upon to give evidence which could not be given without violation of the seal of confession. A priest could have no option in such circumstances, and Mr. Wagner's refusal was absolute. The subsequent storm of rage and execration incurred by his refusal was widespread and far-reaching in its results, both for himself and for St. Paul's. The Sisters of St. Mary's Home, and even ladies attending the church, were insulted and pelted with stones. Abuse and vituperation of the most vehement character were heaped upon the devoted priest, who himself did not escape acts of physical violence. The whole question of sacramental confession was brought into prominence, and discussed with irreverence and blasphemous freedom in every tavern. In the House of Commons, Mr. Whalley, M.P., moved for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the manner in which divine service was rendered in St. Paul's, with particular reference to the practice of sacramental confession in that church. His speech, however, was received with much merriment and frequent interruptions, and the House appears to have approved the ruling of Sir George Grey that such a course would be ' most inexpedient.' Nevertheless, the agitation continued, in Brighton especially, particularly when it transpired that Constance Kent had desired to present the sum of £1,000 to Mr. Wagner to be used for the benefit of St. Mary's Home and the other charities connected with St. Paul's. With his characteristic wisdom Mr. Wagner refused the gift, and handed over to Miss Kent's legal representatives the money surreptitiously placed in the alms-boxes in St. Paul's in spite of his refusal to accept it. To allay the scandal created by the slanders of Mr. Wagner's opponents, Miss Kent's solicitor wrote letters to the newspapers stating that 'Mr. Wagner has never manifested any desire to retain the money for St. Paul's Church or St. Mary's Hospital, but, on the contrary, has from the first expressed his anxiety that it should be used for the benefit of Miss Kent, and be at the disposal of her family for that purpose.' This cleared Mr. Wagner of all suspicion in the minds of all decent people, though others might still scribble upon the walls of Mr. Wagner's garden, 'Who stole the gal's money?' and other scurrilities.

Nevertheless, the agitation against sacramental confession and the prominence given to it at St. Paul's broke out again at intervals, notably in 1873. An attempt was made to create a similar scandal in another case, to which Mr. Wagner replied: 'The whole statement was false from beginning to end, without even a shadow of fact of which it could be the perversion.' This mildest of men could defend himself vigorously on occasion.

The local Protestant Association called upon the Mayor of Brighton, Alderman J. L. Brigden, to convene a public meeting to denounce Mr. Wagner and all his works. The Mayor, to his great honour, declined to do so, and the Association then proceeded to organize a meeting, which went down to history as the rowdiest and most disorderly ever held at Brighton. The persevering Mr. Whalley made a speech attacking the vicar and clergy of St. Paul's, with particular reference to a little manual of instruction given to candidates for Confirmation. One of the clergy present, who attempted a courageous defence of Mr. Wagner, was hustled and brutally assaulted, whereupon the meeting became a riot and broke up in disorder. On the following Sunday, Mr. Wagner was set upon in West Street by roughs, and violently assaulted. For this the miscreants were very properly sent to prison. On his recovery from his injuries Mr. Wagner at once ascertained the prisoners' names and addresses, and supported their wives and families at his own expense until the men were released, an action entirely characteristic of him.

Meanwhile Dr. Durnford, the Bishop of Chichester, had received numerous appeals to take action against the vicar of St. Paul's on account of the devotional manual denounced at the meeting, and of a notice displayed in St. Paul's and reproduced in the local press, stating the times when the clergy were in attendance to hear confessions. The Bishop declined to condemn the manual, which he declared to contain nothing contrary to the teaching of the Church, neither would he condemn a practice clearly contemplated by the Book of Common Prayer. He did, however, suggest to the vicar that the notice in the church should be removed. Mr. Wagner immediately offered to resign, an offer which the Bishop would not consider for a moment, and no further action was taken.


In addition to his invisible spiritual work in the Church at large and in so many individual souls, it was granted to Arthur Wagner to accomplish material and visible work for the Church such as it is given to few men to achieve. In the course of his life he had inherited two or three fortunes, which he spent freely upon the building of churches upon a magnificent scale, as well as in innumerable works of charity. Brighton reveals to the most cursory view astonishing monumental evidence of his generosity and devotion to the spiritual and temporal needs of the town to which his life and work were so ungrudgingly given. In some instances in conjunction with his father and brothers, but generally at his own personal cost, he founded and built several large churches, schools, and charitable institutions. The barest record only is possible here, and no individual descriptions can be attempted. The vast and magnificent church of St. Bartholomew, which alone cost nearly £18,000, is too well known to need further mention. The beautiful little church of the Annunciation was built at a cost of approximately £5,000, as was also the church of St. Mary and St. Mary Magdalene, Bread Street. The church of the Resurrection, now unhappily dismantled and no longer in existence as a church, was a more ambitious building, and cost about £14,000. Mr. Wagner also bore a large share of the cost of St. Martin's, the magnificent church erected in Lewes Road in memory of his father. He also built the attractive little church of St. Mary at Buxted, where he built a rest-house, with chapel, for his Religious Community of St. Mary the Virgin. He had already acquired and adapted a number of houses in Queen Square to form the central house of the Community.

Yet all these acts of public generosity were performed as quietly and unostentatiously as possible. Preaching at St. Bartholomew's at one of its opening services, Mr. Wagner made no allusion of any kind to his munificent work as founder, and one of the congregation remarked afterwards that ' You would have thought from the way he spoke that he might have contributed a five-pound note to the building.' He is known to have given large and frequent contributions to the collections in all his churches, but nobody, of course, could ever discover the total amount of these secret benefactions. -His generosity to the poor was manifested in provision for better housing by the erection of new dwellings or the renovation of the old ones. Nobody will ever know the extent of his generous kindness in individual cases of distress until the day when the books shall be opened, and those who have striven to serve Christ in his poorer members shall enter into the joy of their Lord.


'What a genial, kindly face!' would be the first comment of any who look for the first time at a portrait of Arthur Douglas Wagner. Those qualities were certainly always characteristic of him, together with a keen and delightful sense of humour. His spiritual life was remarkable for special devotion to God the Holy Ghost. Daily in the little chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit in St. Paul's he recited the Veni Creator and other devotions to the Holy Paraclete. No less remarkable was his great devotion to Our Lady as the Mother of God, which, together with the sacramental system, was to him an inevitable and logical corollary of true belief in the Incarnation. Her feasts were always observed at St. Paul's with a sung Mass and special devotion. People to whom such teaching and practice may be religious commonplaces to-day may fail to realize the courage needed to take up such an attitude in 1850. He was pre-eminently a man of prayer, and from many hours spent weekly in private prayer proceeded that strength and confidence which never failed him throughout the long years of persecution, difficulty and discouragement. To the same source of spiritual power must the many graces, which he displayed so wonderfully, be attributed. Gentleness and Christian courtesy towards bitter and malignant enemies are almost superhuman virtues, only to be attained by steady perseverance and progress in the life of grace.

He was a profound rather than an eloquent preacher, and his delivery suffered from the necessity to hold rather close to his eyes the sheets of carefully written manuscript. Even that, however, could not conceal entirely the wealth of learning and spirituality, which brought many to him for spiritual direction, and accounted for the remarkable number of penitents which might be seen around his confessional three days in every week.

His humility was more than remarkable in a man who had achieved so much. He could never be brought to believe that he was a person of any particular importance, in spite of the prominent position which the wealthy and influential vicar of St. Paul's inevitably occupied in the church and public life of Brighton. He would rarely consent to preach outside his own parish, but in order to show his sympathy with the congregation of St. James's Hatcham, at the time of the prosecution and imprisonment of their vicar, Father Tooth, he preached a sermon of encouragement and hope in that persecuted church. He invited several priests who had been similar victims of the Public Worship Regulation Act to accept a position on his own staff, and two at least availed themselves of his thoughtful kindness. His liberality in all cases of distress, to people of every class, was unfailing, and at the Christmas season he could always be seen going his round, with his carriage loaded with parcels for distribution. That this generosity was extended to enemies as well as friends was demonstrated in many instances, notably in the case of the ruffians who had assaulted him in the street, a fulfilment of a Gospel precept which does not come easily to flesh and blood.

With all his considerable private means, his own manner of living, if not positively ascetic, was extremely simple. His only luxuries were pictures and books, and these were the tools of his labour rather than luxuries. Much of his spiritual inspiration may be drawn from his beautiful and valuable sacred pictures, many of which may now be seen distributed amongst the churches which he founded. To his well-stocked library he owed the profound theological learning, which, in spite of all his humble modesty, could not fail to reveal him as a deeply read theologian and scholar. His advice and direction was widely sought by clergy and religious from all parts of the country, not only in the confessional. As generous with his time as ever with his money, he was never too busy to place himself, his learning and discernment, at the service of all who needed his counsel. The emphasis laid by him upon the duty of study was second only to his insistence upon the obligation of the daily office. 'I learned from Arthur Wagner,' says Bishop Wilberforce, 'to realize more strongly than I had ever done before the inestimable value of the recitation of the daily psalms.' What that inspired interpretation of all the spiritual aspirations, struggles and hopes of mankind, must have meant, and accomplished, for Arthur Wagner himself, can be easily imagined, even by those far below him in spirituality. Such spirituality as his, however, is the attainment and reward granted only to those whose lives are, like his, consistent, faithful, devoted and self-effacing.

One of his most intimate friends has pointed out that it is impossible to understand Arthur Douglas Wagner without remembering always one of the most remarkable facts about him, his complete grasp, even from his earliest days, of the whole Catholic position. To quote from the little book already cited, 'Arthur Douglas Wagner was, in fact, considerably in advance of his day, and although the ceremonial at St. Paul's in his time was somewhat less elaborate and "advanced" than that of more than one of the daughter churches which he founded, his teaching was as thorough and as fully developed as that of any of the most progressive clergy of a later period. He belonged to the generation of pioneers who first sought to translate the principles of the Tractarians into practice, but his convictions were not, as in the case of nearly all his contemporaries, the product of a gradual and often painful development. It all seems to have been there from the very beginning, and thus enabled him to keep pace with the latest developments of the Movement at an age when many of his own generation were no longer able to retain their place in the front rank. This . . . was one of the most remarkable things about him, and speaks volumes for the patience with which for many years he contented himself with a standard of ceremonial at St. Paul's distinctly below that which his inclinations would have led him to desire. He was, of course, far too Evangelically minded to regard mere ceremonial in itself as a matter of the first importance; to one who had a remarkably complete grasp of the whole Catholic position from the very beginning of his ministry, the restraints imposed by considerations of charity and common sense in building up his pioneer work must have been sometimes irksome.' That is a true tribute to one of the wisest and holiest heroes of the Catholic Revival.

Arthur Douglas Wagner passed to his rest and his reward on January 14, 1902. His works do follow him, and remain in all his spiritual children who arise and call him blessed, in the beautiful churches which he built, and in the important Religious Community which he founded. It is idle to build the sepulchres of the prophets; far better, in these days of indifference and lukewarmness, to labour strenuously to carry on towards its ultimate and full logical development the great work which they so nobly began; to move, as did Arthur Wagner, with the times; to lend no ear to timid counsellors who would urge us to go no further; and to imitate the courage and consistency which pressed onwards ever towards the ultimate goal, instead of pausing half-way as did many who at first went with Arthur Wagner, and as many would do now. 'Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward'--forward ever towards the mark; but using ever the same invincible weapons, the grace of the sacraments, meditation, study and prayer, by which alone Arthur Douglas Wagner wrestled and prevailed.

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