Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


IT may be questioned whether Catholics of the present generation realize at all adequately the immense debt owed by the Catholic Movement to Father Mackonochie, the heroic first Vicar of St. Alban's, Holborn.

In the popular estimation this holy priest, with his Scotch reserve, his rugged disposition, and his natural shyness, has been to some extent overshadowed by his younger colleagues. Father Stanton's striking personality and amazing pulpit oratory captured men's imagination. He had a genial attractiveness of manner and disposition which Mackonochie lacked. And Father Russell charmed all with whom he came in contact by his grave and delightful courtesy. Both these priests were known far outside St. Alban's, Holborn, in widely different circles. Who has not heard of Father Stanton's postmen and Father Russell's nurses? Both owned how much they owed to Mackonochie. But he was a harder man to know than either of them. The bibliography of his life so far, while telling the story of his work in the various places where he ministered, barely touches on his greatest sphere of influence, the Society of the Holy Cross, of which, although not the originator, he was certainly the master builder; being its Master for thirteen years in succession, during which time he saw a large increase in its membership, laboured unceasingly at its organization, and through it influenced the morale of the Catholic clergy all over England and far beyond England. This Society entered on its existence in 1855. In 1864, when Mackonochie became Master, it numbered well under 100 members. At the end of his thirteen years' Mastership, nearly 400 priests belonged to it.

It would be hard to over-estimate the part which he played in holding this great Society of Priests together and inspiring it with his own indomitable spirit.

Some words of his address to the Society in 1874 are worth quoting in illustration:

'It is impossible to deny that the forces arrayed against the Catholic truth are very formidable. Never since the oldest of us can remember has the Hierarchy, the Church, the Parliament, and the general Press shown such bitter animosity to it as at present. Nothing is too absurd or too manifestly false, either in fact or principle, to be believed, if said of those who seek to uphold the Catholic Faith; no means are too base for its suppression; no differences, on other points, are great enough to prevent Papist, Puritan, and Infidel from allying for its destruction. . . .

'How are we to meet the united craft and violence of the attack, and the desertion (however sincere in purpose) of those who have fallen away? May I venture to suggest that there is only one watchword which will save us? It is that which the Cross suggests--NO SURRENDER AND NO DESERTION.'

At a time when the handful, comparatively, of priests who were putting into visible practice what the Tractarians had taught were incurring a hatred which stooped to incite mob violence, when the Tractarians themselves were inclined to charge their younger successors with precipitate rashness, when the Episcopate was denouncing them, and false friends were falling away, either relapsing into the safety of a traditional Anglicanism, or joining the Roman Communion, Mackonochie stood like a rock, calmly intrepid. He arrested what might have been a panic, inspiring others with his own quietness and confidence. A calm and a dominant figure, it seemed as though the prevalent hatred of Catholicism focussed itself to a peculiar degree upon him, and the ceremonial of St. Alban's, Holborn, modest enough as we look back on it, became the object of often renewed litigation.

This constant litigation over ceremonial tended to some extent to distract attention from the enormous spiritual work which Mackonochie was enabled to do. He valued religious ceremonial, both for its appropriateness to the worship of a Holy God, and for its teaching value. And not for one moment would he listen to Keble's suggestion that it were better to forego externals, so long as persecution rages against them, and concentrate on teaching. He did concentrate on the ministry to souls. More, perhaps, than any individual, he promoted retreats and parochial missions. He introduced the Devotion of the Three Hours for Good Friday. He made the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament a great instrument for promoting Eucharistic devotion. But he saw the need and value of ceremonial to serve these greater ends, and doggedly upheld it. Ordered to give up genuflexion, he bowed from the hips; ordered to cease lighting candles, he lit the seven lamps which still burn at St. Alban's. Finally, when his persecutors made it clear that nothing short of a wholesale abandonment of Catholic ceremonial would satisfy them, and when it became increasingly plain that allegiance could not be given to a secular tribunal, he boldly faced suspension. It was his greatness that he did not allow the constant litigation to distract him from his work of building up Jerusalem. It is astonishing how little place it occupies in his correspondence, or in the transactions of the Society of the Holy Cross. Always we find him perfecting his organization of the Society, and through it directing and inspiring the clergy in their hundreds. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that he was insensible to its harassing effects. A Scot, he showed to the world an impassive front. But he was not insensitive, and the persecution of which he was the victim steadily wore him down. Driven from St. Alban's to St. Peter's, London Docks, and then from St. Peter's again to become a voluntary worker at St. Alban's, his will unbroken, his loyalty to the English Church and the Catholic cause unshaken, a mental weariness grew upon him, and made sustained mental work impossible. 'I have fought against my stupidity,' he writes in 1884, 'but stupidity has beaten me for the time.'

Hence came his end. Taking a long walk in wintry weather in Scotland, when he was the guest of the Bishop of Argyll, in country which he knew well, he grew confused about his direction, and wandered ever farther, until he collapsed in utter weariness, and slept in the snow his last sleep.

Had the Anglican bishops shown themselves able to understand or willing to protect the cause for which he stood, he might have been spared for years of further usefulness. They failed him, and he went on undismayed, bearing his cross till the time came to lay it down. It can hardly be exaggeration to describe him as a martyr to the Catholic cause. Had he been less faithful, he could have avoided the harassing persecution which wore him down, and led him to the enfeebled mental condition in which exhaustion and exposure claimed him an easy victim.

As might be expected, he commanded the affection and respect of all who knew him. Liddon, from first to last, thought the world of him. In 1863, he wrote to Hubbard, the founder of St. Alban's:

'My own instinct would have been to have trusted Mackonochie--I had almost said--against the world. In losing him you lose an apostle. Such men as he is do not abound. His single-hearted goodness--his sublime indifference to the idols of 99 clergymen out of 100--is not to be met with every day.'

And in 1887 he wrote to Mackonochie, then at Ballachulish, where, in that very year, he was to meet his end: 'You know I am one of the many who will always love and honour you.'

At his first suspension, in 1870, Lord Eliot wrote and begged to be allowed to nominate him his domestic chaplain, a position without duties or privileges, 'well knowing that all the honour will be on my side if you kindly accept.'

In 1875, when the Court of Arches had sentenced him to six weeks' suspension, Mr. Theodore Talbot, addressing a crowded meeting of the congregation and supporters of St. Alban's, voiced to him what all were feeling in the words: 'I wish I could find language more forcibly to express the intense love and devotion we pay to you for all you have done for us.'

Four years later, he was sentenced to deprivation by Lord Penzance's Court, and calmly ignored the sentence, sending away from St. Alban's with grave courtesy the Bishop's chaplain licensed to take the services in his place.

The Society of the Holy Cross unanimously passed a vote of thanks to him 'for the dignified resistance he has recently opposed to the intrusion of unlawful authority into spiritual affairs at St. Alban's, Holborn.'

Mackonochie's reply in thanking them was characteristic. The crisis, he said, had come in a wonderful manner, exactly at the right time, when they could best meet it. He was reminded of the Israelites and Moses at the Red Sea, when he bid them 'Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.'

The Bishop of Argyll, at his death, witnessed to his impressive devotion. 'He was ever the first to kneel at an altar, and the last to leave it.'

And Dr. Tait, showing his dislike as Bishop of London for the 'ritualism' which, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he engineered with Disraeli the Public Worship Regulation Act to suppress, could say of him at the beginning of his ministry, 'I have not a better man in my diocese,' and at the end of his life 'deeply regretted' the renewed attack which compelled him to retire from St. Peter's, London Docks.

An apostle indeed! Such men are rare in any generation, and posterity will endorse the verdict of Liddon.

Birth and Early Years

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie was born at Fareham, Hants, in 1825. His father, Colonel Mackonochie, of the East India Company's service, died two years later, leaving his two boys, James and Alexander, to be brought up by his widow. Mrs. Mackonochie, like her husband, was of Scotch extraction. She was deeply religious on Low Church lines, and taught her sons both the fear and the love of God, laying in early childhood the foundations of the disciplined piety which distinguished Mackonochie throughout his life. Giving his heart to God, he conceived quite early the desire for the sacred ministry, and became known among his companions as 'the boy bishop.' Too delicate in health for a public school, when schooling became necessary his mother moved first to Bath and later to Exeter where he attended private schools. At Exeter, he was confirmed and made his first Communion. Later, again, they moved to Edinburgh, and for a short period he studied at Edinburgh University.

In 1845 Mackonochie went to Wadham College, Oxford. Here the character of his rather austere piety caused him to be set down as of pronounced Low Church views. Those who knew him best averred, however, that his Churchmanship was already that of his later years. He came under the influence of Pusey, and still more of Charles Marriott. Slow and cautious in his development, he was a religious example, rather than, in any other sense, a religious leader to his contemporaries.

Ordination and Early Ministry

After taking a Second Class in Classics in 1848, he was ordained deacon in the following year by Bishop Denison at Salisbury, and went to his first curacy at Westbury. Here he 'fasted too much and worked too hard.' He became known as an indefatigable visitor, struggling to overcome some shyness and awkwardness with those he visited, and singularly winning their affections. Preaching was a real difficulty to him, costing him hours of labour. But his dominating characteristic was his devotion to souls, and with dogged determination he set himself to overcome all difficulties which stood in his way. He showed an unwearied zeal in ministering to the poorest. Already we find the asceticism which marked his whole life. He rose about four or five in the morning. His landlady would find an extra covering, which she had put on his bed in cold weather, neatly folded and laid aside.

He was ordained priest in 1850, and remained at Westbury for rather more than two years after that. But he longed for more than West-bury then could give him, for more frequent Masses, a better ordered worship. Thus he was drawn to Wantage, and to Butler. There he could find a daily Mass, a church open all day long, well-ordered services, and efficient parochial machinery. Years later, in 1889, Dean Butler, then of Lincoln, wrote of him: 'Even at this long interval of time his name is remembered, and there are some still who love to tell of his assiduous visiting, the earnestness of his preaching, the wonderful influence which he gained over some of the most hardened and hopeless.'

Here, again, his asceticism continues. We find the Bishop of Oxford (Wilberforce) supporting an objection of his vicar to his over-severity with himself, and forbidding a degree of fasting which he had contemplated as with our climate and constitution absolutely incompatible with work.'

In 1856 this young priest desired to give himself to mission work in Newfoundland. But it became evident to him that this was not God's will for him. Two years later he felt the call to mission work in East London.

And this call brought him to Lowder and Well-close Square. Here he entered on his true sphere, where he could utilize to the utmost his capacities so laboriously developed. 'By his indefatigable labours, eloquent preaching, and unceasing care for souls,' wrote Father Lowder, 'he set us an example of what mission work really was.'

Here, too, he entered on the arena of conflict in which he was to spend the rest of his ministry until he retired, a broken man, from the field. The riots in St. George's Church, incited by a Mr. Allen bringing with him a mob of over 1,000 strong from Whitechapel, were a disgrace to the Church. Mackonochie entered on a spirited defence of the rector, the Revd. Bryan King, and wrote to the Bishop, who was sympathetic but helpless, to the police authorities, and to the Home Office, rinding in all official quarters that prejudice against Catholicism militated against his securing for Catholic worship the protection which elementary justice demanded, as, indeed, he was to find again and again in the course of his London ministry. In 1859, when things at St. George's were at their worst, he was offered the Vicarage of St. Saviour's, Leeds. But he would not leave the Mission, where he felt he was just getting rooted, nor desert Lowder, who leant on his support; and laboured on indefatigably until, in 1861, his health gave way. He was laid up with rheumatic fever, and was for some time subject to relapses.

St. Alban's, Holborn

In 1862 Mr. Hubbard, who had built the church and clergy bouse of St. Alban's on the site, given by the generosity of Lord Leigh, where a thieves' kitchen had stood, surrounded by slums and poverty, nominated Mackonochie as its first vicar. Here was a call to the pioneer work in slum-land which had already appealed so strongly to him. And here, in a cellar in Greville Street, services were held while the church was being completed. It was consecrated in 1863. And here Father Mackonochie began the twenty years' ministry which was to make St. Alban's, Holborn, a praise and a glory throughout England. With singular painstakingness he gave himself freely to the ministry to souls. Never apparently in a hurry, he laboured from morning to night, at the service of all who needed his help. Here he gathered round him his faithful band of workers, clerical and lay, and inspired them with his own devotion. And here he found time for his great work as Master of the Society of the Holy Cross, which for many years had an office at Greville Street, close to the church and clergy house.

The story of St. Alban's, Holborn, has been well told, and needs no elaboration. The long tale of the persecution which came upon its devoted priest has been alluded to. After all these years, we do well to remember it: we need not recount it in detail.

At St. Alban's, Mackonochie's gifts ripened to their maturity. He made St. Alban's, and, in a very real sense, St. Alban's made him. It made him and it broke him. A vessel fitted for his Master's service, he asked nothing better than to be broken in it.

The End

Lord Halifax spoke, soon after Father Mackonochie's death, of his long 'battle to vindicate for the Church of England in regard to her ritual, her doctrine, and her jurisdiction, not only the historical and constitutional rights recognized and secured to her by prescription and statutes, but also her inherent and indefensible rights as a portion of the one Holy Catholic Church.'

In the battle he fought doggedly. And it would be hard to over-estimate his contribution to the victories of the Catholic cause. In 1882, at the dying request of Archbishop Tait, who urged the public interests of the Church, in view of the unremitting prosecution and persecution of St. Alban's, Holborn, he resigned his benefice. He was nominated to that of St. Peter's, London Docks, Father Suckling, Lowder's successor at St. Peter's, being transferred to St. Alban's. Of this arrangement he wrote, with characteristic brevity: 'Of course, it is a wrench to sign oneself out of St. Alban's, but it will be a counterbalancing satisfaction to take up Lowder's work.'

He took up his duties at St. Peter's early in 1883. But in July of the year another prosecution had culminated in a sentence of deprivation. For himself, Mackonochie was prepared to undergo sacrifices, and to go doggedly on, as he had done in the past. But to do so meant the loss of the endowment of £300 a year, which this poor parish could hardly spare: and there was a danger of the patronage lapsing into unfriendly hands. Acting under the advice of friends, he resigned St. Peter's at the beginning of 1884, and went to take up his residence, a volunteer member of the staff, at St. Alban's, Holborn.

But the long strain had told upon him. He went on working; he was constant in his visits to St. Saviour's Priory; preached the Three Hours at Ballachulish; gave a retreat at Cumbrae. Bodily he was well. But he was, to a noticeable extent, confused in mind, easily losing the thread of his thoughts. He had gone on trying to work during 1884 and 1885, when he needed rest. In 1886 he wrote:

'I am still not able to do much writing or anything else. This is very much due to my folly in trying (from about November, 1884, to about this time last year) to do some work. Since then, I have been unable to do any intellectual work.'

In 1887 he reported himself 'out of tone and unfit yet for work.' During these last years, he spent much time at Ballachulish, a welcome and honoured guest of his great friend, the Bishop of Argyll. He paid occasional short visits to the Continent, and long ones to his brother's house at Wantage.

But his ministry was ending. He seldom preached, and could rarely trust himself to celebrate, a sacrifice which must have cost him much. He longed for rest, since he found his inactivity a sore burden, and prayed 'that he might not cumber the earth.' Returning to Wantage after a day trip to London, in 1887, he had got out of the train by mistake at Didcot, and wandered about the roads between Didcot and Wantage for a great part of the night.

Not that he was distressed. 'He was only forgetful of names, and words, and incapable sometimes of expressing himself clearly. He was holy and happy in his tone of mind to the last.' Such is the testimony of the Bishop of Argyll.

Yet he had a prevision of the end. Parting with his relatives at Wantage, they spoke of a future 'when you are better.' 'I shall never be better,' he replied, turning away for a few moments; then turning round again, tranquil and composed, he said a kindly farewell to each in turn. This was on October 19. On December 10 he arrived at Ballachulish. On the following Thursday, December 15, he started out for a long walk, eagerly planned the day before, taking food with him and a walking stick, the two dogs accompanying him. 'You will be back before dark?' they said to him before he went. 'I hope so, I hope so,' he replied; the last words which any of his friends heard from his lips.

It would appear that the old complaint came upon him, causing him to lose his way. On Thursday night the search for him began, and lasted with little intermission, in wild weather, until early Saturday afternoon, when he was found lying in the snow, twenty miles away, with the dogs keeping guard over his lifeless body. A week later his body was carried into St. Alban's, and lay there for the night. And on Friday the long procession moved out through the hushed city to Waterloo, for his burial in the St. Alban's burial ground at Woking.

The writer of this brief account, who was baptized by him in 1871, and prepared for Confirmation by him in 1883, when he was at St. Peter's, London Docks, discharges, as he writes, all too ineffectively, a debt of gratitude. That debt is shared in some measure by all those who have learned in the English Church the fulness of their Catholic heritage. Not in vain did this heroic pioneer priest labour and pray and breast the strife, till the overwearied brain fell into the confusion which caused his end. A great Catholic posterity lies deeply in his debt. Long will these revere him as a father, a confessor for the faith, a martyr to his faithfulness. The glory of his times, he has indeed left a name behind him. His body is buried in peace amid the pines of Woking, but Catholics for many years to come will show forth his praise.

Project Canterbury