ACTON WINDEYER SILLITOE was born in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1840, and remained in the colony, to which he was ever loyal, till he was fourteen years old.
It is not the purpose of this memoir to do more than allude to the facts of the Bishop's life prior to his episcopate, but one little incident of his almost baby life, told by his own lips to a near friend and relative, illustrates beautifully the tender love which sheltered his early years.
The Bishop's father, who was always spoken of with most reverent affection, had a high degree of sympathy with childish fears very rare in the sterner sex, and this must, one would think, have been combined with some of that quiet sense of humour which was in after years a most helpful constituent in his son's mental character.
Sea-bathing had been recommended to the little boy, and the close vicinity of his parents' house to the Bay of Sydney made the carrying out of this prescription easy of attainment.
But the boy objected to contact with the waves on account of the cold, and therefore as father and son went hand in hand each day to the bay for the bath, the father's free hand carried a small pitcher of hot water, which was emptied into the sea in the sight of the boy. He then no longer feared the cold, and was soon enabled to enjoy his prescription even without the jugful of warmth, which to his childish sense tempered the chill of the great ocean.
He returned to England with his parents in 1854, and proceeded first of all to King's College School, London, and subsequently to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Here he took his degree of B.A. in 1862, and in 1866 proceeded to that of M.A. In later years the degree of D.D. was given him by his University in recognition of his elevation to the episcopate; and a year before his death the University of Toronto awarded him that of D.C.L., in recognition of his services in the consolidation of the Church in Canada.
In 1869 Mr. Sillitoe was ordained deacon, and the following year priest, by the great missionary Bishop, Selwyn of Lichfield. He served his first curacy at Brierley Hill, Staffordshire, where he remained till 1871. For the next two years he laboured as curate in charge of All Saints', Wolverhampton, and then from 1873 to 1876 held the curacy of Ellenbrook, under the Earl of Mulgrave (the present Marquis of Normanby), who became his lifelong friend.
In 1876 he left England and became British chaplain at Geneva, which he left in 1877 for the chaplaincy of the British Legation at Darmstadt. Here--one of the happiest periods of his life--he stayed for two years, combining with his chaplaincy to the Legation the position of chaplain to the late Princess Alice.
The duties of this double post he left at last to obey the call to the episcopate given him from the far distant West.
Of this episode in the Bishop's life, one high in influence in the Church of England writes--
"I knew nothing of Bishop Sillitoe until he was nominated as chaplain at Geneva, where he had a good many troubles. His work at Darmstadt was signalized by his great influence over the Princess Alice and her children, especially her daughters. . . . He was undoubtedly the means, under God, of bringing the Princess back from Strauss and unbelief to the happiness of the Faith. When the diocese was formed, Bishop Hills asked me if I could suggest a good man, and I at once recommended Mr. Sillitoe. ... I well recollect his coming to me and saying he wished I had let him alone, that he was by no means the man I took him to be, that he was very human. . . . The result has proved that my estimate of him was truer than his own."
But although the offer of the Bishopric of New Westminster seemed to upset all his plans and to make a radical change in the whole outlook of his life, Mr. Sillitoe felt it would be wrong to refuse so evident a call to harder duty in the distant dependencies of the Empire.
He was consecrated on All Saints' Day, 1879, in the parish church of Croydon, by Archbishop Tait of Canterbury, assisted by Bishop Jackson of London, Bishop Thorold of Rochester, Bishop Hills of Columbia, Bishop Jackson of Antigua, and Bishop Tufnell.
The sermon was preached by the Bishop's old friend and former rector, the Earl of Mulgrave, who continued to be his commissary till the close of his arduous episcopate.
That the service was never forgotten by him will have been evident to all who have been privileged to share in the beautiful services the Bishop always arranged for All Saints' Day, as that festival and anniversary came round in the course of the Church's year. Stronger and more solemn to the end seemed to grow the impression of the responsibility of his office, and it certainly could not have been fresher or truer on All Saints' Day, 1879, than it was on All Saints' Day, 1893.
The Bishop then addressed his first letter to the diocese through its representative, Archdeacon Woods. Writing on November 13, 1879, he says--
"MY DEAR ARCHDEACON,
"Yours of the 12th reached me yesterday. I heard also from Mr. Good, and am very thankful that you have been remembering me at the Throne of Grace. God has blessed me with a very real faith in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and has so often allowed me to see it abundantly answered, that I feel a happy assurance that we shall not have asked in vain in this instance. My consecration was full of blessing to me personally, and especially in the full satisfaction of those who have known me best and longest, and I enter on my holy office in the full conviction that He Who hath called me will be with me to further my weak endeavours, and to supply all my defects. May one of the first benefits be to fill all of us whom He has appointed to be His fellow-labourers in His field with the spirit of godly union and concord in and through His Son Jesus Christ. Please convey a loving greeting to Mr. Ditcham and Mr. Baskett, and publicly to the congregations of Holy Trinity and S. Mary's, Sapperton. . . .
"I have had a letter from Archdeacon Wright, and a copy of a report on the spiritual destitution of the mainland. The letter is a gloomy one, but it has not made me gloomy. I am prepared for trials and for disappointments, but I don't believe we shall overcome them any the easier by magnifying them or dwelling too much upon them. The bitter has pretty well mingled with the sweet in my life already, but nevertheless I find I get on very fairly by remembering the sweet and forgetting the bitter as much as I can.
"Let us take courage and go forward. God bless you and your house.
"Faithfully yours in our Lord Jesus Christ,
"A. W. NEW WESTMINSTER."
To a correspondent he wrote at this time what proved to be indeed the guiding principle of all his dealings with his clergy to the end of his life.
"I hope to be in a most real sense a 'father' to my clergy, and though they may differ as widely as the wide comprehensiveness of our Church permits, I shall never as Bishop lean more to one way of thinking than another. I shall claim the right to hold my own views and to express them, and to place them in the most favourable light I can, but I shall never regard a fellow-worker with less affection because he fails to see things from my standpoint; and my clergy will, I hope, honour my fairness in this respect by equal confidence in one another."
With this wise resolution in his heart, he took his farewell of old friends in England on Thursday, April 29, 1880, at a celebration of Holy Communion in the church of S. Margaret's, Anfield. The rector here, the Rev. John Sheepshanks (now Bishop of Norwich), was bound by ties of long and devoted work to the Diocese of New Westminster, having held for many years the position of Rector of Holy Trinity Church, New Westminster.
For this church the Bishop carried out with him a present from the Abbey Church of Old Westminster, an altar cross presented by Dean Stanley, and the altar pedestals, which will be referred to later on.
Then in the blessed consciousness of that Communion of Saints which annihilates the barriers of time and space and binds together the whole family of God in earth and heaven, the new Bishop and his wife said adieu to the shores of England, to carry with them the gospel of glad tidings to a people in spiritual darkness and destitution.
The old Church at home will never suffer as long as she thus gives of her light to those who are far off in a land of darkness. God forbid that the time should ever come when her thoughts are only for herself. As England's empire extends year by year over the continents and across the seas, the appeal comes to her with ever-increasing force--
"Oh, let the thought within thee stir
Of thy lost children, Island Mother!
They hear no more, when Sundays come,
The old bells ring in village towers,
A message from the angels' home
To this poor work-day world of ours.
For them no calm, chance words are said
By pastoral lips in love and meekness,
Like breathings from a violet-bed,
That touch the common air with sweetness.
Therefore lift up thine arm this day,
Bid the Church meet them, Island Mother.
Lest they forget her as they stray,
And falsely deem they find another."