Project Canterbury

Twenty-one Years in S. George's Mission

By Charles Fuge Lowder

London: Rivingtons, 1877.

Chapter I. The Foundation and First Days of the Mission.

HAVING thus endeavoured to impress the reader with the state of the Church at the time of the commencement of S. George's Mission, it may be interesting to describe some of the circumstances which led to the idea of its foundation. And first of all a few personal reminiscences may be allowed. The writer remembers well, as Curate of a country town in Gloucestershire, in 1851, reading one evening by the fireside the account of the farewell of the Incumbent of S. Paul and S. Barnabas, the touching words which he spoke, and his sad leave-taking of a much-loving flock. The whole history was not to be read carelessly, or reflected upon without many burning thoughts. Those which arose in his mind were of deep sorrow for the parish which had lost so devoted a priest, of prayer that his place might be supplied by one who would faithfully [13/14] carry on his work, and of ardent longing that, if it was God's will, he might be permitted to take a part, however humble, in aiding such an object. He felt that in his own parish he had reached the end of his tether: after nearly six years of parochial labour he could not induce his vicar to move further in advance, and S. Barnabas offered a most inviting field for more congenial work. Here the experiment of winning the poor to the Catholic faith by Catholic teaching and services was being successfully tried, and proved the soundness of the system which Mr. Bennett originated in that parish, and which by a remarkable Providence was, in spite of all opposition, maintained and perpetuated. Five years however in S. Barnabas only proved what might be done among the poor in London, and gave time to reflect on how much more remained to be accomplished.

In another way God seemed to be teaching him the way to do it, for it happened that while in France in 1854 he was led to visit a very interesting institution at Yvetot, in Normandy, which was the Petit Seminaire of the Diocese of Rouen, presided over by a very accomplished Superior, the Rev. M. l'Abbé P. L. Labbé. Having lived much in England when his father was an émigré, and taking great interest in the religious [14/15] movement in this country, he, with his clever and agreeable colleagues, hospitably entertained the writer. One of these Priests had resigned an important government appointment as Civil Engineer to enter the Priesthood, and now1 employed his talents as an architect in building and restoring churches around Tvetot. Among other noteworthy objects of interest in the College was a room in which Mass had been celebrated in the time of the Revolution. In consequence of the conversations which arose on the fortunes of the Catholic Church in France and England, the writer was presented by M. Labbé with the Lift of S. Vincent de Paul, written by M. Abelly. No one can read this interesting Biography without the deepest interest, and the heart must be dull indeed which is not stirred with emotion at the self-denial and energy with which the Saint gave himself to the work to which he was called. The sad condition of the French Church and nation in the 16th Century, and the wonderful influence of the institutions founded by S. Vincent in reforming abuses and rekindling the zeal of the Priesthood, made a deep impression on the writer's mind. The wise mingling of means for relieving the spiritual and temporal wants of the people; the various associations of religious persona under rules of different degrees of strictness, according to their several [15/16] vocations, and the objects to which they were devoted; and the deep wisdom which sought out the root of so much evil, in the unspiritual lives of the Clergy, and provided means for its redress--all this was well calculated to impress those who seriously reflected on the state of our own Church and people, and honestly sought for some remedy. The spiritual condition of the masses of our population, the appalling vices which prevail in our large towns, and especially in the teeming districts of the metropolis, the increasing tendency of the people to mass together multiplying and intensifying the evil, and the unsatisfactory character of the attempts hitherto made to meet it, were enough to make men gladly profit by the experience of those who had successfully struggled against similar difficulties.

It was so ordered also, by God's good Providence, that a society of priests had lately been founded in London, called the Society of the Holy Cross. Its objects are to deepen and strengthen the spiritual life of the clergy, to defend the faith of the Church, and then, among others, to carry on and aid Mission work both at home and abroad. The members of this Society, meeting together as they did for prayer and conference, were deeply impressed with the evils existing in the Church, and saw also, in the remedies adopted by S. [16/17] Vincent de Paul, the hope of lessening them. They all felt that the ordinary parochial equipment of a rector and curate, or perhaps a solitary incumbent, provided for thousands of perishing souls, was most sadly inadequate; that, in the presence of such utter destitution, it was simply childish to act as if the Church were recognized as the Mother of the people. She must assume a missionary character, and by religious association and a new adaptation of Catholic practice to the altered circumstances of the 19th century, and the peculiar wants of the English character, endeavour with fresh life and energy to stem the prevailing tide of sin and indifference.

In prayer then and mutual conference they considered these plans, and resolved to seek some sphere in which to bring them to the test of experience. At first little more was contemplated than a preaching Mission; for they had all their own parochial duties, and the time they could devote to such an object was necessarily very limited. Before, however, they had set themselves to seek such a sphere, one was providentially offered. The Rector of Chislehurst was one of the first members of this Society, and an excellent layman, Mr. T. Charrington, a partner in an important firm engaged in business in Radcliffe, was a churchwarden of his parish. [17/18] Mr. Murray naturally mentioned the subject to him as one in which he was deeply interested, and he spoke of it to the Rector of Shadwell, through whom it came to the knowledge of the Rev. Bryan King, the Rector of S. George's-in-the-East It seemed to him a manifest answer to prayer; for oppressed by the difficulties of his parish, and seeing no present hope of meeting them, he had during the season of Epiphany made them special subjects of intercession, and thus, although personally unknown to any members of the S.S.C., he gladly hailed the intimation, and at once put himself into communication with them. S. George's-in-the-East, since, alas! notorious in the annals of newspaper history, was to them, as well as to the world in general, a terra incognita. It was therefore with great interest that the report of one of the Society despatched on a voyage of discovery was received. It opened the way for the first Missionary operations; and on Ash-Wednesday, 1856, the writer and the Rev. Newton Smith, Founder of the S.S.C., were sent to commence the Mission in this new country.

The spot chosen for our first attempt was a workshop at the end of a small court in Ratcliffe Highway, where a Sunday School had been held. Here we preached and prayed with a few persons gathered together by some handbills circulated in the parish. This [18/19] was continued for about a fortnight, two going down three times in the week. Among these first Mission preachers were the Rector of Chislehurst and the Rev. G. C. White, with others whom, alas! we have now lost. From enquiries which were then made it was found that the usual attendants at these services for the most part belonged to the Parish Church; and as in such an extensive parish the room seemed too near the Church, it was resolved to seek a more distant spot for our operations. This was soon found in one of the most miserable alleys of the parish, near the river. Lower Well Alley, now in S. Peter's parish, still maintains an unenviable character, but will probably shortly disappear in the extensive alterations which are projected under the Metropolitan Improvement Act. The room in which we commenced was secured in the cottage of a poor woman whose, husband was at sea; and as she herself was just confined, she was unable to take much part in our arrangements, or otherwise to secure order than by expostulating with disturbers from the top of the stairs. And disturbance certainly there was; for as soon as the hymn, which was sung in the-alley, the better to collect a congregation, was commenced, a violent opposition was displayed by the Irish, who swarmed in the houses around, and on the [19/20] first evening interrupted and almost frustrated all attempts at preaching by their clamour and violence. Many dangerous missiles were thrown; for as the court was paved, and so no loose stones came to hand, they soon sacrificed a large beer-pitcher, whose fragments were hurled at our heads. An attempt also was made to catechise us as to our acquaintance with the Latin of the Nicene Creed. This opposition was continued with more or less energy for about a fortnight, after which time we were permitted to fulfil our work in peace. But even during this time of disturbance some were induced to attend to our exhortations; and among other fruits of our ministry was the admission of a poor sick child into the bosom of the Church by Baptism. But as we became better acquainted with the district, and more interested in its spiritual condition, we felt that it would be hopeless to expect any permanent good from such desultory attempts unsustained by a more regular and local agency.

Accordingly it was resolved to offer the Rector of the parish the assistance of a Missionary Curate residing amongst the poor, and devoting himself to their spiritual welfare. To show how moderate our expectations at that time were, we almost doubted whether we could raise £100 a year for such a purpose. However, the [20/21] venture was made, and a Clergyman of some experience in Missionary work was chosen and approved by the Rector. His self-denying habits of life, and remarkable powers of influencing those with whom he was brought into contact, gave good prospects of future success. A house was taken in the very centre of the district in which the services had been latterly held, and not far from the spot itself. It was well adapted for the purpose, and had a garden large enough for a temporary Church.

At this time the Rector, anticipating the growth of the Mission, invited the writer of these pages to take charge of the whole work. After much prayer and deliberation it was determined that he should accept the charge, full of difficulty and trial as it even then appeared. But God's hand had already been manifested in our commencement, and we did not doubt that His Holy Spirit would guide and protect us in our progress.

In July, 1856, we took possession of our Mission House in Calvert Street, in a portion of the parish near the river and Thames Tunnel, cut off from the rest by the Docks, and forming with an adjoining portion of Wapping and Shadwell an island. The district, now that of S. Peter's, contains 6,300 souls, of whom perhaps nearly 2,000 are Irish Roman Catholics. We [21/22] at once opened a room in the house, with the licence of the Bishop of London, for daily prayers and frequent preaching, and here was gradually gathered a little congregation. A small choir of hoys was formed, and classes were held for instruction in the Bible, and preparation for Confirmation and Holy Communion. Even then we were not left free from disturbance, and generally one was left in charge of the door while the other conducted the service. Our first choir-boy was caught in the streets, but wss tamed, instructed, Confirmed, and brought to Communion, remained in the choir for many years, and is now married and settled in the parish. One of our first Confirmation candidates is still living in the parish, and a Communicant. Another who came to our first service in the Highway became afterwards a servant in our House of Mercy, and then in the Clergy House, and has ever since been a stedfast Communicant Thus a beginning was made, and our bell daily witnessed for God in a district which knew little of prayer or the blessings of the Gospel. We also commenced an Evening Sunday School, and preached from the steps of the Parish Church on Sunday afternoons.

During the same time we collected money, and made arrangements for erecting a temporary iron chapel in [22/23] the garden attached to the house, which after some delay was commenced on the 27th of October, and in exactly a month's time was completed, being dedicated on the Thursday before Advent. The Rector of S. George's preached, at the Dedication Service in the morning, a sermon, afterwards published, on the appropriate text, "He shall make the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children." Many of the brethren of S.S.C., with other friends, both clergy and laity, joined with us on that occasion in asking God's blessing on our new work, and pleading for the infant Mission before our altar in the chapel of the Good Shepherd, as it was now called. An hospitable entertainment was given to our party by Mr. John Knight, who then resided in York Place, and who, as he had been a warm and attached friend of the Rector of the parish during many years of trial, has during these twenty-one yean been a firm and liberal supporter of S. George's Mission. Indeed, although the factory in which he is a partner is not itself a pleasant neighbour, being of soap and tallow, yet the employment which it gives to so many of our poor, and the liberality of the members of the firm, would be sadly missed if it were removed from our midst. The luncheon at Mr. Knight's was the first of those [23/24] happy meetings of friends of the Mission which have since accompanied our Dedication Festivals. The kind expressions of sympathy elicited on these occasions have always helped to cheer the hearts of the labourers in the work, as they have testified to the hearty support which old and tried friends have given to them from its commencement; for, besides Mr. Knight, we cannot bat associate with him at these social gatherings friends like the Trustees of oar Church, Messrs. Charrington, Skinner, and Morgan; the Secretary of our Building Fund, Mr. Lister Beck; Mr. H. Barnett, the Earl of Powis, Lord Limerick, Lord Eliot, Lord Kilcoursie, the Hon. C. L. Wood, and Sir C. Young; or others who have been taken from us, the Hon. H. Walpole, R Brett, R. Porter, H. Spurting, as well as our clerical brethren, the Revs. Hon. R Liddell, F. H. Murray, G. C. White, &c.

The Chapel then being now open for Divine Service, and able to accommodate nearly 200 persons, the Mission began its work in a definite manner. It was a cheering sight to behold it frequently thronged on Sunday evenings, and often with attendances of forty or fifty during the week. We commenced with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Sunday, then came the usual morning and evening prayers and sermons, and a [24/25] service especially for oar Sunday-school children in the afternoon, consisting of some hymns and canticles, catechising, and a short metrical Litany, besides weekday services.

We were joined at this time by one or two laymen, candidates for Holy Orders, who assisted us in visiting, taught in the Sunday-school, and attended to the Church. Two ladies joined us in the beginning of the Mission, and opened a small school at their lodgings, and acted as District Visitors. In the spring however of 1857 another lady, who had already been engaged in works of charity at the head of a religious house, offered her services to the Mission, which were gladly accepted. Another house was then taken near Calvert Street, where she was soon joined by others, and the Sisterhood commenced in a more regular way, opening a day-school for girls, taking one or two into the house to be trained for service, and visiting the sick and poor. We also commenced a school for boys, under Mr. Rowley, who was afterwards ordained, and went out with Bishop Mackenzie in the first Central African Mission, of which he has given a most interesting account; and who is now actively engaged for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. This school first consisted of boys who had been taught under a master in the [25/26] parish then lately deceased; it was first removed to Calvert Street, and afterwards to a room in Old Gravel Lane, which had been used for an infant school. This was built by the father of Mr. J. Knight (who had made his fortune in the parish, and founded the business now carried on in York Place,) as a testimony of his respect for Mr. King. Mr. King placed the school under our charge; and when the Sisterhood lived in Calvert Street, and were able to secure the adjoining house to their own, the girls' and infants' schools were taught in Ibis house, and the room in Old Gravel Lane was devoted to the boys' school. The good effects of the work commenced were already beginning to manifest themselves, in the earnestness of many about their salvation, in the devotion of those who were presented for Confirmation at S. George's, nearly all of whom became Communicants, in the number of children brought to be baptized, and the increase of Sunday scholars.

About the same time also another opening for Mission work in the parish presented itself. A Church in Wellclose Square, in the western part of S. George's (Calvert Street being in the south-east), built in 1696 for the Danes living in this part of the metropolis, was vacant When the wealthier part of the Danish [26/27] congregation left the East of London it had fallen into the hands of the British and Foreign Sailors' Society, and was the scene of the labours of Boatswain Smith. This eccentric character, who styled himself B.B.U., or "Burning Bush Unconsumed," was well known among the sailors, conducting services and preaching in this Chapel, and also in the streets. He was frequently taken before the magistrates for his out-of-door preaching; but boldly took out his Bible and read and preached as he was taken to the court. The British and Foreign Sailors' Society had removed their work to Shadwell, and thus the Chapel was to let. It had no beauty externally, though well situated in the midst of an open square, but inside had an ecclesiastical appearance, with a large classical reredos of considerable height, and a religious picture; and when the altar was properly vested, and had its rightful ornaments, and the pews were exchanged for open benches, it was very suitable for our services. Many monuments of Danish merchants were placed in it, and many lay buried in the vaults beneath. The favourable position of the Church, the opportunity for enlarging our sphere of operations in so important a direction, and the prospect of an increased number of clergy to help us, induced us to take advantage of the opening, and secure the Church [27/28] for the services of the Church of England. We accordingly rented it of the trustees, and after some necessary repairs and alterations service was commenced in it in Lent, and it was formally opened soon after Easter, when the sermon was preached by Dr. Stanley, Dean of Westminster. A Mission House was now opened in Wellclose Square, and a small school attached to it in a loft, kindly lent for the purpose by a neighbour.

The Mission was now regularly at work in two districts of the parish, both having two Clergymen in immediate charge of them, and the other appliances of Missionary work growing up around each centre. Scarcely, however, had the second Mission District got fairly into work, than it was found both a disadvantage and expense to form two separate houses for the Clergy, and a change was made in September by which the Clergy were united in Wellclose Square, the Sisters moving at this time into the Mission House in Calvert Street Under this arrangement, with some changes made necessary from the increase and development of the schools, the Mission was conducted up to the consecration of S. Peter's.

And yet, although our work seemed so happily opening before us, and taking a more settled shape, a heavy internal trial was soon to fall. This was no less [28/29] than the loss of the Clergy attached to the Church in Wellclose Square. One of them, whose special charge it was, had proved himself singularly fitted for the work, by energy, kindness of manner, and earnest devotion, which had won the hearts of very many; the other had been connected with the Mission from the commencement. It, however, pleased God to deprive us of them both, so that at the very time when help and active assistance were more than ever required, one was left to meet all the difficulties, and undertake the whole burden of the two Mission Chapels, with the various works in connection. By God's mercy, however, at first temporary and then permanent help was provided, and the services were maintained with their former frequency.

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