Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter XVI.

Father Dolling in Ireland (1894): at Kilrea, and Trinity College, Dublin--The new S. Agatha's--Laying of foundation-stone (October 27, 1894)--Architectural features of the church--Its relation to Father Dolling's ideals of worship.

'The carved and pictured chapel--its entire surface animated with image and emblem--made the parish church a sort of book and Bible to the people's eye.'--EMERSON: Essay on Religion.

THE end of 1894 was marked by the laying of the foundation-stone of the new S. Agatha's. It was at once the crown of Dolling's labours at Portsmouth on the one hand, and on the other 'the beginning of the end.' Those ten years at Portsmouth (1885 to 1895) were the period of Dolling's life at which he was at the height of his powers. Although also he had such immense sums of money to raise when at Portsmouth, yet the labour of collecting it did not hinder him from giving of his best energies to civic and social work. For this, he had less time and opportunity afterwards when Yicar of S. Saviour's, Poplar. 'S. Agatha's Mission,' says one, 'fitted Dolling like his clothes.'

But before entering on the questions connected with the new church, we may note a pleasant series of incidents which marked the few days immediately after the laying of the foundation-stone (October 27, 1894). He had by this time become a preacher and lecturer of great note, and by this means was able to raise part of the large sums required for starting the series of undertakings connected with the Winchester College Mission. In his ten years as missioner he had raised actually £50,000, of which only £760 came from diocesan funds. This was a well-nigh incredible achievement, especially from one whose teachings on many subjects were likely to run counter to those of the wealthier classes. But wherever he went troops of new friends were made, and many of them became enthusiastic supporters. He was well known at Braemar at one end of the kingdom (through the residence there of his uncle, the late Mr. Bracken), and at Torquay at the other. He conducted some missions at the latter place with lasting effect. He was always a welcome visitor to S. Paul's Cathedral, the pulpit of which was offered to him even when he was least in favour with the ecclesiastical authorities generally. But the incidents we now relate were especially pleasing to him because they involved one of the most pleasant visits he ever paid to his native land after he had left his house in Dublin to be prepared for ordination in the English Church.

He was invited to speak at the opening meeting of the Theological Society of Trinity College, Dublin, on November 12, 1894. This Society is representative of the Divinity School of the Church of Ireland, existing in connection with that great University. The subject of the opening address of the Auditor (or student chosen to preside for the ensuing year) was 'The Church and the Poor.' We believe that Dolling's speech on the subject of the address was one which carried the audience away with him. Most of his hearers were undergraduates of Trinity College, Dublin. He strongly appealed to many of them, who were candidates for Holy Orders, to consider the spiritual needs of the multitudes in England who are not, as is the case with the Roman Catholic Irish working-classes, severed from young Churchmen who are about to become clergy by the impassable barrier of a difference of religious communion.

Could it have been possible for Robert Dolling to have been a minister of religion in any of the chief religious bodies of Ireland, there can be little doubt that his peculiar type of eloquence, combined with his unselfish devotion and aflection-ateness of disposition, would have given his influence an immense range and power. In political or civil life also in Ireland, in any department where his special gifts would have had scope, he might have led a large number of his fellow-countrymen. His qualities were of that order which most appeals to Irish hearts and attracts the Irish imagination.

In his speech in Trinity College on this occasion he said:

'Irishmen had three great qualities which they in England largely lacked, One was the simplicity of their Jiving; the second was the tact and the sympathy that they were able to show when they in England could only feel these things; and the third was that they had a sense of humour which, in a work like that in Portsmouth, was perhaps the most important of all.'

Before fulfilling his engagement at Trinity College, Father Dolling had made an expedition to revisit Kilrea, at the invitation of the Rector, the Rev. A. E. Sixsmith. He arrived late on Saturday, November 10. At once the whole town was astir. Handshakings, embraces, and greetings marked his progress from door to door. He was still 'Master Robert,' the dear companion of so many in the old days. On Sunday, November 11, he preached three times. In the morning he spoke 'without a note 'for an hour, having offered up an extempore prayer before his sermon, which was on Heb. v. 8. In the afternoon he addressed the children, and in the evening he preached for a full hour and a quarter on S. John ii. 25.

We are told by one who was present that as the congregation left the church the only regret was that the sermon 'was not twice as long.' Many strong Orangemen were present who had heard a lurid rumour that 'Master Robert was now a Roman,' but who went away delighted, saying they 'had never heard a more Evangelical man.' We are told that crowds from great distances round, and of various religious bodies, went to hear him. Our informant tells us that 'though so many of the men of Kilrea and its neighbourhood are strong Orangemen, yet there is no greater proof of the late Mr. Dolling's power over human hearts than that, in spite of malicious statements against him from outside sources, those who experienced his excellence remained unshaken in their loyalty to him.'

We are told also that 'Almost all who had attended his classes in their youth are still distinguished by their superior intelligence and character.'

In the following year, 1895, he was again invited to Ireland to speak, with another visitor from England, a learned Church dignitary, at the proposed Irish Church Conference at Deny.

However, as a report had arisen that his fellow guest had attended Roman Catholic worship when in the West of Ireland, Dolling, though not himself accused of any overt act of offence, was yet involved in the other's condemnation, and in the Irish Synod of the same year was mentioned as a 'notorious Ritualist.' The end of the whole matter was that the invitations to himself, to the supposed offender, and to everyone else, were cancelled, and the proposed Conference did not come off.

But to return to Portsmouth--the years 1894 and 1895 were largely employed in making plans of the new S. Agatha's and raising money to pay for its erection. The crown and climax of all Dolling's work at Portsmouth, the last of what he called his 'eight milestones,' was the impressive building, which, erected and opened in 1895, was consecrated, after Dolling had left Portsmouth, as the Parish Church of S. Agatha's, Landport, in 1898. The foundation-stone was laid by Mrs. Fearon on October 27, 1894, amid torrents of rain. Almost all the Winchester College masters and their families, and over 300 out of 400 Winchester hoys, were present.

After the Winchester contingent returned home, Dr. Feavon wrote as follows to Dolling:


'Just one line to thank you from us all for the admirable arrangements you made for us to-day. I thought nothing could have been more perfectly managed; it was delightful to see the order and reverence of all the proceedings, and we all appreciated your kindness greatly. If the weather had not been so cruel it would have been a perfect day; but the rain------. I congratulate you heartily on the day.

Yours affectionately,

' W. A. FEARON.'

In sending to the subscribers an account of the building plan, with pictures of the proposed church, Dolling wrote:

'I have signed a contract for £7,000, which will pay the actual cost of the building, without any ornament whatsoever. The treasurer of the College Mission Committee has £5,000 in hand, but we still need to collect £2,000 before next October, 1895, when the church will be ready for use. The very fact of our people being poor demands a magnificent church. The very fact that the church represents Winchester necessitates its being magnificent. Magnificence consists in harmony of proportion, solidity of construction, and beauty of detail. The two first wo intend to achieve, the third we leave to the piety of future Wykehamists and the self-denial of S. Agatha's parishioners. To you the plans may look unusual, but I am completely convinced that they are just the ones suited to a work like ours. The church must impress everyone who enters it. The altar, the centre of our worship, can be seen by every worshipper. It will accommodate about 900 people, and we have, I believe, congregations to fill it. The side-chapel, into which we shall carry bodily all that is movable out of our present Mission Church, will be home at once to our people. The picture of the litany stool and lectern will show you the splendid character of the memorials already given. I am proud to think that we have got a Portsmouth architect, builder, workmen, and wood-carver. God demands our very best. We are trying to offer it to Him here.'

The architect was Mr. J. Henry Ball, A.B.LB.A., who also drew up the plans for the parsonage and gymnasium, and for the rebuilding of the schools. The builder was the late Mr. Light of Portsmouth. The building was erected so as to be capable of extension by the addition of an extra aisle. The style of the building is (as being by Dolling's conviction the best for mission purposes among the people) of the basilican type; not the Benaissance basilican of Palladio (the pseudo-classical, as some would call that style), but the Bomanesque variety of North Italy, and suggested to Mr. Ball by studies of the churches of Lombardy, though not a copy of any one of those churches. The two styles of church architecture which Dolling loved were the Norman and the Bomanesque basilican. He cared little for the later Gothic developments. He often said how much grander Winchester Cathedral would have been if it had been left in its Norman condition.

The general effect of S. Agatha's is akin to that of the new Boman Catholic Cathedral at Westminster, though the exterior has not such a Byzantine appearance. The whole church has inside an effect of great dignity combined with warmth and homeliness of aspect--Dolling's ideal for the House of God and for His worship. The material is in the main brick, but with granite, alabaster, and oak work, the combined effect of which is to give the impression of 'a house exceeding mag-nifical.' Of the five pillars which separate the nave from the south aisle two were erected in solid granite, and two of the remaining three cased in alabaster, one of the latter at a cost of £41 being a gift from 'College,' past and present. A magnificent pillar of granite, faced with alabaster, with panels of a green tint, was the gift of Miss Dwyer (one of a family very dear to Father Dolling) in memory of her father, mother, brother, and of her nephew, Denys Dwyer, a young midshipman, whose early death was much regretted. There are also two granite pillars on the north side.

An alabaster screen marks off the sanctuary, but it is low enough to enable the high altar to be seen by all. This screen, which is of rare beauty, was a gift, costing £120, in memory of the Rev. C. Cubitt. The pavement of the sanctuary and the high altar, with the baldachino surrounding and surmounting the latter, were to be in marble, but were not completed when Dolling left Portsmouth. The high altar and the pavement have since been completed, but the baldachino, which, according to the design, is to be of singular magnificence, is not yet erected. The cost of this will be £450. A semicircular apse forms the background of the high altar. Dolling's original idea of a T-shaped building was further developed by the addition to the plan of a chapel in the south aisle with a smaller apse, and westward of this chapel a narrow aisle, finished at the west end by a tower in the base of which is the baptistery.

Of the various movable adjuncts of Divine worship, the Litany desk and lectern are specimens of oak carving of rare excellence. They are the work of a local carver, Mr. Hoare of Southsea, acting on designs suggested by Mr. Ball from similar objects in foreign cathedrals.

Dolling wished to leave a good deal to be done for the church as time went on, especially as to rich hangings, curtains, and fresco-painting. His dream was that of a great church in the centre of the thickly populated hive of Land-port, which, like S. Mark's, Venice, should be a sort of pictured Bible for the people--' Biblia Pauperum '--the sacred story of redemption displayed along its walls. The S. Agatha's people themselves paid for the altar, the litany desk, the altar furniture, the vestments, and the Stations of the Cross. The latter, quite free from the crude realism often seen in such pictures, were the works of Mr. Roe, an artist, who was brother of one of the assistant clergy. All these gifts from S. Agatha's congregation cost £400. The oak lectern was bought with money left to the mission by a little Winchester boy, Edward Cruddas, of Mr. Wickham's house, who died in 1888. The church is lighted by electric light. All was done by local work with the exception of the inlaid wood-flooring and the marble work, which were executed by a London firm. The workmen of the latter were Italians, and a Trades Union difference between them and the Portsmouth workmen caused the opening of the church to be delayed from the beginning of October till the 27th of the same month, 1895, exactly one year since the foundation-stone was laid in 1894.

But before we proceed to the subject of the opening services we ought to make special mention of the decoration in sgraffito and mosaic of the Lady Chapel, or South Chapel, of the new church. It is the work of the well-known artist, Mr. Hey wood Sumner, who also designed the carving of two capitals of pillars in the main body of the church. It was singularly appropriate that Father Dolling, who was, above all things, a preacher of the Incarnation, should have been able before he brought his Portsmouth labours to a close to see in the new church the little chapel of Jesus' infancy and Mary's purity adorned with decoration so worthy in its sweet and gracious refinement to suggest the mysteries of the Mother and the Child.

But we will describe this chapel in Mr. Sumner's own language:

'The semidome of the apse is a "field" of blue-starred mosaic; in the centre is the Blessed Virgin, holding in her arms the infant Christ, who is in the act of blessing. Lilies, Mary's flower, stand between each of the five small windows and complete the mosaic treatment of the semidome. The windows in question are filled with single figures of Zacharias, S. Elizabeth, S. John the Baptist, Anna, and Simeon. Below are the following subjects in sgraffito: The Salutation, the Annunciation, Christ among the Doctors. Over the arch of the apse, on the east wall, is a treatment of the Nativity; on the left the Magi (representing the rich); on the right the shepherds with their flocks (the poor); in the centre, over the apse, the manger-shed, with the Holy Family and the Infant Christ stretching out His arms to welcome the comers on either side, while groups of adoring angels stand or kneel around the shed.'

The new church was to a great extent the outcome of ideals in Dolling's own mind, as both Mr. Ball and Mr. Sumner testify. It proves three things in regard to him: (1) That he had not lost a sense of true refinement amid the necessarily rough character of his missionary life; (2) that he was able to conceive a church and its fittings suited for Catholic worship on more unconventional and less artificial lines than those generally recommended by the commercial purveyors of ecclesiastical goods to whom the clergy have resort; (3) that having got hold of real artists to work for him, he knew how to trust them, and to uphold them by his sympathetic encouragement. Mr. Sumner writes:

'Mr. Dolling was an ideal client, and I have always felt grateful to him for his inspiring confidence and appreciation.'

The total cost of the church, in the condition in which it was after Dolling's resignation, amounted to £10,261, including the expense of the decoration of the Lady Chapel. Some months before the opening Dolling writes:

' The new church is raising its stately proportion in our daily sight. It more than satisfies my anticipations, and I am glad to say that almost everyone who sees it is struck by the beauty of its proportions and the wealth of its opportunities.'

During the erection he asked, more than once, for prayers for the workmen engaged in the building. It filled all his thoughts, and was the embodied symbol of his ideal of Christian life and Christian worship.

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