Project Canterbury

The Social Service of the Catholic Revival
by Ruth Kenyon

London: Catholic Literature Association, no date.

THE second generation of the Catholic Revival has been called the generation of the slum priests. The little group of scholars at Oxford had given an impulse which immediately resulted in a new type of pastoral life. Spontaneously and persistently, the priests, religious and layfolk of the Movement plunged into works of social service. They "loved the corporal works of mercy," as Neale said: for they saw Christ especially in the poor, and desired to serve him in them:

"Christ is in those who round you wait;
Make much of your dear Lord,"

as Keble said.

It was this which gave their work its special note of personal service. They may have failed to see the wood for the trees; they may have accepted the miseries of a Mammonite civilization as in the natural order of things, and confused poverty with pauperism, despite Pusey's teaching. But their personal contacts with persons, their service in school and orphanage, and house of mercy, hospital and district nursing, were as necessary to the remedy of degradation as Factory and Public Health Acts, co-operative societies and trade unions, Chartism and labour movements.


With the single and significant exception of All Saints', Margaret Street, almost every famous church of the Revival was built amidst the poor and for the salvation of the poor. Pusey's foundation of S. Saviour's, Leeds, set the example; it was, as one of its first clergy wrote, a deliberate attempt "to forge a new weapon for the use of our spiritual mother." A college of priests living together under a rule, and a brotherhood of laymen in connexion with them, moving out from the parish altar as a centre, were to attempt the conversion of the ignorant, resentful, foul-living folk of that factory district. It was the moral rather than the physical evils which were most felt by them: but the latter were noted too; and in the terrible visitation of cholera which broke out in 1848 they were the helpers, often the only helpers, of the sick and dying. It is hardly credible that the sole notice taken of this heroic episode by the Bishop of the diocese was a stern rebuke to the Vicar because he had permitted during that crisis the return of a priest who had left at the Bishop's desire for the crime of hearing confessions.

Next in order of time comes the work of the Rev. W. J. E. Bennett in founding S. Barnabas', Pimlico--S. Barnabas', because it was to be for the consolation of the poor. Mr. Bennett, when he went to S. Paul's, Knightsbridge, in 1843, found that his parish contained the most violent social contrasts. Belgrave Square, Eaton Place, Lowndes Street, and the like were among the most fashionable and wealthiest of districts, but these, said Mr. Bennett, "are the cause of Ebury Street, and Queen's Street, and Clifford's Row, and New Grosvenor Place being filled with a population working from hand to mouth, day by day, to sustain life."

"Come with me into the lanes and streets of this great city. Come with me and visit the dens of infamy, and the haunts of vice, ignorance, filth, and atheism, with which it abounds. Come with me and read the story of Dives and Lazarus. . . . Then look at your noble houses, and the trappings of your equipages, the gold that glitters on your sideboards, and the jewels that gleam on your bosoms; then say within your secret conscience, as standing before the great and terrible God at the day of judgment, What shall I do if I give not of the one, to relieve the other?"

The form the relief was to take was the church and schools of S. Barnabas', and these, begun in 1847, were consecrated in June, 1850. Here, again, the method of "a college of clergy living in community" was to be tried, and Mr. Bennett himself moved into the S. Barnabas' Clergy House, that he might live amongst the poor. In November the S. Barnabas' riots began, and by the spring Mr. Bennett had been forced into resignation. Mr. Liddell succeeded him at S. Paul's, and put James Skinner in charge at S. Barnabas', where before long he was joined by Fr. Lowder. There for years they struggled for liberty for the Catholic way of worship, not only, as Mr. Skinner wrote, because "given a human soul and body for the instrument, the creeds of the Catholic Church for the subject, and Almighty God for the object of faith and worship, ritual is the only process by which Christian homage can be outwardly paid." But also, and as part of that same recognition of man as a being of body as well as soul, because, in "the task of raising up the ignorant and vicious and oppressed to a higher and truer conception of God and of themselves," they "learnt by experience how much a warm and bright and beautiful ceremonial contributed to this end." "I pray," wrote Mr. Bennett to his successor, on the anniversary of his resignation, "that by and by--not for either one or other of us, but for the Church and poor--Christ's kingdom may prevail."

The Society of the Holy Cross, for priests, was founded about this time, with ideals behind it similar to those attempted at S. Saviour's, Leeds, and S. Barnabas', Pimlico, but even more definitely with the community aim in view.

"The members of that society," wrote Fr. Lowder, "meeting together as they did in prayer and conference, were deeply impressed with the evils existing in the Church, and saw also, in the remedies adopted by S. Vincent de Paul, the hope of lessening them. ... 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 nineteenth century, and the peculiar wants of the English character, endeavour with fresh life and energy to stem the prevailing tide of sin and indifference."

Out of this society arose the beginnings of S. George's Mission, which later became the parish of S. Peter's, London Docks, and of which Fr. Lowder was for a quarter of a century the heart and soul. In that district, at that time, "all the elements of degradation--poverty and improvidence, drunkenness and prostitution, robbery and violence, ignorance and unbelief--were active; a whole parish in which many of the most 'respectable' found their interest in supporting vice, while the police were both unwilling and afraid to interfere." "God only in heaven knows the awful poverty and suffering," wrote Fr. Linklater, "and only a dock wall separates them from the food and produce of the world." The little community which was to attempt the conversion of a district such as this began with three priests--Fr. Lowder himself and two others--and two young laymen, and on the women's side, at first two ladies, then the beginnings of a Sisterhood (the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross, London) under Dr. Neale's sister. They were there "not only to diffuse and influence, but in the name and in the strength of Christ to save"; to save "with the old Church weapons and operate on the old Church lines "--conversion, confession, communion, teaching, catechizing, preaching. "Our great object must be to save souls," said Fr. Lowder. Yet because the work was pastoral work and done on the supernatural level (" We meet our Lord in the person of his poor in this spiritual Galilee," wrote Fr. Linklater), the members of the Mission did their best to meet each need of their people, of body and mind, as well as of soul, as they came across it. It was during the cholera visitation in 1866 that they finally conquered the heart of their parish. "With every effort to organize our staff and systematize our work (and certainly most thankful we have been that that heavy visitation found our community of clergy and lay helpers, as well as our Sisterhood, thus prepared) it was difficult to cope with the strain and pressure of the need." The laymen undertook a house-to-house visitation, "one with a view to the sanitary state of the houses, that deficient drainage, or water supply upstairs, and nuisances, might be reported at once to the Parochial Officer"; the others attending chiefly to the administration of relief. The Sisters nursed the sick, fed the half-starved, gave "kitchen physic" to the convalescent, and looked after the children and the orphaned. But, says the writer of Fr. Lowder's Life, "it was to 'the Father' that his people turned chiefly. He was frequently first sent for; his influence was invoked to induce the sick to go into hospital, and more than once his own arms carried sick children through the streets, wrapped in a blanket, to give them into the Sisters' charge in a cholera ward." His own account of the matter was of the terrible difficulty of meeting the awful suddenness of the disease. "For the soul it was required that the very first moments of illness should be seized and improved in fulfilling the whole work of the priest. . . . Yet for the body those moments were also most precious; medical attention, the best prevention measures, violent friction . . . were demanded."

It was during this same cholera epidemic that Pusey not only spent part of the Long Vacation himself at Bethnal Green, "acting as assistant curate" to the Rector, Septimus Hansard, for work among the sick and dying, and bringing Mother Sellon and her Sisters to organize a large temporary hospital, but also allowed his delicate son Philip to join him in the work. The future Lord Halifax, too, was there.

Such was the meaning of the revival of pastoral activity in the priesthood; and if perhaps Fr. Lowder's name is greatest among all those who thus served, it is only necessary to name S. Peter's, Plymouth, S. Alban's, Birmingham, S. Margaret's, Liverpool, and S. Michael's, Shoreditch, as instances of the fact that the same spirit was manifesting itself wherever the Catholic Revival penetrated. Fr. Benson's Litany of Intercession for a Parish, with its detailed prayers for schools and orphanage, house of mercy, and penitents, persecutors, and hardened sinners, the unclean, the fallen, and the lapsed, was written for S. Barnabas' and breathes this pastoral spirit.


Roughly, though only roughly, it is true to say that whereas the heroism of the priests of the Movement was in their faith that the ministry of Word and Sacraments could be directly applied to the most outcast, criminal, and degraded folk, that of the Sisterhoods of this period was mainly exercised in the corporal works of mercy. This was not because the inmost meaning of the religious life was unrealized, but simply because it was to the active life that the call came. The two pioneer communities--that at Christ Church, Albany Street (1845), and Lydia Sellon's foundation at Devonport (1848)--were under Pusey's direction, and he stamped upon them his own passionate pity and indignation at "the miles of misery in our great towns."

"There are some hearts," Mother Sellon wrote to an aspirant, "who cannot live in luxury, when our Lord lived in poverty; who cannot be idle, when he went about doing good; who cannot but live for his poor, when he told us that in ministering to them we minister unto him--some hearts who hate wealth and despise 'respectability,' which is a very idol in our country and which word does not bear any Christian interpretation."

Certainly the Sisters plunged into a life which was held to be very far from fit for respectable young women. They visited, as Miss Sellon said, "haunts of wickedness and scenes of misery," nursing and relieving, and gathering the children into schools and orphanages, and rough lads (" they were like savages," said Miss Sellon), as well as girls and women, into night schools and classes. "Their work embraces the whole range of which our Blessed Lord speaks relatively to the day of judgment," wrote Dr. Pusey. "I cannot speak or think of it without the tears coming to my eyes." A doctor of wide experience said that never had he witnessed "anything that surpassed or even equalled the self-abandonment and self-sacrifice of these lowly Sisters."

No fewer than fourteen communities, most of which survive to-day, were founded between 1845 and 1858. Their aims were various--mission work, teaching, nursing, penitentiary, care of orphans and of the aged. One of the most remarkable, or at least one of which it chances that we have the most remarkable records, was the nursing Sisterhood of S. Margaret's, East Grinstead, founded by J. M. Neale in 1855.

Neale was of those who "loved the corporal works of mercy." He had for a short time had charge of a country parish in East Sussex, and he well knew, when later he came to Sackville College, and looked out over the beautiful Ashdown Forest and the Eden Valley, what need and destitution the little villages and scattered homesteads concealed. He had no responsibility for them--he was, indeed, an inhibited priest--but he could not look out of his study windows without comparing the wildness of the forest with the "ecclesiastically speaking dreary and frightful" condition of its people. Like Pusey and like Lowder, he longed for a body of friars to take up the task. The friars did not come; but Ann Gream came to found the Sisterhood. Its aim was district nursing, or rather cottage nursing, for the Sisters went out at call to live in the house of their patient, and not only to nurse, but to help with the housework, until the need was over. Fever, typhus, diphtheria were endemic. Here are some instances of the early experiences of the community, recorded by Neale himself:

"Application was made for a Sister in a case of diphtheria. She went instantly. It was of a most malignant kind, spread through the household, and in five days she had, in that one household, attended four deathbeds. Again, yesterday afternoon a message that Mr. Whyte had sent for a Sister for the most malignant case of scarlet fever he ever saw, at Ashurst Wood. We agreed that Sister K. should go, and I went up to the cottage first. The mother, a widow, out of her senses (with anxiety, not disease); a boy and two girls wildly delirious. I went back to town, ordered a fly, and Sister K. was off in half an hour. The woman in one of her lucid intervals said, 'I will not have any ladies that worship images in my house.' However, finally, she consented."

Another priest wrote as follows:

"A poor girl, servant to her bedridden sister, was ill with fever at Edenbridge. I found her lying in a state of unconsciousness; no one was attending on her. The girl was absolutely dying from sheer neglect. The husband could not understand how a lady could undertake such an office, could live in a cottage on cottager's fare. So I sent him up to Tunbridge to the Union, but in vain. The next day, therefore, I sent over to S. Margaret's and he brought back Sister------. Until the following Friday the whole household work--cooking, scrubbing floors, etc., including attendance on two sick women and washing clothes left unwashed for a fortnight--devolved on her alone, for dread of the fever had by this time increased. On Friday they kindly sent another Sister to her aid. The poor girl died. A coffin was sent from the Union, but the bearer would only leave it at the outer door of the garden. This work the Sisters had also to do unaided. They conveyed the coffin up the difficult staircase, placed the body in it, and screwed it down."

These are only instances. Nor was the little community saved from infection. In the very first year scarlet fever ran through their "convent" (a little cottage in East Grinstead), and a year later the death of a Sister from fever, caught nursing a patient, became the occasion of the infamous riot at her funeral at Lewes. The story ran that she had been purposely placed in the way of infection that her property might be inherited by the Sisterhood. The Bishop actually took this occasion to withdraw from his position as Visitor of S. Margaret's.

Before many years were over, however, the community was being implored to send Sisters all over the country, wherever the terrible epidemics of those pre-Public Health Act days were raging; and whenever they could they responded to the call. "Some of you by to-morrow night may be fifty miles off, and never see the Blessed Sacrament again for a month," Neale reminded them in speaking of their privilege of daily communion when at home. Behind it all, again, was the vision of Christ in his poor.

"It is not external poverty," Neale told them, "it is not external obedience, it is not your profession of chastity which will make you 'brides of Christ.' It is love first, love midst, love last . . . love that cannot endure to think of any love but his own."

In that 1866 cholera epidemic in London, already mentioned, no fewer than seven Sisterhoods undertook hospital or district nursing work. At the London Hospital, for example, a doctor declared that "the presence of All Saints' Sisters was, under God, the means of allaying a panic among the nurses which, if not checked in time, might have disorganized the whole discipline of the hospital."

What the work of a Sister in a Mission district meant in those days anyone may see who can lay hands on the vivacious Memories of a Sister of S. Saviour's Priory, with its chapters on Our Rougher Neighbours, The Blokes' Supper, An Ishmaelite's Sunday Evening, and Some Girls. It was, among other things, a life in an atmosphere of dirt--" dirt which might be smelt, touched, and inhaled," says Sister Kate, "a species of greasy grime." But there may be read the tale of Sister Mary and the drunken man who, in the presence of his dead wife, came at the Sister with a knife, threatening to kill her, while a policeman "refused to go in, but said he would wait at the bottom of the stairs "; of the mother who could not afford "a farden candle" to see whether her baby was dying or dead; of "Bullocky," "prince of louts," interrupting a catechizing in school by fleeing under a gallery and thence shouting popular songs, and when pulled out, flanked on the one side by a soldier brother who "hoped they'd wallop him well," on the other by another brother, "the expertest thief in the neighbourhood," swearing he should come out without a caning; and of the Club Girls going for an outing, "marching through the city arm in arm, six abreast, singing at the top of their voices, 'O dem golden slippers.'" Through it all the reminiscence of the dirt recurs like a refrain.

But if the continual company of foul bodies meant heroism (not that they accounted it so; Sister Kate's one terror was that she might be recalled to the country beauty of East Grinstead) there is a heroism, too, in companying with foul souls. The Penitentiary Sisterhoods of those days exercised it in full. The Lives of Mother Harriet Monsell, foundress of Clewer, and of Canon T. T. Carter tell how, when that which was instinctively named a House of Mercy was first begun in that suburb of a garrison town, the poor girls came ringing at the bell and sobbing to be taken in to their only chance of recovery of health, let alone of a decent life. But such occasional terror, or weariness, or loneliness gave way often to a fierce reaction and a longing for the passion and excitement which to them was life. Fr. Lowder again paints a picture, terrible as Charles Kingsley's in Yeast, of the conditions which, around the Ratcliff Highway, drove girls out upon the streets, but also of the brutality and violence with which they were treated, the drink and evil habits in which they were sodden. The scenes which the Sisters had to meet in their Rescue Homes were, as he wrote, "scarcely possible to describe." "Broken, smirched, befouled, stumbling stones to humanity," wrote even the loving pen of Sister Kate out of the depths of her experience. Only a woman's love and pity could save them. That, too, the Sisters gave.


It is impossible that activity of this kind and on the scale on which it was practised should not have played a great part in that network of social service which has, in fact, in the past hundred years so markedly changed the face of town and village. Nothing has been said here of the somewhat different approach of Stanton and Dolling to the same conditions. They combined the Radicalism of Headlam and Marson with the individual service of Lowder and Prynne or the Pollocks. Nothing has been said either of the present manifestations of the original spirit in the housing work at S. Pancras and elsewhere, or in the care for the young vagrant by Brother Douglas and his community, or by the hostels of S. Christopher. Nor has anything been said of that great Bishop who in our own day threw himself passionately on the side of the oppressed, whether their skin were black or white, and warned us that we could not worship Jesus in the tabernacle if we did not see him also in the slum. The aim here has been simply to show the signs that followed them that believed, in its second generation, the doctrine of the Tractarians, who revived the Faith in Christ living and working in his Church. That early disciple of Newman's, Dean Church, said repeatedly that the name of Apostolicals, which the Tractarians themselves gave to their group, signified not merely zeal for the Apostolic succession, but also and primarily a desire to get nearer to the life of the New Testament than was recognizable in the easy-going, comfortable Church of their day. Certainly their followers achieved this. It is related that in the dark days after 1845 a visitor to Oxford enquired of a friend what had become of Tractarianism. "Dead," was the answer, "except"--pointing to the windows of Pusey's lodgings--"that we don't know what may be going on in there." But it was not only in there that something was indeed going on. "At that time there was a great persecution. . . . Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word."

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