A vivid impression of Eugene’s first visit to England in June and July 1850 can be had from his letters to Fr. Tempier at the time. He also left a ‘souvenir’ in the form of an ‘Act of Visitation’. We aim now to clarify the context of the visit, establish the chronology of the journey as far as possible, add in further details from other sources and finally make some reflections.
Eugene had been trying to get away from Marseilles for some time to visit various communities and friends in France and to go to Paris on diocesan business. He finally managed it on 27 May 1850 when he left Marseilles with the intention of extending the journey across the Channel to England and possibly to Ireland. Fr. Casimir Aubert came from England expressly for the purpose of accompanying him. With the title of ‘Visitor’, Fr. Aubert was a major superior on the English mission: Fr. Bellon was given the title of ‘Provincial’ by Eugene even though the mission had not yet been formed as a province.
Eugene’s reason for going to Britain, says Rey, was ‘to judge the situation for himself of the foundations that were giving rise to the sweetest hopes’. One of these ‘sweetest hopes’ was to see the mission extended to Ireland where the Oblates had not yet succeeded in obtaining episcopal approval for a mission. It was hoped that a visit from Eugene would help to advance this cause. As well as these ‘sweetest hopes’, however, another matter was giving rise to grave anxiety: the purchase in 1848 of a property in Ashbourne. Fr. Daly had assumed an enormous debt to make this purchase and pledged the Oblate property in Penzance, which was in his name, as security. A disastrous scandal was threatened.
Chronicle of the journey
Departure 27 May
Eugene was very busy in Marseilles and complained he had been unable to make adequate preparations for the journey. With Casimir Aubert he travelled through France, Germany and Belgium, visiting Notre-Dame de l’Osier, Lyon, Besançon, Strasbourg, Carlsruhe, Manheim, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Cologne, Aachen, Liège, Brussels, Anvers, Bruges, and so to Ostend where he took the boat for Dover on 17 June and arrived in London on 18 June. He went up from Dover to London by boat. He was blessed with very good weather for his trip.
London: 18 June to 22 June
He travelled incognito and lodged in a third-floor one-room apartment in the Sablonière Hotel, which was described in 1816 as a French house where a table d’hôte affords the lovers of French cookery and French conversation, an opportunity for gratification at a comparatively moderate charge. It was situated on the East side of Leicester Square at nn. 30-31 and was demolished in 1869. Eugene was scandalized at having to pay 50 francs for four nights’ stay and a few meals. His days were fully employed thanks to Fr. Casimir’s knowledge of London transport. He dined at Lord Arundel’s (later Duke of Norfolk) where he met the Bishop of Buffalo, Bishop Timon. Lord Arundel showed him some of the sights, in particular the Houses of Parliament. He met the “celebrated Newman and the Oratorians who serve a chapel where I said Mass.” This would have been at 24 and 25 King William St., Strand, where Newman had founded a house in 1849, not far from the Sablonière Hotel.
Cooke, Ortolan and Denny describe how Eugene also visited the East End of London. He experienced in the plight of the poor a call to found an Oblate mission in this part of London. He was disappointed not to meet with Bishop Wiseman, the vicar apostolic of the London District, to discuss the possibility that the Oblates would be put in charge of the proposed French church in London. There was no Oblate mission in London though there was a proposal for an Oblate mission in the London suburbs which did not much attract Eugene. It is not surprising that Wiseman was not available to meet Eugene at this time. He had lately been informed confidentially that he was to be created a cardinal in the consistory in September and would not be returning to London. He did in fact leave England on August 16. While in London Eugene received a backlog of mail from Fr. Tempier dealing with Oblate affairs.
Maryvale: 22 June to 29 June
On 22 June Eugene travelled by train to Birmingham where he was to dine with Bishop Ullathorne, the vicar apostolic of the Central District, but a mix-up with trains spoilt this plan and the two bishops were only able to meet for half an hour. This would have been at Curzon Street Station that had been opened in 1838. Eugene went on by carriage to Maryvale, which he loved and made his base for the rest of the visit. Fr. Bellon was superior there. On 23 June he responded to Fr. Tempier’s letters that he had received in London and also went to see Oscott, the new seminary built to the designs of Augustus Pugin, which is close to Maryvale. Eugene was impressed. He met Bishop Ullathorne again on 24 June when he assisted him in the distribution of prizes at Oscott. He dined on 28 June with Bishop Ullathorne and went with him to visit his newly built cathedral, St. Chad’s, another of Augustus Pugin’s works. Eugene remarks that this was “the first time I saw a little rain in England.” They also visited what appears to have been a ‘house of refuge’ managed by Sisters. Again he was impressed. He visited Lord Shrewsbury’s “magnificent castle” at Alton and the retreat house of St. Wilfrid in Cotton, Staffordshire, the service of which the Oblates had declined, and where the Oratorians had a novitiate. He said Mass “in the magnificent Gothic church built by Lord Shrewsbury in a village” and excoriates the expense: this was in all likelihood the church of St. Giles, Cheadle, one of Augustus Pugin’s masterpieces. From Cheadle and Alton it is only a short distance to Ashbourne. Surely he paid Ashbourne a visit? None is recorded.
Everingham and Manchester: 29 June to 6 July
Everingham was in the Yorkshire District of England where Bishop Briggs was vicar apostolic, but Eugene does not seem to have met him on this occasion. On 29 June he left Maryvale by train and while en route for Everingham made an excursion to York cathedral. He stayed with the Oblate community at Everingham Priory for three days, which would have given him time to visit Howden and Pocklington, which the Oblates served. Fr. Robert Cooke was superior here. Eugene met and dined with William Maxwell in the Hall and said Mass in the church. Fr. Perron was buried beside the church in 1848. Strangely the Founder does not allude to this in his letters. Eugene wrote again to Fr. Tempier on 1 July. He told him he would not be going to Ireland “because there are none of our people to visit there and I do not see how my presence could be necessary to further our affairs in that country.”
Perhaps he was beginning to feel fatigue after so much travelling. He moved on to Manchester on 2 July where Fr. Aubert was superior. On 4 July Eugene laid the first stone of a church the Oblates planned to build in the district assigned to them. The Bishop of Bytown Bishop Guigues who was also visiting Britain came to see Eugene while he was in Manchester.
The visit to Liverpool: 6 July to 9 July
Fr. Jolivet was his host and superior here. The visit to Holy Cross, Liverpool proved to be the highlight of the trip. Eugene describes it in detail in his letter to Fr. Tempier dated July 10. It was, he said, “a kind of marvel”. He was impressed with the work his own men were doing in this new mission and deeply moved by the people’s faith. Here he learnt from Fr. Tempier that his visit to England was being slyly misinterpreted by his enemies: he was accused of visiting Frenchmen in exile in England in furtherance of a political plot. This reinforced his decision not to go on to Ireland but to hasten his return to France. Liverpool was in the Lancashire District of England whose vicar apostolic was Bishop George Hilary Brown. There is no record of them meeting at this time.
The visit to Aldenham: 9 July for a few days
Aldenham was in Bishop Ullathorne’s District. Eugene was the guest of Lady Granville at Aldenham Hall, the ancestral home of the Acton family. Lady Granville was the mother of the famous Catholic historian Lord Acton. Eugene visited the Oblate community, wrote a letter to Fr. Tempier on 10 July, confirmed 26 persons and received a young married man into the Church. Here once again his path crossed that of the Bishop of Bytown.
The visit to Penzance: 16 to 20 July
Our information on his daily activities in the following days is very limited. The journey to Penzance took him through Birmingham and Bristol. Penzance was in the Western District of England where Bishop William Hendren was vicar apostolic, but it is not recorded that Eugene met him. Eugene had arrived in Penzance by 16 July. He confirmed 32 persons and received two persons into the Church, one of whom was a relative of the former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. He made an excursion to Mount St. Michael, a local beauty spot.
Return to Maryvale: 20 July to 22 and 23 July
He returned to Maryvale by way of Camborne, Falmouth, Plymouth, Taunton, and Bristol. His original plan had been to visit Ambrose Philipps on his way back to Maryvale and celebrate an ordination on the 25 July in Maryvale. Instead he went directly to Maryvale and brought forward the ordination to 21 July. On the following day 22 July he wrote his Act of Visitation of the Province of England. That part of his business was done. He was hastening his departure. He wrote again to Fr. Tempier on 20 July, his last letter on this trip from England.
The Act of Visitation of the Province of England. (Oblate Writings I, Vol. 3, pp.185-192)
In his “souvenir” to the Province he expresses his personal feeling of satisfaction at having met with the Oblates of the Province in “this beautiful kingdom of England”. Above all he expresses his thanks to God for the missionary opportunity offered to the Oblates and the way in which his men have taken up the challenge. He urges them to be faithful to their vocation, which will guarantee the happy continuation of their mission. He passes in review the Oblate communities he has visited. Maryvale is a community of five Oblate priests, seven scholastics, five “choir novices”, and two Oblate Brothers, living a life of remarkable “regular observance and fervour”. As well as the local catholic community, it is serving that at Ashbourne. Aldenham is a fervent community of three Oblate priests and two Oblate Brothers whose mission is proving fruitful and extends to Bridgenorth, Wenlock and Middleton. Everingham is a fervent community of four Oblate priests, two scholastics and one Oblate Brother, whose mission extends to Pocklington and Howden. Penzance is “the cradle of our Congregation in England”, with outreach to Camborne and Helston, which has brought a local congregation of “twelve bad Catholics” to the level of more than two hundred and fifty in a Protestant stronghold. On Manchester he passes no remarks, while Liverpool is a community of three Oblate priests and two Oblate Brothers doing ‘incalculable good’ among the poor. In regard to Penzance, Manchester and Liverpool, where the missionaries are immersed in activity, he has not said anything directly about the religious spirit of these communities. He returns now however to the theme of fidelity to grace. He accepts that there are special difficulties impeding the missionaries in this regard due to the nature of their work, their small numbers and scattered locations, and the native culture, but he insists these must not be allowed to detract from fidelity to the Rule and the regular life it requires, to morning and evening meditations, and especially to the daily Mass. He stresses the need for the spirit and practice of mortification and penance. They are doing battle with the strong-one armed, in one of his formidable strongholds and must draw on all God’s strength if they are to triumph. “I wish you to observe that the time is come for attacking error by direct ways, not only by prayer, but by preaching. You are not called on to preserve timidly, as heretofore, the small number of faithful souls who, in the midst of most cruel persecution, had not bent the knee to Baal. At the present day there is question of reconquering the empire snatched from Jesus Christ by an incessant attack on all the errors that divide the enemy, who is reduced to the necessity of depending only on the power of numbers and on the protection of the secular arm. Heresy feels its weakness and calls, so to speak, for a parley, and would desire nothing better than to live at peace with you; this once obtained, it would give you no further trouble…It is by preaching, accompanied with prayer, that you will introduce the light into men’s minds”. The good example of their regular lives will be another weapon. He then as an addendum takes up a particular point of pastoral practice and insists on the importance of hearing confessions, especially those of women, in proper confessionals on pain of incurring an interdict and concludes with his paternal blessing.
Loughborough: 22and 23 July to 24 July
He now journeyed down to Loughborough by train to stay with Ambrose March Philipps and his wife Laura, as had been arranged, whether in Loughborough or in Grace Dieu is not clear. The Oblates had withdrawn from the mission at Grace Dieu two years previously.
Back to London and departure: 24 July to 27 July
He left Loughborough for London on 24 July and had two days in the city. Again there was no meeting with Wiseman. Again he saw Newman and the Oratorians; probably he went to their house again to say Mass. He learnt that the Marists were going to be put in charge of the French Church in London. On the 27 July he left for Dover where he embarked for Calais, a few days ahead of his original schedule.
Eugene was 68 years old when he made this arduous journey – no mean feat. He has rallied his men and made a striking impression of gracious nobility on the various dignities he has met. It is clear from the tone of his Act of Visitation that it had been a great consolation to him as a missionary and founder. Eugene’s own human qualities shine out. When he states his reason for his visit in his Act of Visitation he puts the personal element before the administrative one. “I came”, he said to the Fathers and Brothers of the Congregation in England, some of whom he knew already, others whom he was meeting for the first time, “for the purpose of visiting you, in spite of my great age”. He is astonished at the immensity and turmoil of London. He loves the beauty of the countryside and of the church architecture he sees, and is enthralled with the railway as a comfortable and swift means of transport. He never once refers in his letters to a ‘language problem’, although he has no English. He is agreeably surprised at the welcome he gets in a Protestant country – and even by the English weather. He refuses to allow any difficulties to dampen the consolation he is receiving.
However, he looks deeper. He puts his men on guard against a tactic of the Devil and in words of his own repeats Wiseman’s observation that the time had come for the Catholics of England to come out of the catacombs and live their faith fully in the open without compromise. The application of this in the present instance was for the Oblates to observe the demands of their Rule on fasting in particular without compromise! He has also signalled to them the importance of the preaching ministry. This call heralds what will be a truly heroic response on the part of a new preaching band. We can infer from these remarks what must have been the topics of many of his conversations with his men. They must surely also have talked about the importance of moving into urban ministry. This was very much on Eugene’s mind before going on the journey and remained so afterwards. He wrote to Casimir Aubert on 19 November 1850: “We must envisage establishing ourselves in the big cities and not in isolated country places.”
It is noticeable that he does not speak in his Act of Visitation about the work being done at Manchester where Fr. Daly’s is now working and he is ominously silent about Ashbourne. Whatever steps he took to deal with this matter remain off the record. The problem was not resolved on this visit. In a letter dated 29 October 1856 written to Fr. Pinet, Eugene declares: “Our Fathers of England are full of virtue and talent but they are absolutely incapable of managing their business affairs.” Doubtless this judgement rests in part on the impressions he received on his visit of 1850.
To conclude, while there are important people he has not seen and, worried about affairs at home, he has shortened the length of his visit, it has been an important visit for the province. When the decision was made in the General Chapter held in August 1850 to create new provinces in the Congregation, the British Province was among them and it was constituted as such by the Superior General in council in April 1851.
Michael Hughes, O.M.I.