EN 1This beautiful tribute was published by the editor of the Melbourne newspaper The Argus on 17th March, 1877, the day following the death of John Bede Polding O.S.B., Australia’s first bishop. Even allowing for the elevated tone of nineteenth century prose, they are striking. They were the words of a modern and enlightened newspaper man - neither a Catholic, nor particularly religious - but who nevertheless believed that Archbishop Polding was a remarkable Australian leader who epitomised all that was Christian, charitable and noble in his long life. We have chosen this quotation to begin this series of biographical notes, because it captures the deep respect and affection in which the Archbishop was held, even at a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was not much loved by the Australian press. A sectarian age it was, which could be very bitter indeed, yet admiration for the man John Bede Polding somehow rose above the pervasive mistrust of Catholicism in Australian society of that time. In the 21st century, when we are again in an era where the Catholic Church is held in low opinion, perhaps it is timely to recall the heroic life and work of Archbishop John Bede Polding.
|A terrace of stone houses|
in the old village of Much Woolton,
now a suburb of Liverpool.
|A modern icon of Saint Benedict|
in the Byzantine style.
|A mediaeval illustration of a schola of Benedictine |
monks singing the Gregorian chant.
|An artist's impression of the confiscation of church property|
during the Dissolution of the English Houses of Religious.
|Acton Burnet Hall, the residence of the Catholic Smythe family.|
The Hall was reconstructed after the Benedictine Community left
there in 1814. On the right can be glimpsed the chapel associated
with the estate.
A room 16 feet square was fitted up for the celebration of Divine worship, it was at that time wainscotted in oak up to the ceiling. The altar stood between the other two windows facing eastwards towards the village of Stratton, and on the wall above hung a picture of the Resurrection. On the altar itself were placed two plated branch candlesticks, and a pair of small silver ones. On Sundays, when the neighbouring Catholics came for "prayers" (as the directories of those days cautiously indicated the celebration of Holy Mass) and venturesome Protestants, overcoming their fears by their curiosity, stole in to see what it was all about, they were accommodated in the room itself, while the community and the boys overflowed into the passage. A priest clad in an unadorned vestment before a make-shift altar, at his heels a thurifer and two acolythes in the only three cassocks, men [monks] standing along the sides of the room in double-breasted cutaway coats and profuse neckcloths, boys in various attire on benches in the middle, and at the back the orchestra, the piano — a piano of 1814, remember —and two grave signores working away at the 'cellos. To us it is bizarre, but it has its pathos ; it was a part of the beginnings. EN 13
…Highly to be esteemed was such a teacher, for his was not merely the accurate knowledge and scholastic ability of a good professor, but the wise and generous spirit of sympathising and appreciative perception, which knew how to improve every opportunity in the lesson of educating the feelings as well as the mind. […} But it was not only in the time of class that he used to speak to boys of high and improving subjects. Of course, I do not refer to his religious intructions on the catechism, or on some special festival; I allude to unexpected moments when perhaps he found some pupil reading by himself in recreation time, and when he used to encourage so often any indication of an earnest love of knowledge and of its highest end.” On one such occasion, the writer well remembers what impressive feeling Father Polding spoke to him of Mary Queen of Scots, telling him she was a saint and a martyr. His very tone of voice at such moments bespoke the truthful heart of the speaker. He was often in tears when he preached from the altar. [….} As infirmarian … none ever surpassed Father Polding; and it was, perhaps, peculiarly an office in accord with his natural humanity and benevolence. [ … ] Among his many engaging characteristics, he was an ardent patriot, and though a thorough Lancashire man, he always indentified himself with Irish boys in their interest for their county and her wrongs, and presided himself, as well as I recollect, at the festive supper on St. Patrick’s Day, at which none but the Irish members of St. Gregory’s were present. EN 14
|This old photograph shews the "old" chapel at Downside Monastery|
and buildings constructed together with it between 1820 and 1823.
The four-storey building on the right became Saint Gregory's Monastery in 1814.
Image : Downside Abbey website.
Our master was a man of warm and tender heart with true religious instincts, who formed our souls to detachment and the spirit of the Rule with unction and with genuine solicitude. We were devotedly attached to him and affectionately united with each other. EN 15
An even more profound and touching insight into the capacities of Father Polding in the formation of young scholars and monks is found in this Address, which was presented to him by four novices from Downside in 1874. It is a long address, which not only gives us important detail about his approach to formation - both spiritually and intellectually - but the positive and long-lasting effects this had on his students.
To the father who trained us in the rule of St Benedict, come four of his old disciples in this Memorial of their gratitude. United once more before God's altar on this festival of St Gregory, we commemorate our 50th year in the religious habit, and celebrate our jubilee. ... Besides the vivid image of our old master that is imprinted on our minds, and the affectionate remembrance of his spirit as is it dwells in our consciousness, we could have wished that in person who might have recited over our spiritual festival, and that we might again have heard the accents of that voice, which first awakened in us the knowledge and love of the religious life.
... Our minds are busy on this auspicious day in reviving long past memories in which your Grace is the principal figure; memories that unite the beginning with the end of our religious life; memories that speak the influence of your Grace's spirit upon ours.We were among those that first entered the new College of St Gregory's, when it replaced the old mansion, a College that has since given place to one yet newer and more spacious; and, whilst students there, you were our vigilant prefect and well-trusted spiritual guide. Thanks to your paternal supervision, those were happy days of our expanding youth. And well do we recall that period of transition, beginning with the year 1824, when as postulants, though still students in the College, we were summoned early each morning to Matins and meditation. Nor can we forget the awe not unmixed with sweetness which the choral office, then new to us, inspired our opening minds.
|A photograph of the Gothic interior of the "old" chapel|
at Downside Monastery, completed in 1823.
When this photograph was taken, it had begun to be used as the
Vividly do we remember that Sunday in March, it was after Vespers, when our Prefect leaving the college with us to become our Novice-Master in the monastery, conducted us first of all to the sacristy, and there touched our hearts with his first discourse on the regular life we were entering upon. Amongst other things, he told us that the novice should be as docile and ductile in the hands of the master as wax in the plastic hands of the artist. That all depended upon these susceptive and responsive qualities of the soul, ready in its obedience to be remodelled by the mind of the master into those habits of holiness that Saint Benedict had drawn in his Rule from the Gospels. Pride, we were taught is the one resisting element that lurks in our human nature, and that incapacitates us for receiving pure light and greater grace from God. Pride was, therefore, the one adverse element to be extracted out of us, and that by our own untiring effort, in the course of time, and with our Master's help; ever remembering that God is the strong helper of good will. Such was the key-note struck on the day we entered the novitiate.It would be long to tell of the vigorous vitality of that novitiate, and of the work it accomplished in your disciples. Nor does it befit us to do more than a glance at that work, even though it was more yours than ours; still we hope that a few general recollections will re-awaken others more specific to your mind, that will not be ungrateful. Led into the narrower path by an affectionate heart, yet rudely tried on right occasions, we practically learned to comprehend how silence strengthens the understanding, and how obedience invigorates the will. For a stronger will brought ours into action, until we learnt to respond to each call of duty with promptitude, and to abide in peace when duty gave no sign ...Into the daily study of the Holy Rule you put light, after which we committed it to memory. The daily morning Chapter was the application of its keener discipline, and the school of self-knowledge and correction. In the instructions on the art of meditating divine things, we first learnt the right use of the mental faculties and the internal senses. And, hardest hardest task of all - however beneficial - was the injunction sometimes given to write out the meditation made with all its incidents, the task easier to do, nevertheless. than to present for inspection when it was done. And that daily study of the Psalms of David, those wonderful interpretations of the human heart under all its conditions, that lit up the Divine Office of the Church to our intelligence. And those ascetical principles imbibed under your direction from the great rudimentary masters. And to these we may add the recollection, how happily study alternated with prayer and the Choral Office, study giving light to prayer and prayer giving life to study, so that nothing was long, or dry, or strained, or tedious, but everywhere prevailed what the Rule calls the fervor novitiorum. And the hours of relaxation were happily interchanged with manual labour, after the old Benedictine spirit, at one time in the grounds, at another in the fields, contributing as much to the practical sense as to the health of mind the body.We recall likewise to memory those never-to-be-forgotten conferences in the evening hours of recreation, where you were the speaker and we the listeners and questioners. Sometimes they expanded our knowledge; sometimes they raised our sense to higher things; often they sprang out of some anecdote or some incident of the day: always they refreshed us. Not infrequently with those conversations directed to inspire us with the missionary spirit and the love of souls and to instruct us in the self-denial and self-sacrifice that the serving of souls demands. It was in those conferences at the thirst of your own heart became known to us - that thirst to see that then collected missions of Wales [UK] and of Australia worked by self-denying men in the apostolic spirit.
|Downside Monastery and part of its grounds in the 1830s.|
The students and monks illustrated are shewn wearing the Downside cap and gown,
a form of over-dress used before the re-introduction of the Benedictine habit.
Image : Downside Abbey website.
...You pictured such missioners to us as trudging from place to place like Saint Paul, and carrying in a pack on the back whatever was needful for the Sacrifice [of the Mass] and the Sacraments. It was our privilege that the latent fire of that missionary zeal was first brought forth for our intruction, whilst now the whole Church throughout the world beholds the fruits of it.Nor did our relations with our spiritual father come to an end with our novitiate. As the Master of our juniorate you continued our spiritual formation, conducting us at the same time through the elements of mathematical and physical science. After this course was concluded, you taught us the parts of speaking and thinking; and after an ample course of Rhetoric and Logic, introduced us to the more profound difficult science of metaphysical thought and speculation. Of that abstruse science, the one who holds the pen in this address may venture to say that, having pursued it in most directions, more or less, from that time to this, he does not think that in the course of a single year he could have received a better preparation. Of all the mental discipline received from our Master up to our entering the school of theology, that of habitually fortifying the memory was one of the most solid. And perhaps the most valuable training he gave us, as bearing on our ecclesiastical duties, was the long continue study of Saint Paul’s Epistles, and the diligent committing them to memory. And to this we may add the similar treatment of our Blessed Lord's discourses.Yet after all else is said, the best of our teaching was the spiritual unction that flowed in happy moments from your heart to ours. And that inculcation ... that we should cherish the divine operation within us; and again that the True Master is within the soul, and there holds the chair of His teaching. But then how accurately did the outward Master interpret to us the light of the inward Master until in some degree we learnt to comprehend that inward language ourselves ...In reviving these memories of the long past time, we add new gratitude to the old. And how many incidents intertwine themselves with these memories that are not written here! ... We give our poor thanks to your Grace, God's chosen instrument for so many of our blessings. EN 16
|Father John Augustine Birdsall OSB|
President of the English Benedictine Congregation
1826 - 1837
and a mentor of John Bede Polding.
|Father William Bernard Ullathorne OSB|
in a portrait of later life when he
was the Bishop of Birmingham UK.