Dom Bernard Green

© Ampleforth Journal 79:2 (1984) 134-38

Eating in the monastic refectory, especially if my seat faces the wall, I am reminded of the history of modern Ampleforth by the surrounding pictures of priors, abbots and a few distinguished monks of the last two hundred years. Community memories are founded upon those paintings. But there is one portrait missing, one man whose name has slipped from the memory of most of the brethren, but who was the founder of Ampleforth and its first and greatest benefactor, but also the least remembered, President John Bede Brewer. John Brewer was born at Ribbleton in Lancashire in 1742, into a prosperous and pious family. He had several Jesuit cousins, and became a Benedictine himself with the name Bede at the age of fifteen at Dieulouard in Lorraine, joining a community then almost exclusively Lancastrian. He took his solemn vows at the age of sixteen, and soon after was sent to St Edmund's in Paris to study philosophy at the Sorbonne; clearly his intelligence was marked, for he followed the entire theology course there for six years, finally returning to teach theology to the juniors in his own monastery. But four years later, he was back in Paris, now as confessor to the English Benedictine nuns there, studying for a doctorate in the Sorbonne. The 1760's and 1770's in Paris were the age of the enlightenment, and theological enquiry seemed pre-occupied with the relationship of reason and revelation, with natural theology, with the historical and linguistic study of the scriptures. Brewer was a noted hebraist, and his doctorate was on the relation of revelation to natural religion. In 1774, he took the doctorate of divinity, being placed head of the list. He had won a resounding triumph, and earned his credentials as one of the most talented men in the Congregation.

Of course, his future was not to lie in his remote, poor community in Lorraine, teaching a few juniors. The main work of the monks at Dieulouard was brewing beer, and despite his name his aptitude seemed to be for other things. Instead, he followed the usual course of most young priests in the Congregation, returning to England to work on the mission. He had already been made secretary to the President and later secretary to the General Chapter, posts that gave him a seat on the body that ruled the English Benedictine Congregation in quadriennial meetings. That he was destined for an influential future was shown when he was posted to the mission at Bath, one of the few urban missions that the Benedictines served in England and the fashionable spa where the Catholic gentry and nobility spent a large part of each year. The chapel included a lodging house frequented by the Catholic upper classes and the residence of the vicar apostolic of the Western District, at that time the brilliant mathematician and also a doctor of the Sorbonne, Bishop Charles Walmesley. He succeeded Fr Placid Naylor, a parsimonious man who had allowed the chapel and the house furnishings to become tawdry, and who had ended by having a row with the Provincial, Bernard Warmoll, the priest in charge of all the Benedictine parishes in the south.

At once, Brewer embarked on an ambitious scheme to build a new chapel. A subscription list was drawn up, including the names of most of the Catholic aristocracy. But even before the chapel was opened, Brewer found that a debt of 800 he had incurred had earned him WarmoH's hostility, and he was ordered to give up the mission. This embarrassment was turned into a disaster when, two days before the official opening of the chapel, a riot broke out, part of the Gordon Riots that had begun in London, and a mob destroyed the new chapel, chasing Brewer across the town; he dodged through an inn and across the river to safety. He recouped his financial losses, being awarded damages of more than four and a half thousand pounds by the Bath Hundred for their failure to protect the chapel, but had to retreat to the north and to relative obscurity.

He became the missioner at Woolton near Liverpool, a place that was to be his home for the next forty years. He was not then a popular man, being regarded as too clever and too ambitious by his fellow priests, but he stuck fast to the quiet work of looking after his people, refusing the Priorship of Dieulouard when he was offered it in 1785. In the year that the French Revolution broke out, he opened a small school in his parish. In 1793, war broke out between England and France, and monks from St Gregory's, Douay, and St Lawrence's at Dieulouard escaped to England and began the search for a home. The nuns at first could not escape, but when they at last crossed the channel in 1795, he met the Paris nuns whose confessor he had once been as they landed and gave them such protection and help as he could, and found a home for the Cambray nuns at Woolton, putting them in charge of the school he had founded. He was involved in negotiations to try to establish his own community in the mission at Brindle that had been an independent parish for more than a hundred years, but these plans failed through the intransigence of the parish priest, who was a Gregorian, and the loyalty of his people. The weakness of President Gregory Cowley, although he was a Lawrentian, seemed to imperil the future of the Dieulouard monks. For a time they shared a home at Acton Burnell with St Gregory's, an unsuccessful experiment that neither community ever forgot, and as they shifted from one temporary residence to another, their numbers dwindled. Cowley's plans vacillated between establishing them abroad, perhaps in Portugal, or trying Brindle once more, or even allowing them to die away.

At this point, Cowley died. He was succeeded automatically by the President's second elect, the man chosen by the General Chapter as his possible successor at their last meeting, who was Prior Jerome Sharrock of St Gregory's. Sharrock knew that his community, despite having a residence at Acton Burnell, desperately needed his leadership, and declined the appointment. By the constitutions, the presidency now passed to the First Definitor, the President's assistant and the senior member of a triumvirate court of appeal against his decisions. The First Definitor was Bede Brewer. At last, by an unparalleled turn of events, he had been called from the wilderness to lead the English Benedictines at a time of crisis. And he did an uncharacteristic thing: he hesitated. For three days, he retired and gave himself to prayer to consider the office he was called to, then on the third day he emerged to announce that it was indeed the will of God that he should accept and rule as President of the English Benedictines, and that he would rule with vigour and decision. The mission fathers remained unimpressed.

Brewer's resolution was at once put to the test. He intervened in a dispute between Provincial Warmoll, his old adversary, and a friend from his days in Paris who had gained a reputation as a radical, Fr Cuthbert Wilks. He censured Warmoll severely, and then rebutted the appeal against his decision to the Definitors by pointing out that Wilks was one of the three, and was unable to judge his own case, and that in these unusual circumstances, the next man to act as definitor was the senior cathedral prior, then a prisoner of the French, and that therefore the appeal would have to wait until the end of the war. From the fury of the senior men in the Congregation, Brewer knew that at the next General Chapter he would certainly lose the presidency unless he could quickly gain popularity by some decisive action. He did this in two ways. First, he intervened in Germany. Lamspring was the largest and richest of the four English Benedictine monasteries established on the Continent in the seventeenth century, and when the revolution threatened to sweep away the three in France, it also seemed the most secure. The Abbot, Maurus Heatley, took this opportunity to assert Lamspring's autonomy. It was the only house with abbots, and tended to be a little aloof. Brewer travelled to Lamspring twice, crossed swords with the abbot, freed a monk he had had flogged and imprisoned for thirteen years, and at length suspended the abbot and put the community under the jurisdiction of a more amenable superior. He returned to England in 1802 the hero of the English Congregation.

At the same time, he had searched for a home for St Lawrence's, and found one in the North Riding, at Ampleforth, where Fr Anselm Bolton, formerly chaplain at Gilling Castle, had lived for nine years after the death of the last Catholic Fairfax of Gilling. Bolton was a Lawrentian, and agreed to move away to allow St Lawrence's to move into his small house. Brewer made all the negotiations with an energy entirely lacking in the rule of his predecessor, visiting Ampleforth himself and recording his delight at the beautiful valley. In December, 1802, the two priests who now constituted the resident community of St Lawrence's moved in. Brewer's patronage did not stop there. The Prussian government took possession of Lamspring shortly after his last visit, confiscated the property and forbade future professions of novices. The last novice, Br Clement Rishton, took his vows secretly for Ampleforth and then led the boys from the Lamspring School back to England, landing at Hull, and then by coach to Ampleforth, where they formed the first generation of boys in the school, and where the top three boys were clothed as novices: two of them were later well known, Br Alban Molyneux, as President of the English Benedictines, and Br Augustine Baines, as a bishop and almost the destroyer of what Brewer created.

The early years of the community were uneasy. The first prior, Anselm Appleton, was not a success and was replaced in 1806 by the reluctant Richard Marsh, who had been prior during the tumultuous years 17891802. Marsh got a dispensation to act as both Provincial of the north and Prior of Ampleforth, and lived at Aberford, travelling over regularly. He built the west wing and professed six choir monks, but surrendered the office with relief in 1810. That year the fourth novice clothed at Ampleforth, Gregory Robinson, a former naval surgeon, was appointed prior. With Augustine Baines as first Prefect (Headmaster of the school) he built the east wing and introduced the revolutionary system of education known as von Feinaigle's method, which dispensed with most of the traditional methods of learning by rote and broadened the syllabus to include modern languages, history and science. Corporal punishment was abolished. Brewer was a warm advocate of these methods, and tried to foist them on St Gregory's at Acton Burnell. He gave considerable sums to the new college, and in 1810 gave 1000 for the building of a refectory with dormitory and rooms above. He was a frequent visitor of the community, imposing a strict monastic observance, with a rise at 4 am in summer and 5 in winter, with silence at meals and reading, with the recitation of a meditation after vespers and compline three times a week by the choir monks in turn, and Vi hour or Vi hour of public devotional reading each evening at 8pm. He insisted upon private spiritual reading, on the wearing of a habit that included a biretta, scapular and tunic, and on the need for the express permission of the President to spend more than one night away. He set this strict regime because it was a very young community, and the superiors did not carry the weight or experience even of monastic observance that they needed. Robinson was a good man, but in 1815, Baines called upon the President to make a visitation and replace him. In five years he had professed three choir monks and seen considerable building, but was not highly regarded by a group that clustered around Baines. He was replaced by Clement Rishton, the last novice of Lamspring, who had gone to found the mission at Workington in 1810. His three years as prior saw the further growth of the school (the appearance of the first school magazines with their accounts of the debating society and historical lectures) but they came to an unfortunate end in 1818 when he went off on his summer holiday and never came back. He ran away with a governess from Bath with whom he had maintained a clandestine correspondence for a few years. He later repented and returned to duty. Rishton's failure provoked a crisis, and Brewer decided at last to take up residence himself at Ampleforth to provide something of the stability that the young community needed. Fr Lawrence Burgess was appointed prior, but he fell under the shadow of the old president, known to everyone as the Doctor.

Brewer was now 76, and set at once a standard of observance long remembered by the young men who lived there at the time. He made a meditation before Matins daily, was punctilious in his attendance of the Office, and saying the conventual Mass each day. His spirituality, for all the sophistication of his early theological training, was simple, grounded in the saints' lives, the Imitation, the rosary, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the simplest books of devotional sermons some of which, with his name inside, are still in the Ampleforth library, and confession every Sunday morning. He had mellowed as the years passed. He was regarded in his early days as a man of excessive severity. Now, he relaxed and seemed to be the centre of conversation in the calefactory with the young men at recreation each day. On Maundy Thursday, he kissed the feet of his brethren, and on the death of his sister, he knelt in the Chapter House and asked their prayers.

But his four years at Ampleforth were soured with quarrels. The new prior did not welcome his austerity of observance, and resented his influence among some of the young. Perhaps above all, he felt that Brewer overshadowed him, and was annoyed when the President failed to consult him about making regulations within the house. When Brewer had a stroke in 1821, ironically in the middle of a sermon on the evils of the tongue, he was nursed devotedly by a few of the younger men, but Burgess could scarcely conceal his rancour. In 1822, Brewer at last decided to withdraw to Woolton once more, and shortly after, on April 18th, he died. The only comment on his death that Burgess passed in his correspondence was his delight that Brewer had left his fortune to Ampleforth.

Bede Brewer clearly wanted to create a school and monastery at Ampleforth even at great personal cost. He established his community there, and saved them from extinction. He endowed them richly with his private fortune. He encouraged the development of the school, the introduction of new educational methods, and its rapid expansion. His correspondence was full of concern, news, advice and requests about what was clearly his dearest achievement. Above all, he set a standard of monastic observance and the quest for real holiness at Ampleforth that long survived his memory. Perhaps he was never remembered because of the ingratitude of Lawrence Burgess, perhaps simply because no portrait of him survived. But as the monks eat in the refectory and glance at the paintings of their forebears and their founders, perhaps they should reflect that one is missing, the man who built the very room in which they are sitting.