Padre Domenico Comes to England, by J. Brodrick, S.J.

Once upon a time in old Latium, on the lovely slopes of Palanzana under the Cimini Hills, there lived a little orphan boy whose head was full of dreams. . . . Maybe, that is how the story ought to begin, for it is altogether like a fairystory, startling, unaccountable, and beautiful. No pigeon-hole ever devised will hold this hero. He would seem to have walked into Victorian England straight out of the Fioretti where Soldans of Babylon are converted and Big Bad Wolves conclude treaties with Saint Francis. From the hat on his head, reputed “the meanest and most wretched hat that could be seen in England,” to the shoes on his feet, “which might have done service in the Ark of Noah,” he was like nobody else in the world, unique, absurd, impossible, glorious, Don Quixote turned missioner, Ramon Lull in the Potteries. But he also truly belonged to the company of Aquinas and San Carlo, had written complete courses of philosophy and theology, composed poetry, governed with wisdom an entire province of a religious order. Perhaps the secret of him is that his soul was the quintessence of Italy.

Italy and England were never meant by nature to guarrel, and the evil, sterile dream of a belated condottiere, with the undigested history of the Roman Empire heavy on his weak stomach, ought not to make us forget the fair and fruitful dream of Saint Gregory, the authentic Roman, which was realized and defeated, and lived on to lodge in the great heart of Saint Paul of the Cross. England, we know, which he never saw, was Saint Paul’s perpetual obsession. In fifty years, he said, he had never been able to pray without the thought of England at once intruding. During the last Mass of his long life he fell into an ecstasy, and afterwards exclaimed, his face transfigured with joy: “Oh, what have I seen? My children in England! My religious in England!” Sixty-five years later, on a day when the effigy of the Pope was being merrily burnt in every English village, the first of his children came.

For twenty-five years and more Padre Domenico had been consciously, eagerly moving towards that day. By the age of eight he had lost both father and mother. He was never sent to any school. On his uncle’s little farm near Viterbo where he minded the few sheep and afterwards followed the plough, his dearest ambition was to learn to read, but for long he could find nobody to teach him. To write legibly he never succeeded in learning. At eighteen, the grim shadow of Napoleon fell upon his life, but he drew a high number in the conscripts’ ballot and so escaped marching with the Grande Armee to Moscow. About this time, he felt drawn mysteriously to the nearer service of God, and wondered whether some religious order might not be bold and kind enough to accept him as a lay-brother. But the orders were all suppressed, and, besides, God seemed in ways he could not understand to be beckoning him towards the priesthood, towards labours in some strange, undefined harvest-field. Ah, but there was only one kind of harvest-field for which he had then the slightest competence! Well, he would do his best not to be wanting to Providence, and so, late into the night, after returning from the fields, he began to wrestle with an old Latin Bible and a dictionary. In 1814, at twenty-two, the Passionists, newly reconstituted, accepted him as a lay-brother novice, a very gawky, ungainly novice, but eager as a spaniel. It was then that in prayer, the only science he knew, he identified his strange land as England. One day, the novicemaster who had noticed in him an odd ability, bade him try his hand at translating the first Psalm from Latin into Italian. All the Latin he knew had come out of that old dictionary, a perfectly grammarless Latin, yet within fifteen minutes he produced a version which astonished the good Fathers of the house by its correctness. That effort of scholarship acquired in an attic by the light of a candle, though written in a pathetic childish scrawl, won him his priesthood. Next, we meet this astonishing ploughboy teaching the Passionist students metaphysics, and himself learning wonderfully well ancient and modern Greek, French, and many other things. At this time, when De Lamennais was still the idol of the whole Catholic world, he assumed the role of Dominicus contra mundum, and composed a brilliant destructive criticism of the great man’s theories. In 1829, he was called to Rome as professor of theology at the mother-house of the Passionists on Monte Caelio, the very spot from which, more than twelve centuries earlier, Saint Augustine and his monks had set out to convert the English. His first letter from Rome to a fellowreligious in Lucca begins with the words: “Does your Reverence ever remember England?” Himself, dear enthusiast, could hardly remember anything else. Even more than with his Father, Saint Paul, was England the bride of his soul by day, the dream of his heart by night. He thrilled at the sight of the English converts who came to Rome, made friends with them, and plotted with them how he himself might get to England. After two years as professor, years of hectic study of Protestantism, he was appointed rector of a new Passionist foundation near Lucca. From there, swamped to his eyes in pioneering difficulties, he wrote to his friend Ambrose Lisle Phillips in July, 1831: “I should like to hear frequently about your health, and about the progress of our holy religion in that island which is never absent from my poor heart. Ah, who will give me the wings of a dove to fly thither? I go on hoping . . . 0 dear England! 0 beloved nation! When shall I behold thee restored to the loving bosom of our holy mother the Church?”

It is surely an extraordinary thing, deserving, especially now, to be remembered with gratitude, that one poor Italian priest who had never seen England was unable to speak of her except, as his biographer truly says, in the broken accents of a lover. To a charming, unconvertible parson named Ford with whom he had made friends, he wrote in 1832: “Our friend, Mr. George Spencer, is to depart for England, whither he will bear with him the half of my heart . . . Ah, my God, would that I might go myself where my letters go!” The years passed, and, instead of following his letters, he was twice elected Provincial of Italy and consultor ofhis Order’s General. Twice in 1834 he was brought to the doors of death by cholera, caught while devotedly attending its victims. “At the first attack,” he told Mr. Phillips, “I lost about eight pounds of blood, which I was all the time offering, in union with the most precious Blood of Jesus, for the conversion of England.” When, in 1837, there was question of a foundation at Boulogne, his hopes revived again and he promptly wrote to Phillips: “If I cannot actually come to England, I will get as near it as possible, that I may behold, at least at a distance, that island which for twenty-three years I have carried engraven on my heart.”

Early in 1840, the Passionists were offered the tenancy of an empty castle in Belgium where, so far, they had made no foundations. Again the hopes of Padre Domenico went soaring, for the Château d ‘Ere was near Toumai, on the route to England! But he was prostrate at the time, half-dead with his incredible missionary exertions. And now there happened to him exactly what happened to Saint Francis Xavier, whose letters are so like his own. The man chosen to guide the new expedition fell out and he was given the vacant post. Though he had to be lifted bodily on to the mule that took him on the first stages of his journey, he went off, happy as a king, to a life of such privation as might have daunted a Desert Father. “God who feeds the sparrows will not let us die of hunger,” he wrote from Ere in July, 1840, and again, “We are ready to suffer all things and, if need, to live on a few potatoes and water.” It nearly came to that, for he would not beg and the alms which he received in the first months amounted to forty-seven francs. They had nothing at first but an empty castle, no funds, no furniture, no chalice, no ciborium, no faculties even. With this grand soul poverty was an absolute passion, so he welcomed the privations as evidence of God’s benediction on their undertaking. And indeed it was richly blessed, until it became one of the finest monasteries in the whole Passionist Order.

But another blessing, too, his blessing of all blessings, awaited the humble apostle of the Belgian countryside. His devoted Roman friend, Nicholas Wiseman, had been working in his interest. He had a house to offer now, so would dear Padre Domenico come and inspect it in England? Would he indeed! In a flash he was at his table, half-paralysed with excitement, scrawling the glorious news to the General in Rome. The General bade him go, and a few days later he is on the top of a church in Boulogne staring excitedly across the Channel. “A few moments ago,” he writes to a friend, “I saw for the first time that Island. . . . If I die now, it will be the death of Moses!” That first visit on Guy Fawkes Day, 1840, held many disappointments for him, but disheartened him not at all. He must have looked a bit of a guy himself, to judge by the description of the youth who was detailed to help him with “the terrible English language” at Oscott. “He was not handsome, nor was he tall. He was short and rather stout of body, and his voice was squeaky, but he had an eagle eye, picked up English wonderfully, and could blend sarcasm and irony in the most simple and apparently harmless observation. In secular clothes he was a holy show. His coat was not made in any style known to English tailors; it was neither clerical nor secular; it fitted nowhere; and where it might fit it was wrongly buttoned. He carried a watch when he travelled which might well have served for a town clock amongst the Lilliputians. His waistcoat seemed the cast-off garment of some itinerant hawker, and his pantaloons . . . His gait was shuffling . . . The comical twinkle in his eye when he told a good story, and his grave demeanour when he spoke of Heaven, made him seem a compound of all that was humble and sublime in human nature . . . Altogether, his appearance was so far from elegant that the students called him ‘Paddy Whack’ amongst themselves. He possessed marvellous sway over us all, and could do what he liked with us.”

The visit of the odd-looking Padre to Oscott was due to his friend Wiseman being Rector there, but he could not go to view his proffered home, Aston Hall, Staffordshire, because there was a dog temporarily in that particular manger. He had to be content with Wiseman’s description of it and then return whence he came. His fare from Tournai to Birmingham and back amounted to £7; his personal expenses to exactly threepence, twopence for a pork-pie in London and a penw for bread. Beyond that, he ate nothing on the journey. Back in Ere, he busied himself with huge letters to the General on the condition of England, pointing out with childlike enthusiasm what a magnificent harvest for the Faith awaited the reaping. One day, in April, 1841, he read in the Univers a letter which made the blood sing in his veins. It was from an Oxford student, one of the Tractarians, who appealed for the sympathy and understanding of Catholics.

Immediately, Don Quixote of the Mother of God seized his long suffering pen and dashed off a Latin answer that requires forty octavo pages of English to render it. It begins with words which might serve for their writer’s epitaph: “There is nothing too daring for love to venture.” Love breathes in every line of this marvellous document, love for those hesitant English souls whom the Italian priest, the former shepherd-boy, so passionately longed to lead into the only satisfying pastures. He posted the letter to Father George Spencer to be delivered at the right address, which was found to be that of Mr. John B. Dalgaims, Littlemore, Oxford. Therewith began a great friendship and long correspondence which had the happiest ending. Meantime, waiting with his hand tightly holding the hand of God, Padre Domenico resumed his labours in Belgium, preaching regularly and even giving retreats in French and finding that people understood him, which, he said, was “a miracle of the first order.” Then in August, 1841, came the summons which, with his soul taut as a bowstring, he awaited. He reached England at the beginning of October, this time to stay for ever.

Padre Domenico was a saint, not only, like nearly all saints, in a hurry, but in a fever of divine impatience. He would soon be fifty, and the aches in his poor bones warned him that time was short. So now, in his Promised Land, he yearned with all his soul to sound the trumpet that would bring down the walls of Jericho. But it was a terrible trumpet, that English language, and he could only get from it the queerest tunes. For months at Oscott he sweated and groaned over English grammar and English pronunciation, until it seemed to him that seven dumb devils possessed the tongue. His baffled zeal caused him the intensest suffering, such suffering, he said, as he had not dreamt of in all the years of waiting. He was like a wild bird beating its wings against the bars of’ a cage. But there were good moments, too, as when he first saw Aston Hall, the cradle of the Passionists in England. He fell in love with the place immediately. “I assure you,” he wrote to his Father General, “that it surpasses all my expectations. 1 do not believe that in the whole of England there is a more suitable place for us. The house is in complete solitude . . . Here and there you see a few country houses, just as in Tuscany.”

The Hall, an old Catholic property, had a small mission attached which served a few hundred local farm labourers and villagers. Among these poor people, our crusader, armoured in habit and sandals which the laws forbade, started his campaign to conquer the soul of England. He had but one lieutenant, a sick priest named Padre Amadeo, carefully conveyed out of Italy because he had been born in Kerry and so was reputed among the brethren to be a master of the fearsome English language. But Amadeo ‘s untamable Kerry brogue, mated uneasily for fifteen years to Italian syntax, produced an English offspring even more incomprehensible than the fruit of Domenico ‘s own linguistic exertions. At the start, the sermons of the two men and their unfamiliar garb caused nothing but wonderment and laughter. That stage soon ended, however, and on Good Friday, 1842, Domenico had the satisfaction of receiving his first Protestant into the Church. At once, he grew ambitious, “If only we could succeed in converting some minister here!” he sighed in his next letter to the General. He was then already £200 in debt, and his entire assets consisted of four precious novices, three of them lay-brothers. “This foundation,” he told the General, “was made on the Feast of the Lance and Nails, and there will always be nails. Up to now, they have never been wanting – and long, hard ones, too! At times they have seemed to me more than could be borne.” Minute as was his community, he carried out the austere Passionist rule in its every detail, including the singing of the Divine Office at midnight. In all England then, the four men were the only ones maintaining the Church’s grand liturgical tradition. In fact, strictly speaking, they were the only religious community in England, for Emancipation had not legalized the corporate existence of other religious. Domenico simply took the law into his own hands, and by his very daring made it a dead letter. A profoundly Pauline soul, he knew in Whom he believed and made no reservations in his trust of Divine Providence. Even in his penury, when he had to think twice about writing a letter on account of the postage, he began to plan for the building of a new and spacious church at Aston. He was ever like that, content with nothing for himself, content with nothing but the best for God.

Very soon, his Kerry coadjutor tired of the mission work and turned himself into a hermit. “I am alone, alone,” cried Domenico to the General three months after taking possession of Aston. “Ah, if I had many companions who would live for and seek only the glory of God! . . . Meanwhile, if your Paternity can send me one good, solid man, resolved to sacrifice everything for the Divine glory, it will be an immense help in the work of bringing back these northern countries into the bosom of the Catholic Church. What I have already suffered and what I shall suffer in days to come, is known to God. But all is little where God’s glory is concerned. Surely God, Our Lord, deserves that we should suffer for Him.” That letter, with its calm reference to the northern countries, its burning appeal for more men, its triple mention in a few lines of God’s glory as paramount, is exactly what Saint Francis Xavier might have written. Domenico was the Francis Xavier of England. Always pioneering, he went to reconnoitre the neighbouring town of Stone, and found that Catholics there were more numerous than at Aston, but utterly neglected. Straightway he hired for Sunday use a large room in a tavern called the Crown Inn, at Stone, which is still thriving, and contracted to pay a rent of £12 a year, though at the time he had not so much as twelve pence. He fortified himself with his favourite tag – Deus providebit! At the tavern in Advent, 1842, he said the first Mass that had been offered in Stone since the Reformation, and in his funny, halting English inaugurated courses of controversial lectures and doctrinal instructions. Eight months later he was able to report that his tally of converts had gone up to seventy-five, and that he had numerous others under instruction. He used to walk from Aston to Stone in his heavy habit and sandals, and he liked to think that it was the sight of his bare feet rather than his preaching which effected conversions. Those bare feet frightened timid Catholics, whose eyes, so long used to the tapers of the Catacombs, had not become accustomed to the daylight of emancipation. Their opposition left him undismayed, just as the meagre harvest of his preaching left him undejected. “Oremus and coraggio – let us fear nothing!” he writes to his General. And, indeed, what had a man to fear whose dearest longing was to shed the last drop of his blood for the conversion of England? When his larder was empty and he scarely knew where to turn for the next meal of his men, he still kept his serenity: “I have every hope that God will provide and will not let us die of hunger . . . God knows what He is doing, and I know nothing . . . All the difficulties encountered so far, and all those that await us, do not cause me to lose one single iota of the hope which is mine.”

On Passion Sunday, 1843, the dauntless Passionist attempted his first set mission in England, which initiated all our modern parochial missions? It was at Lane End, Staffordshire, and started very inauspiciously. But on the second evening of the week, when the poor priest was almost in despair, a big burly Irish labourer, not illustrious thereabout for sanctity, clumped into the sacristy and threw himself in tears at his feet. Before he died six years later, Domenico had given, up and down England and in Dublin, a hundred retreats and missions. Between times, he acted as novice-master and professor of philosophy and theology to his own students, built a little church in Stone which cost him £600, and there organized the first public procession of the Blessed Sacrament seen in England since the days of Mary Tudor, opened a new house and mission in Gloucestershire, carried the Château d ‘Ere foundation to prosperity, and started a little community in London which grew into that great power-house of Catholicism, Saint Joseph’s Retreat, Highgate. And all this wonderful work was built, one might say, on the half of a broken hope, but such a tenacious hope! “Good wishes. kind words – et praeterea nihil!” That was how he summed up his resources in July, 1843. In November of the same year he writes to the General: “Of course, there is much to do and much to suffer, but – never mind! All will be well yet.” We can almost see him write that “Never mind!”, a favourite expression, with a little toss of his gallant head. Shortly afterwards, in another letter, he reported: “Insults and mockery of every description are our lot, and conversions are few. Never mind!”

The year 1845 was the Padre’s annus mirabilis. In September, John B. Dalgairns, who loved and venerated him, came to Aston to be received into the Church, the first-fruits of the Oxford Movement. At the beginning of October, Dalgairns invited him to Littlemore. “In view of this invitation,” he tells the General, “I left Aston on the 8th and reached Oxford at ten o’clock that night, soaked with rain . . . where I found Mr. Dalgairns waiting to take me out to Littlemore . . . we reached Littlemore about an hour before midnight, and I took up my position before the fire to dry myself. The door opened – and what a spectacle it was for me to see at my feet John Henry Newman, begging me to hear his confession and admit him into the bosom of the Catholic Church! And there by the fire he began his general confession with extraordinary humility and devotion . . ” That scene – the midnight hour, the rain, and the two absorbed figures by the fire – is etched for ever in the memory of Catholic England.

Strange to say, the conversion of Newman, instead of stimulating, appears to have had a sobering effect on the buoyant hopes of Domenico. Three months later he wrote: “God can do what he wills, but, humanly speaking, I see no prospect of the total conversion of England. There are too many passions, too many prejudices, too much egoism, too much indifference . . . But we must never lose courage.” He was learning, dear optimist, in the hardest of schools. Ten days more, and these revealing lines are wrung from him: “At times lately I have cried out: O God, my Lord, I can no more! If You will increase my cross, give me increase of strength.”

There followed the Irish Famine which cast its sad wreckage even into the backwater of Stone. The poor emigrants, seeking for work and bread in the Potteries, fell in their tracks, stricken down by cholera and dysentery. At once, the Aston Passionists, including the great-hearted George Spencer, who was then a novice, flew to their assistance, until each and every member of the heroic band was himself a victim. Domenico started a begging campaign among his little flock and on January 6, 1847, sent £21 7s. Od. to the relief fund opened by The Tablet.

During his last years, Padre Domenico was never out of pain and had to be swathed in bandages to enable him to go about at all. “I am ill,” he told the General in 1848, “from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.” But he relaxed nothing of his austerities and activities. In July 1849, while on visitation of his Castle in Belgium, he had a presentiment that he had reached the end of his course. After returning to England, he set off cheerfully by the 7.30 morning train from Paddington on Monday, August 27th, to help his struggling community in Gloucestershire. When close to Pangbourne station, he collapsed in the train and was carried to an inn.

But, as had happened on another occasion, there was no room in the inn, and kind people removed him to a cottage and laid him on some straw on the brick floor. An hour later the up train arrived, and he was brought to the Railway Tavern at Reading, now “The Duke of Edinburgh” in Caversham Road. There, at three o’clock in the afternoon, with only one friend near him, death, his greatest friend, came for Padre Domenico.

The Second Spring of Catholicism in England did not begin when Newman was converted nor when the Hierarchy was restored. It began on a bleak October day in 1841 when a little Italian priest in comical attire shuffled happily down a ship ‘s gangway at Folkestone.

– article from The Tablet, 29 November and 6 December 1941