On my way to hear “The Dream of Gerontius” in the Albert Hall I was to lunch with a friend at Victoria. So I paid my last visit to The Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Strutton Ground, Westminster.
I suppose that one of the places most dear to a parish priest’s heart is the first earthly house of God of which he was put in charge, in which he first began to learn to act on his own initiative and responsibility. One evening in 1919 M. E. Atlay, vicar of St. Matthew’s, Westminster, strode into the clergy-house apartment allotted to the junior of his four curates, sat himself in the largest armchair (which belonged to him), lit another Capstan cigarette, said “Next summer there is going to be an Anglo-Catholic Congress.” “Oh,” replied his audience; “what in the world is that?” “I’m not quite sure, yet,” he was answered; “but I am the chairman, and you are the secretary.” But four years later I came to the conclusion that I would rather be a parish-priest. C. P. Hankey had become vicar of the famous church in Great Peter Street, to which I was still licensed despite my machinations and manoeuvres in Hanover Square and Abbey House. I was extremely proud when he invited me to take charge of the mission-church in Strutton Ground; and, a couple of years later, not at all anxious to obey my bishop when he directed me to go to an unknown health-resort named Haggerston.
The chapel was built in about 1890; as, in a sense was I, despite a suggestion to the contrary in the following pages. W. H. H. Jervois was its first priest-in-charge. Others who succeeded him were H. E. Simpson, A. G. Bisdee, J. A. R. Derham-Marshall. It was on the first floor, above a parish-room with a small stage on which, incidentally, was bom that which has become the Haggerston Bethlehem Play. Adjoining, and under the same roof, was the house in which lived the three or more Sisters of All Saints’ Community who worked in the parish. The entrance was by way of a narrow and not particularly inviting covered passage from Strutton Ground (habitat of small shops and street-barrows), up a quite imposing stone staircase. Perhaps it was not a very impressive place of worship, with its white-washed walls and chairs for a hundred or so. It had one altar, on which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved; figure of our Lady; hand-blown passable organ; maybe a picture or two, I forget; nothing else. But it was very dear during its fifty years of life and service to a great many Westminster folk; for me it held a charm and atmosphere all its own, that I do not yet forget; and it was there that I began to experiment, on the luckless boys and girls of Old Pye Street, Perkins’ Rents, and Peabody Buildings, this catechetic if not cataclysmic method of teaching the Christian religion.
The other Sunday services were at 9.30 and 6.30: simple Sung Mass with communion and short address from the altar (there was no pulpit); Compline (printed in full on fair-sized cardboard sheets) followed by sermon, intercessions, adoration, the whole interspersed and interlarded with A. and M. sung good and hearty. Three such services stand out in my memory; a Confirmation by Bishop Gore, nine candidates of whom the youngest was over fifty; a Midnight Mass of Christmas, half a gale blowing and rain lashing at the windows so that the upper room seemed like a ship at sea, the little place filled to overflowing by the poor who knew that they were very near to him who for them was bom poor; that on the night of September 13th, 1925, when I said good-bye to my friends as I had to set out on the morrow to a strange place called St. Augustine’s up a side-street off Hackney Road.
I think of some of those friends; many of them old enough to be my parents, some to be my grandparents, making their confessions to me; plain working-men and working-women of London Town (than whom I have always thought there are no finer in the world) allowing me the privilege of frequently giving them communion; their children, for whom I first drew chalk pictures on a catechism-blackboard on those distant happy Sunday afternoons. The Paul family, of which I am still not quite certain as to how many there are, though I still have and use the walking-stick they and other chapel men gave me at the end of an uproarious week together at Margate. Graves, faithfiil servant of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa for many years, and prince among cooks when I took boys to camp in a fortnight’s rain at Dymchurch. Old Booker who blew the organ, whose grunts all the congregation could not fail to hear when the hymns were loud and long. White-haired “Billy Hooley,” not so simple as he liked many to suppose (his luggage for that Margate week comprised a spare handkerchief and an alternative necktie: after a few days pointed remarks were made during dinner about his collar, not over-clean at the outset: during tea he produced some five shillings in coppers, asked me to buy him a new one: “Alfred,” I enquired, “where did all this come from?”: at length he told me that he had stood for an hour outside Margate Sands Station, his cap on the pavement at his feet; he sang no song, drew no half-fish in coloured chalk on the esplanade, did not beg - but the pence and half-pence of holiday-makers showered into his cap). Fitzgerald of the large frame, large heart, gruff deep voice: on an afternoon in Holy Week three of us priests were hearing confessions in St. Matthew’s: the west door flung open: there was a clash of heavy boots: building and penitents shook with the resounding question, “Where’s Wilson?” The Bursts: “please, father,” a maid once asked me during a clergy-house meal, “can you come downstairs and see the little boy burst?” Gentle Bill Warwick and his niece Emma Boxer, whose little home was always spotless and welcoming, who came to confirmation and first confession at well over seventy, who was my first visitor - with a vast bunch of flowers from “a barrer in the Grarnds, fa’er, with luv from Emma and me” - when I inadvertently took an overdose of Haggerston and retired to a bed in Westminster Hospital. Blessings be on them, wherever they now are, on this side of the veil or on that, for their kindness to and confidence in the young raw priest who, between 1923 and 1925, did what little he could for them and learned more than he taught. It is not difficult to be at least a moderately good priest when you know that the people to whom you minister both expect much from you, and are prepared to give you and do for you anything you ask. Fortunate are they whose first “cure of souls” at all resembles mine; fortunate for the rest of their lives.
But if, as is the case, I owe much to that congregation as a whole, I owe a debt which is unpayable to that member of it who comes first to my mind - as I doubt not to the mind of every one else who had to do with her during those happy years - when I think of the chapel: Sister Isolda, sister-incharge. She was a great lady, the soul of courtesy and kindness; but she was a greater Christian. She was practical, worldly-wise to a degree, gifted with that lively sense of humour essential to all who do effective work among the London poor, obviously bom to command, yet as gentle and polite as are all whose orders are faithfully and willingly obeyed. But what impressed you first and most, what you could not fail to notice every time and under whatever circumstances you met her, was her innate goodness. And her physical courage was superb, though this surprised no one who knew from what stock she was descended. During all the years in which I knew her she was never in good health, frequently in great pain, afflicted by increasing lameness: but I remember one of her Sisters telling me that she was always at her prayers in that upper room by five in the morning, two hours before the day’s Mass; and when I last saw her in a North London home in which she was looking after many who were frail and feeble, although she was obviously ill and in pain I could persuade her to say no word about herself.
St. Matthew’s and its attendant mission-church have always been exemplary in their care for children. I know a city clerk who was prepared in boyhood for the sacraments by Frank Weston (subsequently Bishop of Zanzibar) when he was one of the assistant-priests: the instructions, given once a week to him alone, lasted for over a year. I think of Sister Isolda’s smile as now and then she watched me trying to draw on a blackboard the following Sunday’s catechism-picture; how she insisted, time and time again, that my feeble efforts were not a waste of time and labour, since nothing was too good for the children, no pains too great for the sake of the poor. I think of her sitting with the children during catechism, solemnly and seriously writing out - in order that the children might do so too - my elementary instructions. If there is anything of good in this Haggerston Catechism, it is owing in no small degree to her. I think of her too in that comfortless small room opening on to the noisy and often smelly parish-room; standing at the head of that stone staircase smiling her welcome to all who went up it for Sunday worship; bidding me Godspeed when I set out to where I am now, saying that she would like to accompany me; asking me to hear her confession as she lay in a hospital-bed awaiting yet another operation. It was in her that I first saw my ideal of what a Religious can be. She is one of those - and, being fortunate, they are not few - for whom I thank God without a single reservation. She, like him to whom she vowed and gave all that she had (and she too had great possessions), “went about doing good." I was one of the many lucky ones to whom she did it.
So I paid my last visit to The Chapel of the Good Shepherd, after some Hun had bombed it, before a demolition-squad set to work upon it. The passage-door stood open. I looked at Sister Isolda’s small room, and wished that I had not: made my way through piles of fallen bricks and plaster in the parish-room: climbed the dirty windswept stone staircase: glanced at what remained of the vestry, where after Mass my friends and I used to sit and chat round the fire while I drank tea, in which more than one child and I had strictly private conversations; stood in the chapel doorway. Altar, image, organ, chairs, had been taken away. The upper room, in which for half a century the Good Shepherd had come to his own, where his own had heard and known his voice, was empty, open to the wind and rain, blasted, smashed, indescribably lonely. The chapel was dead.
Out in Old Pye Street an aged woman crossed herself as she shuffled by, looking up at its broken roof. In the Albert Hall a tenor sang:
Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep.
The pain has wearied me .. . Into thy hands,
O Lord; into thy hands . . .