I love Oxford. Whenever I return there I am enchanted by the medieval origins of the university (and the achievements of men like Roger Bacon); the Cavaliers (Charles I’s Civil War HQ was at Christ Church College); the Jacobites; the Oxford Movement; the Inklings (and their friend Dorothy Sayers); Inspector Morse and a host of other associations.
I leapt at the chance recently to give a couple of lectures on Tolkien. But the guest house in which I was quartered lay near the Anglican church of St John the Evangelist and the attached St Stephen’s House. Until 1980, this Anglo-Catholic ensemble was the centre of what was once a minor world-wide ecclesiastical empire: the Society of St John the Evangelist, better known as the Cowley Fathers.
The first religious order for men ever to be founded in the Church of England, the Cowley Fathers were the brainchild of the Rev Richard Meaux Benson (1824-1915), a London native and Christ Church alumnus who came up to Oxford, was caught up in the nascent Anglo-Catholic movement there, and was ordained in 1850.
Appointed vicar of St James, Cowley, he began giving clergy retreats in 1858, and then founded the church of St John the Evangelist on the far side of his parish, at what were then the outskirts of Oxford. He felt called to mission work in India, but his bishop convinced him to stay at his post. Benson was joined by two other clerics in 1865, and over the next few years they developed what would become the rules of the Cowley Fathers. These included the Daily Office in common, regular confession and parish work. In many ways Benson and his first comrades were inspired by the Franciscans. In 1868, the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) was officially founded.
Two years later, it expanded to the United States, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two of the order’s American devotees were Isabella Stewart Gardner, the noted millionairess, and Ralph Adams Cram, the architect and social commentator. By 1924, through the munificence of Gardner and the expertise of Cram, the SSJE at Cambridge had the beautiful monastery they still possess, and the parish church of St. John the Evangelist on Beacon Hill. Gardner’s palatial home, Fenway Court, boasted a beautiful chapel served by the Cowley Fathers. Even now, when the home has been transformed into the museum that bears her name, a Cowley Father offers an annual Mass there for the repose of her soul, in accordance with Gardner’s will.
But Cowley’s expansion was not restricted to these United States. The missionary college at the Oxford establishment was turning out priests for the fields afar, and the British imperial high noon allowed the Cowley Fathers to follow the Union Jack – as did the Mirfield Fathers and innumerable Catholic religious orders.
In 1874, Fr Benson’s dream was realised when a small team of Cowley Fathers was sent to Bombay. In years to come they would run churches, schools and hospitals there and in Poona in the south. A decade later, they were summoned to Cape Town, eventually running missions there and at Tsolo in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
The American branch established houses in Japan before World War I, and then sent a mission to Bracebridge, Ontario, in 1928. The monastery there would offer services to the surrounding Anglican parishes of the Muskoka region. It was truly the order’s – and Anglo-Catholicism’s – high noon. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in those countries were introduced to an approximation of the Faith, and their very effective spiritual, educational, and medical work is large chunk of the Anglican patrimony in the affected areas.
But after World War II, things began to change. Vocations dropped, and in the 1960s the English branch withdrew its brothers from India and South Africa. The 1970s saw the American section withdraw from Japan, and in 1983 they gave up the Canadian mission. At length, their numbers having dwindled so far, the motherhouse in Oxford was sold to St Stephen’s, and they withdrew entirely to their London house. This was sold in 2012. The three last members are solitaries and their assets are in the hands of a trust, while the Cambridge house survives as the last one of the order.
Two orders of Sisters frequently collaborated with the Cowley Fathers in different works throughout their far-flung realm: the Community of Mary the Virgin and the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. With the foundation of the ordinariates, 11 members of the former (including the mother superior) joined the Catholic Church, as did most of the American branch of the latter. In that way, a bit of Fr Benson’s heritage has come into the Catholic Church.
Apart from this, the ultimately sad tale of Cowley is another proof of the often cited description of Oxford as the “home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs and unpopular names and impossible loyalties”. Still, these are among the qualities that make the place so enchanting.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna