Former Downside students have expressed their sadness after it was announced that the monks are to leave their historic abbey.
The recently elected abbot Nicholas Wetz said it was an “incredibly difficult decision” but the monks decided the buildings were too big for a community that has shrunk to just eight resident monks.
Their decision was greeted with dismay given the community’s historic role in the reintroduction of Catholicism to England. They were founded at Douai in the Spanish Netherlands in 1606, before moving to their current premises in 1814 and founding Downside School.
However, their management of abuse allegations at the school was criticised in scathing report in 2018, leading to the total separation of the school and abbey last year.
Former students at the school, commonly referred to as ‘Old Gregorians,’ told the Catholic Herald they were sad to see the monks go.
Thomas Faure Romanelli, a member of the Knights of Columbus and former investment banker, said the news was a “serious shock”.
“My time there was only useful because of the monastery and the influence of the monastic community prayer and contemplation. Former headmasters Father Philip Jebb and Father Antony Sutch, Father Ambrose, Father James, Father Martin and others were all exceptional influences in my life. What they taught me has kept me on the right track through thick and thin. God bless them, it wasn’t an easy job.”
Canon Peter Newby, former Catholic chaplain to Oxford University, said the monks showed him the intellectual side of the Faith.
“When I was at Downside, I thought the place was immortal,” he said. “The monks were still teaching and there were still monk housemasters. It was natural to talk to priests there, a natural part of life. Downside showed the intellectual apostleship… the ethos of the place showed that God and the life of the intellect went hand in hand.”
Barrister Edward Fitzgerald QC said the monks’ departure was “very sad news”.
“For me at school, the monastic ethos was very positive. It had a great influence on my life and other Gregorians say the same. There were monks there such as the philosopher Iltyd Trethowan who were great and inspiring characters.
“Of course the abuse scandals were deeply regrettable and should not be ignored. But my experience and that of the majority of my contemporaries was very different. I hope to go there for a retreat before the monks leave.”
William Fitzgerald, professor of classics at King’s College, London, said the monks gave Downside a “very different kind of ethos” to other schools.
“We had monks as teachers – all my English teachers were – and they had a definite view of things. They were a bit unconventional and some were very inspiring.
“We were conscious of the liturgical year, and when we stayed over Easter we were part of all the dramatic ceremonies. I sang in the choir, and it was very enjoyable. And I enjoyed the retreats.
“We were lucky to be there at a good time. Downside had a profound effect on me. The teaching I had there – in classics it was utterly inspiring – is one reason I am a teacher now.
“Downside left you with a particular way of looking at things.”