Br Steven CR on the life and legacy of the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist
In last month’s issue of NEW DIRECTIONS, Father Peter CSWG reported on the Vocations Day Conference for the Religious Life. It was the first such Conference organized by some members of RooT and other Religious designed to give young men and women an initial introduction to the Religious Life. Many of our Communities founded in the nineteenth century drew their inspiration from the writings and teaching of one particular priest whose own community would also lay the foundation for other communities in the early twentieth century. With this issue of NEW DIRECTIONS we remember with gratitude this humble priest whose centenary of death occurred last month. It could be said that he was the founder of the revival of the Religious Life among men in the Church of England.
On 14 January 1915 the Father Founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist (the Cowley Fathers) died at the Mission House, Marston Street, Cowley St John, Oxford. It is 100 years since the death of Father Richard Meux Benson SSJE. He was born on 6 July 1824 in Bolton House, Russell Square, London, and grew up in an Evangelical household.
From an early age he seemed destined to become a missionary priest. Educated at home by a private tutor, he travelled on the Continent visiting Germany, Switzerland and Italy as a young man, and in 1844 at the age of 20 he went to Christ Church, Oxford where he took a second in Classics and Mathematics. Two years later he was elected Student of Christ Church. Having studied Hebrew under Edward B. Pusey, Richard Benson won the Kennicott Hebrew Scholarship in 1848 and was ordained deacon that year on Trinity Sunday by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. He served his title as assistant curate at St Mark’s Surbiton and was ordained priest a year later.
The Iron Church
His time at Surbiton was brief. In 1850 at the age of twenty-six he was offered and accepted the living of St James’ Church, Cowley which was in the patronage of Christ Church, his old college. It wasn’t long before he became Vicar of the parish which stretched all the way to Magdalen Bridge. That area of Oxford was beginning to grow rapidly with parishioners and it became of necessity that a church was provided to serve them. In October 1859 a church made of corrugated iron dedicated to St John the Evangelist was erected in Stockmore Street, and as the population of that end of the parish continued to increase, subsequent additions were made to St John’s which became known as ‘the Iron Church’. Father Benson decided to move to this end of the parish, away from the Vicarage in old Cowley.
A change of plan
Leaving behind another curate at St James’ Church, Cowley, Father Benson and a second curate, Father J.P. Kane, moved to 107 Iffley Road. Father Benson was not expecting to remain in Oxford for long. His proposal to go to India to offer for missionary work there had intensified. He believed that missionary work ought to begin with men, and not with money. He wanted to establish a college of like-minded men to live and work with him in India where they would recite the daily Offices of prayer and celebrate the Eucharist frequently – habitual prayer where the men would go out as missionaries.
But this was not to be. Early in 1860, the Bishop of Oxford informed Father Benson that a sudden decision was made to make an extensive town out of what was then known as Cowley Common, which was an open space in his parish. Benson had no choice in the matter. He had to obey the wishes of his bishop. For the next five or six years Father Benson worked tirelessly in that portion of the parish.
He preached lengthy sermons to his parishioners, many of which were published. His first series of sermons were collected in 1860 into a volume which he had titled Redemption. His second book, The Wisdom of the Son of David, published in 1860, was an exposition of the Proverbs. Father Benson was beginning to be known through his preaching and the first retreat for clergy was conducted by him at Cuddesdon as early as 1858. During Lent 1862, he travelled from Oxford to Bedminster, Bristol to take part in a parochial mission in the parish. Subsequent missions were held in Devonport, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Frome and Ditchingham as well as London.
By 1865, his life’s work began when two priests, Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill and Charles Chapman Grafton, joined Benson, who by this time had secured a house at 2 Magdalene Terrace, Iffley Road, a few hundred yards from the Iron Church. Together the three priests recited the Day Hours in a small oratory set up in the house, and Mass was celebrated in the Iron Church. The brethren were also engaged in preaching, retreats, missions and parish visiting. On the Feast of St John the Evangelist, 27 December 1866, Benson, O’Neill and Grafton took vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience as The Society of Mission Priests of St John the Evangelist, the first stable religious community for men in the Church of England since the Reformation.
Retreats and missions
In October 1868, a Mission House was built in Marston Street for Father Benson and his spiritual sons, which also included a Parish Room for the benefit of parishioners in the new Conventual District of Cowley St John. Membership in the Society was not limited only to priests. Laymen were also included and after a lengthy novitiate were received as lay-brothers. From the earliest days the Society’s principal work consisted of conducting retreats and parochial missions. Father Benson himself had a leading role in an historic twelve-day Mission which took place at the same time in over one hundred churches in London in 1869. The Society, first known as the Evangelist Fathers, but referred to as the Cowley Fathers, was not confined to Oxford.
Their influence had spread to America in 1870, India in 1874, and South Africa in 1883. The Society also worked in Scotland for nearly sixty years.
The Religious Life
Father Benson was not only Superior of his Society of Mission priests and lay-brothers, but Vicar of Cowley St John as well. His brethren were missionaries, their lives cloistered and framed against the background of prayer and mortification. He often said that ‘the Religious Life cannot be understood just by reading books about it; it can be learned in its fullness only by living it.’ Father Benson as Vicar put his whole heart and soul into his ministry among the poor of his parish by establishing day schools for boys and girls, youth and social clubs, and a hospital for incurables and many other charitable works.
During the 1890s other communities of men and their founders drew their inspiration and guidance from Cowley, among them the Community of the Resurrection, the Society of the Sacred Mission, and the Society of the Divine Compassion. By the early twentieth century, Cowley had also been influential in the early foundation of the Society of St Francis. Over the years some of the Professed Fathers of the Society became Wardens, Chaplains or Confessors to Religious Communities of Women.
Father Benson resigned as Vicar of the parish in 1886 and as Superior-General of the Society in 1890. He resided in America from 1892 until 1899 when he returned to Cowley to live his remaining years at the Mission House. Father Benson had outlived the first generation leaders of the Oxford Movement: Keble, Pusey, Newman. He also outlived Simeon W. O’Neill and Charles C. Grafton, co-founders who professed their vows in Religion with him. The Founder even outlived his immediate successor as Superior-General, Father Robert Lay Page, who died in 1912. Three years later, Father Benson was ‘called home’. He was buried on Saturday 16 January 1915, just two days after his death. His body was laid to rest in the parish church-yard of SS Mary and John, in the SSJE plot next to the graves of Father Hollings and Br Walter. Father Benson was in his ninety-first year of age and the forty-ninth year of his religious profession.
The work continues
There is a large granite Celtic cross with the initials ‘SSJE’ at the base, marking the spot where Father Benson and some of the early Cowley brethren are buried. Long gone are the wooden crosses which were placed over each grave. One hundred years after his death, Father Benson’s legacy to the people of Cowley St John lives on in the field of education, housing, work among youth and older adults, social agencies, health care, institutions. The Society which he founded nearly 150 years ago continues with its mission and educational work in South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, England and the USA.