Crispin Harrison remembers Monsignor Augustine Hoey, Oblate of the Order of St Benedict
On celebrating his hundredth birthday on 22 December 2015, Pope Francis honoured Kenneth Thomas Hoey, widely known as Father Augustine Hoey, by appointing him a Monsignor. It was a fitting accolade for a person who could truly claim to be a ‘religious celebrity.’ During his long and distinguished life he made an unforgettable impression on many people and places—delivering his message of hope and unity with a passionate conviction, and a courteous interest and empathy to all those he came across. He seemed to have an intrinsic understanding of human nature and behaviour, its weaknesses, pains and difficulties.
Kenneth was born in Leeds, where his father owned two footwear factories. His religious faith developed from boyhood and the theatrical services of Anglo-Catholicism both fascinated and had an intrinsic appeal to him. This included making one’s confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a love of the saints (especially the Blessed Virgin Mary) and the ways of praying taught in Catholic spirituality.
Kenneth went up to St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford to read Modern History, where he gained a third-class degree, his historical studies having rather suffered from too much time spent with theatre productions and his burgeoning spiritual interests.
In January 1939, Kenneth trained for ordination at Cuddesdon theological college, near Oxford. The austere existence here did not stop him from ‘looking the part.’ Always immaculately attired in a bow tie and possessor of an extraordinary number of quality suits, Kenneth’s smart wardrobe together with his good looks and tall, upright stature meant he cut a dashing figure. Even after ordination he was to be seen sporting a tailored cassock and cloak or long coat with a clerical hat. Throughout his long life his appearance mattered to him. He had dark hair but when grey appeared he began to dye it black (something he always denied!) until after a long spell in hospital when this was not possible and it returned to the white that nature intended. It could also be observed that Augustine never walked; he glided effortlessly. His gestures were rather emphasized, as on the stage. His voice was soft but pitched high and the diction clear as a bell, and though born a Yorkshireman, it was true to say that his accent never betrayed any trace of his origins.
His first curacy, after being ordained deacon in 1940, was with Fr Ralph Bell CR, vicar of the parish of St Mary of Eton, in the East End of London. In 1944, the parish church was badly damaged by a bomb but Kenneth, although in the clergy house next door, escaped with minor injuries.
In April 1945, Kenneth was accepted to join the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire and entered their novitiate, where he took the name of Augustine. Daily life for the 17 novices at that time was a rigorous one. They attended seven offices and the mass, and spent some two hours in individual prayer as well as doing household chores, gardening and study. Silence was the rule during much of the day and throughout the night. Additionally, Augustine joined in the ministry of the Community in his second year by preaching, giving retreats and quiet days and assisting in teaching weeks and parish missions. He made his first profession in July 1950 and his final profession three years later.
He was entrusted with becoming warden of the newly established retreat house at Hemingford Grey near Cambridge and later Director of the Fraternity, which involved travelling to visit groups of Companions around the country. Religious life was always packed with activities to organise and plan. Augustine arranged Sunday services at the quarry in the grounds of the House at Mirfield and the July commemoration day when several thousand people of all ages came to the Community to celebrate its life and work.
Most inspirational, and entirely due to his theatrical and organisational ability, were Augustine’s remarkable parish missions. With a team of 20 visitors and parishioners, Augustine preached and performed the Gospel stories in vivid and colourful tableaux, including the crucifixion of Jesus, requiring the careful direction of the many participants and their costumes and making a deep and lasting impression on those who attended. The missions required months of preparation and would last two weeks.
His love of the theatre no doubt assisted him in his ability to present and deliver powerful sermons. These showed his great skill of being able to appeal to the heart and emotions of the listener as well as their mind. Augustine always prepared a full text and preached catholic orthodoxy as an Anglican, and later as a Catholic. If he showed his text to someone and they objected to what he had written he would happily delete it without a word.
In 1959, after eight years at the Community house, the Superior, Fr Raymond Raynes CR, asked Augustine to travel to the Sophiatown Priory in Johannesburg, South Africa with its dependent churches in Soweto. The highly charged political situation in this country at the time, with apartheid being implemented in every aspect of society, seriously affected the Community’s work and ultimately led to them withdrawing from the priory here. So, within a few months of arriving in Johannesburg, Augustine was asked to move to Sekukuniland as prior of the house at Jane Furse Mission Hospital.
Sekukuniland, some 250 kilometres north-east of Johannesburg, has the feel of a semi-desert landscape, a quiet place, and one deeply conducive to prayer. There was a small, beautiful chapel, though most of the surrounding population had not accepted the Christian faith. Much of Augustine’s thoughts and challenges at this time were summarized in his letters—later published as Trembling on the Edge of Eternity by Anthony Pinchin and Graeme Jolly.
In 1961, Augustine was called back to Mirfield to be Prior—effectively number two to the Superior and with particular responsibility for the day-to-day running of the House. He was soon in action updating cleaning rotas and organising the effective running of the community of about forty resident brethren—a number that rose to fifty during the thrice-yearly General Chapters—as well as the novices, guests and staff.
In August 1965, the sudden death of the Superior, Fr Jonathan Graham CR, meant Augustine became the ‘stop-gap’ head of the Community until the new superior was elected in January 1966. The resultant overwork took its toll on him physically and during June and July 1966 he spent several weeks in hospital.
Once recovered, Augustine was elected Prior of the Community’s London house in Holland Park. When this house was sold two years later, he took up residence in the East End at the ancient Royal Foundation of St Katharine, a retreat and conference facility under the patronage of H.M. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who would visit every other year. The small group of brethren, with sisters of the Deaconess Community of St Andrew, maintained the daily Mass and fourfold daily offices of prayer in the chapel and together cared for the guests as well as doing pastoral work in other places. Augustine’s ever-immaculate study-bedroom was in the main room of the eighteenth century merchant’s house, with walls covered with Italianate paintings of ships. A large rosary stretched down the centre of his divan bed.
In July 1972, Augustine relinquished his position at St Katharine’s and returned to Mirfield as an ordinary brother without any office. He believed that God was calling him to immerse himself more fully in prayer and devotion, including rising at 3 a.m. to say Matins, saying the seven daily offices, and spending as much time as possible in silence, contemplation and intercession. Perhaps more than most, Augustine had a vivid awareness of the spiritual dimension of reality. He was immensely conscious of God’s immediate presence, of the protection of angelic powers and the power of evil, often remarking on the atmosphere of certain places, whether beneficent or hostile.
In 1973, the Community reluctantly approved Augustine’s desire to live apart in a rented flat in a huge apartment block in Hulme, Manchester. He promptly named the two-storey flat, ‘Emmaus.’ When other members of the Community joined him in 1977 they moved into a redundant vicarage in Sunderland that had rooms for brethren and guests as well as a chapel. A notable feature here was attendance on Sundays at the parish church and on other days at the nearby Roman Catholic church and the Methodist chapel as an expression of Christian unity. Augustine had a reputation for being especially house proud and no one was exempt from assisting to keep the place clean and tidy. Indeed, every morning a guest would receive a card with detailed information about the cleaning tasks they were expected to perform, where the materials needed could be found, what was required and when finished how to wash and put away the cloths and machines used.
While in Sunderland, Augustine developed Parkinson’s and other health problems. He felt that he should give up his rigorous life and so in 1980 came back to Mirfield as Sacristan. Four years later, Augustine was again to make the trip down south to St Katharine’s, no longer now as Master but as a member of the small team of brothers and sisters. In January 1993, the Community withdrew from St Katharine’s because of insufficient brethren to staff it and, on 29 September, four of the brethren, including Augustine, moved into a former vicarage in Burghley Street, Covent Garden.
The previous year, the Church of England had voted to ordain women as priests. Augustine was clear that he could not accept this, and gradually recognized that he must become a Roman Catholic. Two years later, he arranged to see Cardinal Hume and, on 9 April 1994, the Cardinal received him into full communion with the Catholic Church. For the time being Augustine remained in the Priory in Covent Garden while the Community considered whether he should remain a member or be released. The majority of the brethren felt he could continue in the Community but Augustine decided that in all conscience he should leave and he moved to occupy accommodation at Charterhouse. Having been made a Benedictine oblate at Cockfosters and then ordained deacon, the 79-year-old Augustine was ordained priest by Cardinal Hume on 20 February 1995. His active ministry, however, continued apace with hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction, retreats and preaching missions. Charterhouse was not the place to exercise such a ministry and so he was glad to move to the clergy house attached to Westminster Cathedral.
Augustine normally lived an austere life. He never put on weight but still managed to enjoy the good things in life—food, drink and holidays. Malta was a favourite travel destination where he would go for some rest and recuperation with his younger sister, Patricia, to whom he was very close.
In his final years, Augustine moved to St Peter’s Residence, Vauxhall. While continuing to hear confessions and give spiritual direction he increasingly spent more time in contemplation. He felt drawn, however, to return to Walsingham. Our Blessed Lady Mary had always had a special place in his heart since his first visit to the shrine in 1937. Walsingham, he said, was a place ‘trembling on the edge of eternity.’ So, aged 98, Augustine finally returned to his beloved Walsingham to live a life of contemplation and intercession for the Church and the world and especially for the unity of all Christians. He had hoped to die there, but after passing his hundredth birthday it was right for him to return to St Peter’s Residence where peacefully the call came on 26 September 2017. May he rest in peace.
Fr Crispin Harrison is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield