gathering on July 9 to recall their evacuation in 1940 from the Eternal City. Fr Hugh Lavery recalls 50 years ago.
Wartime retreat from Rome to Stonyhurst
AS the years pass, 1940 may well join 1066 as the date everyone knows. Each remembers a failure which time has graced with the halo of success.
For the English College in Rome, 1940 was different, a totally unexpected break in the scroll of history. With little warning the college prepared to leave its home, hallowed by centuries, and entrained for England.
Paris, I remember, was an empty city, eerily quiet with no sound save the distant rumble of German guns. We asked the concierge for news of the battle. "C'est grave, messieurs, c'est tres grave" she answered and turned away in tears. Within a month the city was draped in swastikas and Hitler had gained his glittering prize.
Through the kindness of the Jesuit fathers the college found a home at St Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst. The building had served as a barracks but an advance party of students made it habitable, even homely. Coal fires in every room saw us through many hard winters. Jesuit professors from the Gregorian University joined the staff and lectures in English were a relief and rhymed with our mood.
When we arrived the Battle of Britain was undecided and the whole nation prayed for the young pilots who defended our island.
The moist air of Lancashire, the sunless days, the mist that hung like a shroud over Pendle did not move us to pine for the classic skies and Renaissance roofs of Rome. The war hardened attitudes and Italy was an enemy. We could not sing their songs nor praise the beauty of that lovely land while our brothers died in the desert. War vandalises the emotions.
Fifty years on we cannot recapture the temper of that time. Simply because we did not know the outcome and were fed on a diet of calamity. Russians in retreat, the American fleet destroyed, the appalling loss of merchant shipping, at times a million tons a month. The worst moment came when listening to a Churchill broadcast.
Just three words froze the whole community. "Singapore has fallen". Singapore! The ensign of empire, the proud, the impregnable. This was our blackest hour and after the broadcast we stayed in total silence. For this defeat sharpened the pain of conflicting loyalties and gave voice to the question that ticked below the rim of consciousness. Was it the time to exchange the cassock for battle dress?
Wisely the college carried on with its work. Priests were ordained to serve in parishes or to become chaplains to the forces. Peter Firth, ordained in 1941, became an army chaplain and fell to a German bullet on D Day as he waded ashore at Normandy. Even the historian cannot recall the trials and tensions of those months. We must leave this to the poet.
Like the psalmist we sought consolation in simple things. The eagle towers of Stonyhurst command a wide and various landscape. Londoners were surprised to find that Lancashire was more than cotton mills, black pudding and George Formby. The river Hodder was a limpid stream untouched by the effluent of industry. The countryside was the countryside of Constable for science had not yet imposed its formulas of progress.
Hedgerows were thick and birds found cover for their nesting. Poppies stood tall and red in the wheat. And I saw a man, after a protracted tussle, land a salmon. One could feel nothing but envy. Even an egg was a pearl of great price. But a salmon was food for the gods.
The college has a long tradition of entertainment and a theatre at St Mary's Hall provided opportunity for actors and producers. The first opera, I remember, was The Gondoliers and, by request, staged a second time on the stage at Stonyhurst. But it is difficult now to recall a world without television so heavily does it dominate the national consciousness.
But wartime radio was good, even superb. Radio comedy was superior to the sit-corn. Without visual aid scripts had to be of the highest quality. And I notice that the moguls of Hollywood insist that three things make a good movie. Script, script and script.
When memory mourns it is little things that come to mind from the years at St Mary's
Hall. After a day in the Trough of Bowland a farmer whistled and waved us across to his farm. "The Bismarck is sunk" he shouted. This great battleship was built to maraud the Atlantic and decimate our convoys. It had sunk the Hood and was at large in the vast spaces of the ocean.
Its sinking raised our drooping spirits for success was rare and defeat our companion. I can recall when on a clear day I first saw a contrail of vapour but could not see the aircraft, invisible because of height. Technology was at work and planes soared to impossible heights. Space travel could not be far behind.
Old alumni visited the college, some of them rather like commissars uncertain of its soundness now that it had crossed the Alps and settled in the Gothic north. But they all awarded it a certificate of approval and pronounced it orthodox and fully traditional in a damper, greener land.
With victory came return to a Rome unlike the Rome of 1940. Fascism was dead and monarchy dethroned. Americans had left their imprint and Roman children begged not
for santini but for candy as they chewed bubble gum.
h was the Rome of Bicycle Thieves; there was sporadic violence and private vendettas. But there remained that genial Latin chaos and history shows how often democracy is the step-child of oratory and disorder. Italians excel at both and Mark Anthony is their patron. "Friends, Romans and Countrymen".
But the old city remained the Eternal City and the students sang 0 Roma Felix and made pilgrimage to St Peter's. The college had adapted almost effortlessly. But we remember the Hall with affection and it is fitting that the Roman Association meets at Stonyhurst to celebrate the arrival of the college.
Our emotion is one of gratitude to the Society of Jesus and to the hierarchy who approved this enterprise. Otherwise the students would have been dispersed and the college would have lost its identity. Our mass will be of thanksgiving and our mood one of remembrance of the strangest chapter in the long history of the college.