A YEAR of cele
brations began at St. Edmund's College on Saturday when Cardinal Heenan opened an exhibition to commemorate the the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the college's direct predecessor at Douai in northern France.
Today St. Edmund's still has an air of the past about it. Young men— many of them teenagers— stroll around the beautiful grounds in long black cassocks even on a hot summer's day. Others play croquet on the front lawn. The place is tranquil and, living there for any length of time, you can easily believe that the rest of the world is as acceptable and pleasant as this corner of Hertfordshire.
But if the trappings are of another age the men themselves are strictly of the 20th century. I cannot imagine any of the present generation of seminarians I met at St. Edmund's this week donning a large cape and silver buckled shoes to visit his parish as does one of my own contemporaries of ten years ago.
The students are concerned about matters more fundamental than looking like a clerical reincarnation of Carnaby Street. They talk about the approved schools they visit, the local hospitals. family life. They care little about tradition other than as an aid to the work they are called to undertake here and now.
St. Edmund's occupies a large estate at Old Hall Green in Hertfordshire. The buildings are dominated by Pugin's lofty chapel, one of the finest examples of his neoGothic style.
The seminary shares the buildings with two schools: senior and junior. Many of today's priests have been educated almost exclusively at the College, entering the junior school, graduating through the senior wing to the seminary.
Douai College, from which St. Edmund's is descended, was founded by William Allen. The purpose of the new seminary was to train priests to keep alive the Faith of persecuted English Catholics.
When Allen started his College Queen Elizabeth I had ruled England for ten years. Her secretary, Sir William Cecil. had drawn up a document called "The Device for the Alteration of Religion in England." Its purpose was the slow strangulation of the Catholic Faith in this country, a death. Cecil hoped. without bloodshed. By this Act Elizabeth was declared supreme Head of the Church in England, the Mass was made illegal and attendance at services of the official church was compulsory. Catholic bishops were deprived of their sees and no one was allowed to teach without licence from a Protestant bishop.
Some of the remaining Catholic priests tried to carry on in defiance of the law, others conformed at least outwardly. As these men died there were no new priests to take their place. The Government plan was succeeding and in a few more years Catholicism would become extinct. Then William Allen founded his seminary at Douai. The 36-year-old priest had left England after a notable career at Oxford. At 15 he had entered Oriel College. He graduated at 22, was elected a fellow and finally became Principal of St. Mary's Hall. At first Elizabeth and her ministers despised the poor beginnings of Douai. "But before many years were over." says a contemporary account. "it was observed that very many young men, possessed of great gifts, went from the schools and universities to the colleges beyond the seas, and came back before long as priests to their native land where by preaching; by their writings and example, by the ministration of the sacraments in secret, by reconciling men to the Church, they made a great impression upon innumerable souls."
This success of the missionary priests had the effect of forcing Elizabeth and Cecil to tighten up the laws against Catholics. Acts, like one "for removing all Papists and all other officers and soldiers of fortune and divers other delinquents," followed each other in quick succession.
The first Douai-trained priest came to England in 1574, He was Lewis Barlow. Three others went in that first year. By the end of Elizabeth's reign in 1603 more than 430 had crossed the channel and 98 of those were martyred. Some of their names are now famous like Edmund Cam pion, the "seditious Jesuit," Cuthbert Mayne and Robert Southwell.
The Douai priests were hunted men. Many were captured, imprisoned and tortured. Others carried on their ministry for years escaping capture by a hairsbreadth time after time. The persecution was well organised and systematic. The life of the hunted priest was described by Edmund Campion in a letter to the Jesuit General; "I ride about some piece of the country everyday. The harvest is wonderful great. On horseback I meditate my sermon; when I come to the house I polish it. Then I talk with such that come to speak with me, or hear their Confessions. In the morning, after Mass, I preach; they hear with exceeding greediness and very often receive the Sacrament.... I cannot long escape the hands of our enemies."
Capture could be dramatic. Fr. Edmund Gennings was saying Mass at a house in London. "At the moment of the consecration," his brother-biographer relates, "Topcliffe, the notorious priest catcher who even had priests tortured in his own home, burst into the house and broke open the door of the chamber where the Holy Sacrifice was being offered.
"The gentlemen present rose from their devotions resolved to oppose force with force, and with their lives if needs be to prevent the profanation of the Sacred Mysteries. One of the laymen, seeing Topcliffe obstinately bent on corning in, hurled him downstairs and fell with. him.
"The rest stood guarding the broken door, and Fr. Plasden (another priest present) went to the altar and bade Fr. Gennings go forward and finish the Mass.
"Then returning to the door, he saw Topcliffe hastening up, his head broken, and threatening to raise the whole street. He told him that now the Mass was ended they would all yield themselves up his prisoners which they did, "Upon which, rushing in with the rest, he took Fr. Gennings as he was in his vestments, and all the rest of the men and women, to the number of about ten, with the Church ornaments and books and carried them off to Newgate prison."
At Douai, meanwhile, zealous young men continued their training for work on the English mission. Community Mass started at 5 a.m. each morning after the litanies had been said for the Church and for the conversion of England. For that same intention the students and their teachers fasted twice a week.
To make them familiar with the Scriptures there was a daily lecture on the New Testament and at mealtime there was Bible reading as well as a weekly disputation.
At that time there was no English translation of the Bible and consequently priests found themselves at a disadvantage when engaged in controversy. William Allen undertook to produce "a faithful, pure and genuine version of the Bible" and the Douai Version was the result.
In 1578 political troubles forced the College to move to Rheims but it returned to Douai in 1593 to occupy larger premises. Throughout the 17th century the College prospered. More than 150 of its priests were martyred,the last in 1681.
The work begun by Allen—eventually created a Cardinal—ceased at the French Revolution. The students and staff of the College were imprisoned but were later released and allowed to make their way to England. In 1793 St. Edmund's was established at Old Hall Green, Herts.
A school—the Old Hall Academy—has been in existence there for 24 years and the refugees from Douai moved in with the other students. Gradually the establishment grew until today it is something of a miniature village with its own farm and post office.
Next year the school will begin a programme of expansion, increasing its numbers from 220 to 450. More lay masters have been introduced in order to free the priests for more urgent pastoral work.
The future of the seminary is uncertain. Cardinal Heenan has announced that it will leave Old Hall Green and move to London in order to give future priests greater contact with the kind of pastoral work they will undertake after their ordination.
Where the 60 seminarists will go has not yet been announced. It has been suggested that they may take over the premises of one London Catholic hospital but that theory is as yet unconfirmed.
Meanwhile. the students remain at Old HaIl Green and under the direction of Michael Murray they have prepared an exhibition for their four hundredth anniversary. Parishes, schools and organisations will flock to the College from now until the end of the year to see something of the history of their Faith and the heroes who kept it alive during the age of persecution. And they will be conducted around St. Edmund's by the men who will keep it alive tomorrow—the seminarians.
The seminary at St. Edmund's has fewer students than in previous years and next year's intake is understood to be smaller too. But if the spirit of Cardinal William Allen still prevails at the College numbers will matter little; quality will count for all. The astonishing thing about the whole history of Douai is the incredible influence so few men had on so many people. "Our students, being intended for the English harvest, are not required to excel or be great proficients in theological science," Allen said. "But they must abound in zeal for God's house, charity and thirst for souls."