April 1981 Print

The Story of Bishop Challoner, 1691


by Pastor Historicus

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Bishop Challoner, Vicar Apostolic of the London District of England from 1759-1978. This saintly prelate served English Catholics for a period of fifty years during which the remnant of the Catholic Church was steadily losing ground. Many Catholic families who had held fast to the Faith up to that time lost heart and went over to the new religion; it seemed that there was no hope for any resurgence of Catholicism. Bishop Challoner dedicated himself unstintingly to sustaining the faith of his dwindling flock with the most zealous pastoral care and a seemingly endless flow of writing, designed to provide spiritual sustenance and defend the Faith. Traditional Catholics still use his edition of the Douai Bible, and the Baltimore Catechism originated with one which he prepared. Within a century of his death Anglicanism was in decline and Cardinal Newman would speak of a "Second Spring." That second spring was due in no small part to the effectiveness of Bishop Challoner's apostolate in giving his little flock the courage to keep the faith at a time when there was no hope that things would ever improve. "Pastor Historicus" has provided us with this brief account of his life. Its message is clear; it is the message that English Catholics passed on to each other as a greeting whenever they met in those penal times of persecution, repression and discrimination. That message was "Keep the Faith!"

RICHARD CHALLONER was born at Lewes in Sussex, England, on 29 September 1691. His father was a wine-cooper and a Dissenter. (Dissenters were neither Catholic nor Anglican but belonged to one of the numerous small sects which abounded in England at the time). His mother's name was Grace Willard, and in later life Chancellor used the name Willard as an alias in his communications with Rome, as it was dangerous to use one's real name if a priest in England at that time. His father died when Richard was only two or three years old, and his mother went into service with the Catholic family of Gage at Firle Place near Lewes. By 1704 they had moved to the Catholic family of Holman at Wirksworth near Banbury. Here Challoner and his mother became Catholics. This was under the influence of a very saintly priest, Fr. John Gother, who was chaplain to the Holmans.

The house was then owned by Anastasia Holman, a widow, whose father was Viscount Stafford, who had been martyred at the Tower of London during the Titus Oates plot only twenty-five years earlier. We can be sure that Mrs. Holman and Fr. Gother will have thus introduced the young lad to the story of the English Martyrs and so prepared the way for the writing of Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

Fr. Gother gave the lad lessons and quite soon detected signs of a vocation. At that time all boys who wished to be priests had to study abroad—usually at Rome, Valladolid, Lisbon or Douai. In this case Richard was sent to the English College at Douai, in July, 1705. His fees were paid by the Vicar Apostolic (bishop) of the London District. In the junior years Douai was both a school and Junior Seminary combined, and the boys never came home for holidays until the end of their studies. Richard was a brilliant student, and had already started his first year in philosophy in 1708. Two years later, while in first-year theology, he was also deputed to teach one of the classes in the junior department. In 1712, while still a theology student, he was appointed as a professor of philosophy, a post he occupied for eight years. In 1716 he was ordained priest, and in 1718 he went back to England for the first time since he came to Douai, and met his mother again. Back at Douai he was appointed prefect of studies. In 1719 he took a degree as Bachelor in Theology, and in 1720 he became the vice-president of the Seminary. He now had much administrative work to do, but still found time to obtain a doctorate in theology in 1727, while in the following year he published his first work, a book of meditations entitled Think Well On't.

The young priest, however, was always thinking of England and the missionary work needed there. The penal laws were still in force, but the main burden besides the crippling taxes was the fact that the noble Catholic laity were totally cut off from any part in public life, not entitled to vote or enter Parliament, take a seat in the Lords, or take any public post whatever.

In London there was still trouble from priest-hunters, and Mass was only said publicly in foreign embassy chapels. Most priests lived with noble families as chaplains. There was a small convent at Hammersmith just outside London, and another at York, where the nuns had to wear lay clothes.

RICHARD REACHED London in 1730 where he remained and worked. We learn from contemporary accounts that he avoided involvement with worldly matters as far as possible, and gave much of his time to prayer and meditation. He rose each day at 6:00 a.m. and visited his flock in the afternoons, carrying an atmosphere of recollection with him at all times. Yet he was always cheerful, and the cause of cheerfulness in others. He retired to his lodgings early to hear confessions, to catechise, and to give advice.

He had little spare time and started writing at once. He saw the need for sound constructive books to meet the needs of the English Catholics. The Vicar Apostolic required him to answer controversial tracts which were often produced against Catholics. During his life he wrote more than one hundred books and tracts.

By 1737 he was Vicar General to the Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Petre. The following year he was appointed President of Douai on the death of the old president, but Bishop Petre was anxious to retain Challoner in London, so he petitioned Rome for a coadjutor and suggested Challoner as the most suitable candidate. He gave Rome a glowing account of his work, "his assiduous fidelity in reclaiming sinners to the way of life taught by the Gospel ... his great humility and gentleness ... he has won not only the esteem but also the veneration of all who have either heard him preach or read his books."

Negotiations were, however, protracted as Challoner was a convert, and this meant a special dispensation. During this pause, Challoner wrote one of his best known works, The Garden of the Soul. This was designed not only as a prayer book but as a complete guide to the spiritual life.

In 1742 all was settled, and on January 29th he was consecrated bishop in the convent chapel at Hammersmith. The convent was relatively safe, as it was next door to the country house of the Portuguese ambassador. Challoner, however, chose not to live there, but to remain in lodgings in town. He was looked after in various lodgings (he had to move fairly frequently to avoid the priest-hunters) by a Mrs. Mary Hanne. In 1765 an informer named Payne caused much trouble for priests in London, but failed to get a conviction because the justices required evidence of ordination and this he was unable to provide.

Two or three priests usually stayed with the bishop. He and the chaplains said Mass not only in the embassy chapels but also in alehouses, cock-pits and garrets, usually with a burly Irishman at the door as a guard. A particular favorite spot for Bishop Challoner was the Ship Inn in Holborn where those attending Mass had a mug of ale in front of them in case of "interruptions." The "pot-boy" at this inn, James Archer, later became a priest and a well-known preacher at the start of the nineteenth century.

Bishop Petre retired to his family's estates in Essex, so Bishop Challoner undertook most of his work. In 1741 he visited all the outlying mission stations round London, administering Confirmation as he went along. Back in London he composed another of his well-known books, Memoirs of Missionary Priests, which contains the lives of all those who gave up their lives for their faith, both priests and laity. In 1745 he published his longest work, Brittania Sancta, the lives of English, Scottish and Irish saints. Challoner, although an ardent follower of the Stuarts, dissociated himself entirely from the rebellion and invasion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. At this time he was working on a revised translation of the old Douai Bible. It is his revised version which I am sure many of the readers of this article will know. In 1753 he published another work of importance, Meditations for Every Day of the Year. In 1757 Bishop Petre died and Challoner became the Vicar Apostolic of the London District. He now himself petitioned for a coadjutor, and that year he consecrated James Talbot, the brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury.

It may interest readers in America to learn that from then until his death Bishop Challoner was the single Ecclesiastical Superior of all Catholics in the British Colonies in North America (except Canada), and that this jurisdiction continued after Independence Day. In 1756 Bishop Challoner, on behalf of Bishop Petre, wrote to Propaganda in Rome, giving a brief account of how things were going in America:

As to the state of religion in our American settlements, the best account I can give is: There are no missioners in any of our colonies upon the continent excepting Mariland and Pennsylvania; in which the exercise of the Catholic religion is in some measure tolerated. I have had different accounts as to their numbers in Mariland where they are the most numerous. By one account they were about 5000 communicants; another makes them amount to about 7000; but perhaps the latter might design to include those in Pensilvania, served by 16 priests, all of them in the Society [Jesuits]. These also assist some few Catholics in Virginia, upon the borders of Mariland, and in New Jersey bordering upon Pensilvania. As to the rest of the provinces upon the continent, N. England, N. York, etc., if there be any straggling Catholics, they can have no exercise of their religion as no priests ever come near them; nor, to judge by what appears to be the present disposition of the inhabitants, are ever like to be admitted amongst them.

We see that only in Maryland and Pennsylvania were Catholics tolerated, and we learn from other accounts that the few Catholics in New York and New Jersey were served by the odd priest who crossed over from Pennsylvania. By 1771 Challoner could write "There are great numbers in the provinces of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, all under the charge of the Jesuit Fathers who receive their faculties from me. These missions are in a very flourishing state." However, Bishop Challoner was very concerned that the Catholics in the United States had no bishop of their own, and hence no regular access to Confirmation. After the Declaration of Independence, the Church grew rapidly, and Bishop Challoner retained his jurisdiction over the priests there until his death—the only remnant of English authority still recognized by any in America. He continued to issue faculties and dispensations until he died.

IN THE MIDDLE YEARS of the century Bishop Challoner was much saddened by the defection to the Anglican Church of some of the leading Catholic families. This was in part due to the collapse of the Stuart cause, and also to the desire to play a more active part in English society. Many conformed, including the Gages of Firle with whom Challoner had lived as a child. Another leading family to apostatize was that of the Ropers of Teynham, descendants of St. Thomas More. In some ways the situation is rather similar to that obtaining today. In England now, there has been a great falling off in the Faith, often due to the vast changes that have taken place in recent years, while the old Mass is said by priests of the Society of St. Pius X in rooms and hotels in various centers. There is even to be found a return to the tradition of the eighteenth century whereby rich Catholic families had their own chaplain. Today the chaplain is there to provide the Tridentine Mass.

Returning to the time of Bishop Challenor, just when things were at their worst for Catholics, the first steps towards Emancipation were taken. The government required more soldiers and believed they could recruit Catholics if the Oath of Allegiance was altered to avoid the need for Catholics to repudiate the Pope. The Vicar Apostolic of Scotland, Bishop Hay, was first consulted, and he arranged for Bishop Challoner to be brought in.

The government could not, however, officially deal with bishops who did not technically exist at all in England and Scotland. The government negotiator, Sir John Dalrymple, then turned to seek out eminent lay Catholics. A leading conveyancer, William Sheldon, gathered a few other Catholics around him and founded the first Catholic Committee (of laymen). These laymen then finished the negotiations and a limited degree of tolerance was granted to Catholics, well short of full emancipation. Unfortunately, the emergence of the lay committee was to prove troublesome to the bishops in the next thirty years, and there was a struggle between them and the laity for real control over Catholic affairs, again reminiscent of the scene in England today where lay councils seek to run everything from parish to diocese.

But before these troubles came to a head, Bishop Challoner and the London Catholics had to face the horrors of the Gordon riots, the most serious riots that London has ever known. Lord George Gordon stirred up the London mob under the banner of "No Popery," and for a week the mob went freely around town, burning down the houses and Mass centers of Catholics with no interference from the government until, towards the end of the riots, the prime minister and others were physically threatened. Then at last the militia were called in. Bishop Challoner had to flee for his life to some friends in Finchley to the north of London. The fears of that week undoubtedly shortened his life and he died quietly at his lodgings in London on January 12, 1781, in his ninetieth year.

Even in his later years the Bishop continued to write. In 1772 he published An Abridgement of Christian Doctrine, which was inspired by the catechism in use at Douai, and which was in effect the first edition of the later Penny Cathechism in England, or the Baltimore Cathechism of America, both of which are now rejected in favor of modern catechisms, which quite often destroy the very faith they are supposed to be imparting.

Bishop Challoner was buried in the vault of a friend, Briant Barrett, at Milton about fifty miles west of London, and in 1946 his remains were re-interred in Westminster Cathedral, where they still lie.

At his funeral discourse Father (later Bishop) John Milner noted:

If it were not known how assiduous he ever was in the discharge of his sacred functions, and how much of his time was constantly taken up with preaching, instructing, administering the sacraments, attending to the various and intricate concerns of his district, and with his prayers and devotions, we might be led to imagine that he had done nothing else but write and that his whole life had been devoted to the composition of the many works he has left us in defense of the true faith and of sound morality.

Would that England and America had a few bishops of his calibre alive today!



O God, who didst make thy servant Richard a true and faithful pastor of thy little flock in England, deign to place him among the Blessed in thy Church, so that we who profit by his word and example may beg his help in heaven for the return of this land to the ancient faith and to the fold of the one true Shepherd Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.