This article came from the Chronicle published October 1985. Page 58 – 61
TURBULENT PRIEST. A NOTE ON PETER AUGUSTINE BAINES O.S.B.
Author: E.A. Batty
It was with regret I was unable to join members on their visit to Downside Abbey on September 22nd 1984. In his note on the visit (Chronicle Vol. 3 no. 2) Russ Clynick refers to the saints and martyrs buried in the various side chapels of the great church but not to the tomb of a colourful personality, neither saint nor martyr, one who in his time caused no little stir among his episcopal brethern and fellow Benedictines.
Peter Augustine Baines was professed at Ampleforth in June 1804, being then eighteen years of age. Rapid advancement through the various monastic offices resulted in his early appointment to the flourishing mission of Bath. Though Catholic Emancipation was then still more than a decade away, the population of the city included a large Catholic element and the eloquence of Baines, coupled with additional attractions such as “an excellent organ and a fine choir”1 gave rise to a stream of converts and the re-emergence of large numbers of “buried” Catholics. Then in 1823 the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District (Dr. Collingridge) petitioned Rome for Baines as his coadjutor and the monk of Ampleforth was raised to the episcopal purple as Bishop of Siga in partibus infidelium.
But now began the first of many squabbles of the Bishop’s career. Secure in his episcopal authority, on Dr. Collingridge’s death he ordered the income from the Bath mission to be paid over to him and not to its Benedictine owners as heretofore. While the parish priest was willing to agree, his curate was not, and stirred up the congregation against the Bishop. Confusion and recriminations followed and the Benedictines threatened to close the chapel and sell the property. Baines withdrew but countered by setting up his own chapel elsewhere in the City, and on July 10th 1823 this was opened with much ceremony and a pontifical High Mass. Abbot Snow has described how this occasion “attended by nobility and gentry of various persuasions” concluded with the Hallelujah. Chorus and a “proper cold collation” served in a marquee on the lawn.2 The collection amounted to £67. 7s. 0d.
Honours might now be said to be fairly even, but Baines was not one to let the grass grow under his feet and later in the same year the Prior of Downside received a letter from him suggesting that the Downside monastery and lands should be made over to him and his successors as a training college for priests. The suggestion was not altogether unreasonable since the resources of the Western District were greatly inferior to those of the other three (London, Midland and Northern) and there were at that time only about 12,000 Catholics in the whole of the District. Nevertheless, this was the first snot in a battle of seven years duration and indignation ran high among a community traditionally exempt from episcopal control. Receiving no reply, the bishop wrote again, this time proposing the community exchange their monastery, college and lands for the monastery, college and lands of Ampleforth, since he was certain the monks of his old College would be more likely to fall in with his wishes. But again there was no reply and a pause ensued when it was learned the bishop’s health had broken down and he had been ordered to Rome for a lengthy convalescence.
Cardinal Wiseman3 describes how Baines arrived in Rome in a state of “hopeless illness”. However, the prolonged rest worked wonders and it was not long before Baines was preaching (at Wiseman’s invitation) a course of sermons at the English Church in the Corso. Visitors filled the Church and Wiseman remarks that “the great power of Baines lay in his delivery, voice, tone, look and gesture. His whole manner was full of pathos and there was a tremulousness of voice which gave his words more than double effect”. With his return to health, however, the bishop’s fertile brain began to plan further moves in his battle with the monks of Downside. His first step was to gain the ear of the Pontiff himself, and the aged Leo XII responded to the famous eloquence with “condescension and affection” offering the bishop various dignities and honours in the Papal court. To the Holy Father Baines described his hopes for the Western District as frustrated by the lack of a seminary, adding that the Downside Foundation was uncanonical, the vows of the monks invalid and their property rightfully his own. The idea was astounding and only Baines could have conceived it. Leo agreed to talk the matter over with his advisors but died before the outcome was known. Unfortunately for the bishop a mole who chanced to be in Rome at the time got wind of what was going on and hastened back to Downside to inform the monks. Intensive search finally disclosed a Papal document of early date authorizing the foundation and a deputation set off for Rome with the documents and a letter of protest signed by the whole community. The Pope (now Pius VIII) recommended a compromise but Baines insisted no compromise was possible. “If it comes to a trial of strength”, he said, “one or other party shall go down”, and he sought to bring matters to a head by calling on the monks to show, within four days, why they considered themselves exempt from his jurisdiction. They replied, temperately, that the matter was still sub judice. The bishop now played his last card. He placed the Abbey under an Interdict and withdrew the monks faculties to hear confessions and administer the sacraments. This time, however, he had overplayed his hand: the Pope ordered immediate restoration of the faculties and issued a sanatio to purge any irregularities there have been in the canonical erection of the monastery. The long struggle was over, Te Deum was sung and Baines, conceding defeat, went to Downside and humbly begged pardon of the whole community.
Perhaps the bishop felt he could afford a conciliatory gesture since he had now embarked on a more ambitious scheme. With a modest £1,000 in cash and a £22,000 mortgage he entered into possession of Prior Park on the outskirts of Bath, together with 200 acres of land. His object was to found a college for the education of Catholic boys of good family, and a seminary for the training of Priests. Members may well be familiar with the stately pile of Prior Park, much changed though it is since Baines received his first boarders in the autumn of 1830. Three monks from Ampleforth formed the teaching Staff and later 26 students with their books and possessions decided to throw in their lot with Baines. Much bitterness and controversy was caused by this “migration” and the bishop himself asked Pope Gregory XVI for a Court of Arbitration. After lengthy deliberations the Court found “enticement” was not proved, but concern was expressed at the bishop’s handling of financial matters.
Concern was indeed more than justified and Bishop Ullathorne reflects at length on “the evil of resting securely on the credit and character of magnificent buildings and palatial surroundings. It is the weakness of the Jews rebuked by Jeremias (who) often measured the grandeur of their religion by the magnificence of their temple”.4 The whole of Bishop Collingridge’s savings of £6,000 had been sunk in a “bottomless abyss” together with all the mission funds and various legacies. Even the servants received only part of their wages, the balance being “invested” in the college on their behalf. Alterations cost £50 – 60,000 and included a new chapel with an elaborate throne for the bishop and re-designing the flight of steps leading up to the central mansion so that the bishop might bless the city with the sacred Host from. a temporary altar on the balcony. Ullathorne goes on to describe how the balcony was flanked by two rows of pagan deities acquired from a Surrey mansion and transformed by the plasterers trowel into the likeness of Christian saints. The teaching staff complained that there was no clear definition of their duties and that Baines himself lived more like a prince of the church than a missionary bishop. Despite all this, it is probably true to say that the college, with 100 students, was now at the zenith of its modest success, and even Baines had his carefree moments, since it is recorded that in the icy winter of 1835-6 he borrowed a pupil’s skates and was seen executing graceful figures on the frozen ponds, his purple cloak fluttering behind him in the breeze. Then, on May 30th 1836 came the fire. The whole of the central building except the external walls was destroyed and only a small sum recovered by way of insurance. The cause was attributed variously to a leaking pipe, to arson, and to divine retribution on the bishop.
Baines, however, was not deterred, and with the proceeds of a public appeal he set about the work of restoration. Staffing difficulties were again acute and three Rosminian Fathers were introduced to fill vacancies caused by resignation. Their disciplinary changes were widely disliked, not least by Baines himself, who set out in a booklet5 published about this time, his own views on religious education. He disapproved cordially of fashionable “Italian style” devotions and in his Pastoral for 1840 was unwise enough to say so. In particular he referred to devotions to the Sacred Heart as being “in bad taste”. Though there is little doubt his views were widely shared by Catholics of the old school, Pius IX had now succeeded to the Papacy and a new mood prevailed in Rome. Baines was summoned to Rome, and a commission of six cardinals required him to abjure “sundry errors”. Six cardinals were too much even for Baines. He retracted and was loaded with kindnesses by the Pope and given 1,000 crowns to defray the expenses of the journey. But the bishop was incapable of profiting by his mistakes,and shortly after his return he published an explanation and justification of the offending Pastoral. Not surprisingly Pius was now greatly incensed, threatening Baines with deprivation and other penalties.
Mounting financial difficulties now added to the bishop’s troubles and it was remarked that his former buoyancy of spirits had disappeared. Debts amounted to £50 – 60,000 and there were immediate and pressing liabilities of £20,000. In March of 1842 he suffered a stroke which paralysed his left side and doctors forbade him to transact business of any kind. But he rallied strongly and his last months were probably not unhappy since he was engaged on a project to provide the city of Bristol with a church fitted for Catholic worship. Disappointed in a plan to resume work on the long abandoned Park Place site6, he profited by the difficulties of the Irvingites or “Catholic Apostolic Church” to buy their deserted temple in Colston Avenue, now the Jesuit church known as St. Mary’s on the Quay. By doing so Baines signed his own death warrant, for after going through the long and tiring opening ceremony on July 5th, 1843, the bishop was found dead in bed the following morning.
With all his faults, the bishop had stirred public imagination and it is recorded that at the interment “hardly an eye was dry”.7 His clerical brethern however, were not so well disposed, particularly when his affairs revealed a state of hopeless insolvency which continued till 1856 when in a final debacle everything, including the very altar linen, a monstrance encrusted with precious stones and other furniture, was sold to appease the creditors. Feelings were somewhat less strong a few years later when the bishop’s remains were re-buried in the monks own cemetery at Downside and later still in the tomb with recumbent effigy seen near the high altar of the Abbey church. The principal inscription reads as follows:8
PETRUS AUGUSTINUS BAINES EPISCOPUS SIGNESIS, V.A.D.O., OBIIT ANNO DOMINI MDCOCXLIII PRID. NON JULII, VIXIT AN. LVIII DINS XII
- Williams. Bath and Rome.
- Snow. Memories of Old Downside.
- The President of the English College and later (on the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850), first Archbishop of Westminster. The quotations are from Wiseman’s “Recollections of the Last Four Popes”.
- Ullathorne, W.B. Cabinboy to archbishop.
- Baines, P.A. Course of studies and methods of instruction ….at Prior Park…. 1836.
- The hybrid structure erected later on the site served as pro-Cathedral for the Diocese of Clifton for many years..
- Roche. Prior Park and its founder.
- Here I am greatly indebted to Fr. Aidan for assistance.