Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Telegraph: The orientalist of Letchworth

By Christopher Howse

Adrian Fortescue was a very odd man. "A false laugh, an unwilling little discourtesy, any assumption of knowledge or for that matter of anything, any instance of woolliness of thought or defective reasoning, any uncouthness, affectation, hollowness of feeling, elaborateness of phrasing, any use of foreign tags or phrases, would be sufficient to induce in him a very hearty, unreasoning natural dislike." Yet thousands loved him.

He spoke 11 languages, held three doctorates and hoped to be a professor of theology. Instead, 100 years ago, he founded the parish of St Hugh, Letchworth, the garden city started in 1903 in Hertfordshire, where he died in his 49th year. An exhibition devoted to him is to open there later this year.

Hertfordshire harboured two brilliant, eccentric Catholic priests in those years, the other being R H Benson, about whom I wrote on February 3. I can't find that they met. Both kept to their studies when they could.

Adrian Fortescue had an unusual upbringing. Schooled in Boulogne, and orphaned at 12, he lived with an aunt in Wimbledon before going to the Scots College in Rome aged 17. After four years' theology at Innsbruck he was ordained by the Prince Bishop Simon of Brixen, Austria, in 1898. He added Arabic and Syriac to his languages and spent 1907 in the Levant and Asia Minor. He had to shoot a man dead in self-defence, and at Hebron another fight for his life left him with a smashed shoulder that took weeks to heal.

So it was a change of gear to arrive in Letchworth in November 1907 and say his first Mass for 50 parishioners in a hut by the railway.

Although Dr Fortescue, as he was always called, felt he had no liking or talent for parish work, he set about building a church. He kept himself and the parish by writing. His renowned liturgical work The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described was written not out of scholarly zeal but to get £100.

His growing congregation was well schooled, taught to sing the regular parts of the Mass in Latin, and other liturgical chants, using, uniquely, the reformed classical pronunciation, not Church Latin with its soft c's.

Brick-built St Hugh (Dr Fortescue grew angry if anyone said "St Hugh's") was small, simple and beautiful, with a frieze of large Latin letters, and candlesticks and vestments designed by Fortescue. He was a neat artist and skilled calligrapher. Pages of his idiosyncratic Latin and Greek scripts are reproduced in a memoir by his friend John Vance. A seal he drew, signifying "Jesus Christ, Victor", is shown below.

But the glory of the new church was the ciborium, the canopy over the altar. Gilt beneath, it rose on four tooled pillars. It was not like the barley-sugar pillared baldacchino in St Peter's, Rome, more a humbler Sant'Ambrogio, Milan. I went to Letchworth to see it.

The church Fortescue built is now the parish hall, a false ceiling covering the lettering frieze. In 1963, the ciborium was transferred to the new church, about which Nikolaus Pevsner's architectural guide is sniffy, though it is light and roomy. But the ciborium was more recently torn down. It was perhaps out of scale with the larger church.

Anyway, while the church was a-building, Dr Fortescue organised a remarkable celebration of the liturgy of St John Chrysostom in Westminster Cathedral, with the choir trained to sing the eastern chants.

Fortescue wrote three books on the eastern churches, a handy monograph on Donatism and a handsome edition of Boethius (along with Dante, a lifetime interest). He never shirked visits to the sick, no matter how busy he was. There is a touching account of ministering to a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Suffering stomach pains, he was told on the shortest day of 1922 that he had cancer and would remain an invalid even if an operation succeeded. He felt fear and regretted his unfinished work, but came to see it was "silly to make a fuss about so inevitable a thing as death". He left his parish after a New Year's Eve sermon on "Christ our friend and comforter". There were two operations before and after his birthday on January 14. On February 11, 1923, he died, and is buried at Letchworth.

Source: The orientalist of Letchworth

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