Frederick William Faber
by Alan Frost
First Provost of the London Oratory, passionate promoter of the Faith and the cause of Our Blessed Lady, and composer of the Roman Catholic 'Anthem' Faith Of Our Fathers
Next door to the Victoria & Albert Museum, or a short walk down Knightsbridge from Harrod's, stands the splendid and architecturally unusual RC Church of the The Oratory of St. Philip Neri at Brompton, or the 'London Oratory'. Near the entrance is a fine imposing statue of Cardinal Newman. Within, at the foot of the side altar of St. Wilfrid, is the resting-place of and memorial to Frederick William Faber: two great Victorian men of the Faith, both Oratorians, both converts.
That F.W. Faber would become a convert to Rome would have been incomprehensible to his father and uncle, as he grew in the Anglican faith, from his birth in the Yorkshire village of Calverley on 28 June, 1814, and baptism in St. Wilfrid's Church in Ripon. His father was the son of the vicar of Calverley, and his uncle an eminent theologian. There was moreover, albeit distantly, a line of Huguenot descent in the Fabers, and his uncle, an Oxford don, was a well-known pamphleteer who railed against the Pope and the Latin Church. In his varied schooling, in Bishop Auckland, Kirkby Stephen (where the beauty of the Lake District inspired a natural poetic talent and would leave a profound impression), Shrewsbury School and Harrow, he revealed a strong inclination towards a love of Christ. He was much influenced by both his chaplain and Headmaster at Harrow, the latter going on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
He went on to Oxford, first Balliol then University College, and entered Anglican Orders. It was the time of the Tractarians, of the Oxford Movement, and Faber was much impressed when he first heard the vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, John Henry Newman, speak. He soon became drawn into what has been called the 'vortex of neo-Catholicism'. There are many letters preserved from his undergraduate days revealing his torments as he felt himself moving 'Romeward', and including his appreciation of Newman, whose approval he later always sought, as well, often, his direction. By way of distraction, there were long vacations to the Lake District, where he could be Faber the poet and preacher. Indeed, he became a friend of Wordsworth. Even so, few of his poems became known, especially considering the scale of output, rather comparable to Hardy and Brooke in this regard. Wordsworth, who put a cedar cross in his Rydal cottage at Faber's request, observed later that he could not serve two masters, it was either priest or poet. Though he did win the prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry just before he graduated.
There were also vacations abroad with fellow students, who, too, were contemplating conversion to the Roman Church. Deliberately visiting places of important Catholic interest, and clearly feeling drawn towards Rome, he yet wrote much that was critical of the Faith. Nevertheless, there were observations of Catholic devotion in Bruges, Germany and ultimately Rome itself that impressed him profoundly, nonetheleast at the tomb of St. Philip Neri at the Chiesa Nuova.
After graduation he was made a don, but he was not happy teaching at Oxford, and readily took up the offer of a suitable post in Ambleside, where he was known already for his preaching. Even so, by 1841, as one biographer (Chapman) puts it, " he lay in that unhappy limbo between Canterbury and Rome." Then, after much agonizing he accepted the 'living' of Elton in Huntingdonshire, to become the C of E rector there, in 1843. Almost immediately he went to Rome to learn from the Catholic Faith how he might carry out his duties. Strange though this may seem (he introduced Confession and devotion to the Sacred Heart at Elton), he became very popular with his parishioners. Before Elton he had begun correspondence with Newman, and this he kept up all the while he was rector, as the idea of developing a monastic community was growing in his head. He had become very interested in the saints and wrote a Life of St. Wilfrid, published by Newman in a series he edited, but this did cause an outcry because of its favorable portrayal of the Saint's inspiration from Rome. This was hardly to be expected from one holding Anglican office.
His parishioners overall did not feel that this made his position untenable, but soon, with genuine sadness, he quit the parish of Elton, taking with him a number of followers. With these eleven followers he was finally, received into the Church by Bishop Wareing in 1845. They went to Birmingham, where Newman was based and formed a monastic community (first in Caroline St. then Colmore Terrace) calling themselves the Brothers of the Will of God (Fr. Dominic Barbieri, who received Newman into the Church, good-naturedly said to Faber " brothers of your will, you mean!"). Shortly after, Faber studied for a while at the English College in Rome, and also had the good fortune to be encouraged in his monastic venture by Lord Shrewsbury. The Earl offered him land next to the (excellently preserved) Pugin Church of St. Giles, Cheadle, or in another Staffordshire village at Cotton Hall.
He chose Cotton, and the Brothers of the Will of God, or 'Wilfridians' by now, at once began building a church for a congregation that did not exist, and a school for the local children who were not yet Catholic. Amazingly, within a month the church foundation stone was laid, and the brothers went out in pairs inviting the locals to their services. The new church, Pugin designed, the parish and community were dedicated to St. Wilfrid. However, these exertions took their toll on Faber and he became seriously ill (he received Extreme Unction or 'Last Rites'), and he was, actually, not yet a priest in Holy Orders in the RC Church. Fortunately he recovered, writing numerous hymns and pieces during his convalescence, and developing a strong devotion to Our Lady whom he called (in his passion for things Italian) 'Mamma', later building a shrine nearby to Our Lady of Salette in her honor. It became known as 'Fr. Faber's retreat.' He said his first Mass on 4 April 1847.
In two years a tremendous amount was achieved at Cotton, where, as the learned Fr. Knight of Altrincham observes "he was the first priest since the reformation to convert a whole village." It is interesting to think that one of the hymns written there, originally called 'St. Wilfrid's Hymn', would become the unofficial anthem of the RC Church - 'Faith Of Our Fathers', first sung in a little known valley in Staffordshire. These hymns, which were printed in a small book entitled Hymns Composed for the Congregation and School of St. Wilfrid's, Cotton, were the basis of his goal to write a book of hymns that would reflect and promote the Catholic Faith in England. And this (some 150) he achieved, the first edition selling over 10,000 copies. Faber's hymns, which range from the joy of having such a wonderful mother in Mary ('O Purest of Creatures, sweet Mother sweet Maid'), to Lenten compassion as we follow the Stations Of The Cross ("Have we no tears to shed for Him....Jesus, our love, is crucified"), include a reminder to many of us today of the down-played less pleasant side of the Faith, of how we will be judged. St. Sister Faustina (of the Divine Mercy) wrote of Hell, after being granted a terrible vision, that "it has not gone away you know", and neither has Purgatory. Fr. Faber beautifully asks Our Blessed Mother to help the suffering souls awaiting their reward, in a hymn much sung until the sixties, The Queen Of Purgatory:
' Oh turn to Jesus, Mother! Turn,
And call Him by His tenderest names
Pray for the Holy Souls that burn
This hour amid the cleansing flames
Ah! They have fought a gallant fight;
In death's cold arms they persevered
And, after life's uncheery night
The harbour of their rest is neared '
However, the success of the Wilfridians at Cotton did not satisfy Faber. Increasingly he was interested in the idea being developed by Newman of an Oratory, on the model of St. Philip Neri. Faber liked the idea of a community governed by the Saint's Rule, which did not impose the same commitment and restrictions as the traditional Orders, and where each Oratory was a separate entity though linked in having the model of St.Philip at Vallicella. Achieving the transition of the Wilfridians to Oratorians, something that would lead to a cooling of friendship between Faber and Newman, is described in the second part of this study.
Yet even thus far in Faber's extraordinary life, enough has been achieved to render his name deserving of grateful memory. Moreover, he was also a translator, in particular of perhaps the greatest work on the Blessed Virgin, St. Louis-Marie de Montfort's True Devotion To Mary, a work he first read whilst at Cotton, and whose translation was immediately recommended by the Bishop of Salford to all his parish priests. We must remember how 'hidden' Our Lady was in England at this time through the power and enmity of the Protestant church, so Faber was important, and brave, in his promotion of the name of Mary. We have much to be thankful to him for.
Though Fr. Faber was only received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, a little later than Newman, and not ordained a RC priest until 1847, he was by 1849 already a leader of a religious community on the verge of becoming a congregation of Oratorians. His great model was Fr. Newman, who established the first Oratory in England in Birmingham. Faber wanted very much to be part of Newman's model, offering the community of Wilfridians at Cotton as the next body of Oratorians, Fr. Newman being the Superior.
But Newman saw many difficulties in this. He was a measured, cautious man, who exuded spirituality. Faber, once he got the bit between his teeth, wanted, perhaps impetuously sometimes, to get a project underway quickly. Faber's spiritual drive was all energy and passion. Yet physically, by 1849, one would hardly have expected this. For Faber was regularly ill. He had been near to dying, and had put on a lot of weight (he would apologize for his 'mounds of flesh'), probably through contracting the eventually fatal Bright's Disease. He wrote, sometimes quite graphically, to Newman of his sickly condition. The next moment, though, when he had bouts of feeling recovered, his letters would elatedly talk of plans and progress.
Well or unwell, Faber would be unrelenting in the pursuit of a missionary goal. The creation of the Cotton project had involved a lot of physical work, and part of Faber's being recognized as a leader was in his drive to get things done. To get sweat and effort out of his brothers and lay workers, to the point where they also might fall ill. His entreaties like his sermons were inspiring, and so heart-on-his-sleeve. "For eight years of my life I have been a Protestant clergyman, with important parishes entrusted to my care, until it pleased Almighty God of His infinite mercy to show me the dreadful errors and unscriptural doctrines of Protestantism, and to lead me into His true Church, and give me the unspeakable happiness, a happiness which increases every day, of being a Catholic."
It was also whilst at Cotton that Faber heard that Newman had become an Oratorian in Rome. He felt drawn to St. Philip Neri once more, St. Philip who in 16thc Rome would prophetically greet the students of the venerable English College with 'salvete flores martyrum', "hail, flowers of martyrdom". But St. Wilfrid's at Cotton could not become an Oratory because it was not in a town (a key condition). Another problem for Faber was the unhappiness of his great benefactor Lord Shrewsbury at his plans. He told Faber that he had given the Wilfridians money and land specifically for a religious community in Staffordshire, that it might achieve significant numbers of conversions in the proximity of his home at Alton Towers, that major meeting place for the Catholic aristocracy and clerics of mid-19thc. England. He now felt Faber was backing out of the agreement. This in turn inclined Newman to begin to see St. Wilfrid's as a liability rather than an asset. There were other problems for Faber, such as the style of the habits they would wear, the resistance from within the Church itself, from "old" Catholics, and the varied criticisms, including from his friends and fellow priests at Cotton and at Birmingham. However, there was probably never a loss of love, for Faber was affectionately referred to in letters by them and Newman as 'Fr. Wilfrid', even, sometimes, 'Carissime'.
Even so, Newman expressed his feeling that separation rather than having two Houses run from Birmingham was the way to go. The hope for a London Oratory was by now much discussed. He recognized the principle of unity as being very much around himself at Birmingham, and saw Faber in a similar position for the Wilfridians. Faber resisted, wrote passionately against any move to separation, but, nonetheless, Newman eventually wrote two lists of priests and novices as proposals for membership of Birmingham and the to-be-formed London Oratory. So, in a way, Faber was receiving direction from Newman, which he always sought, and there was never any threat of a split. In April 1849, with Fr. Hutchison, Faber left Cotton to spend some days at the Birmingham Oratory en route to London. He did revisit Cotton, but the break had been made
In London, friends, including the future Duke of Norfolk, had already been looking for suitable premises for setting up an Oratory. They found a place with an improbable history (a gin shop among other things) in King William Street, off the Strand. Again much physical sweat and toil was involved, and the potential for serious illness in the unhealthy conditions very real ("The heat of the house and chapel is of the nature of Calcutta Black Hole."). Yet again, though, the necessary work was achieved; Faber delivered. This achievement is the greater bearing in mind that up to 1849 no Catholic body had been allowed to open a church in London. Even the Jesuit Farm Street Church was not yet on the map. The Catholic services, and the devotion to Our Lady were a surprise to all, nonetheleast Catholics themselves. Previously there had been only one statue (as opposed to pictures) to the Blessed Virgin in a public place anywhere in London, at St. Mary's, Chelsea. Putting flowers before a Lady altar, and burning lamps or votive candles before her image was unheard of (elsewhere there were occasional brave examples of reviving public Marian devotion with a statue and procession, such as the Dominican foundress Mother Margaret Hallahan in Coventry 1845). Some of the Catholics' surprise quickly turned to disapproval, even hatred, particularly among the London clergy. There were accusations of these devotions mimicking the Italian peasantry, belonging to 'backward' countries. Even Pugin, who had designed the church at Cotton and that at St. Giles, Cheadle, at which inauguration (1846) Faber assisted, joined the attack. A passionately Gothic architect, and to many, the Gothic style was the Catholic Church, he lamented "the Oratorians have opened the Lowther Rooms as a chapel!! - a place for the vilest debauchery, masquerades, etc. One night a masqued ball, next a Benedictus .... Conceive the poet Faber come down to the Lowther rooms! "
Faber did have an important defender in the future Cardinal Wiseman ("Fr. Faber, you don't know the narrowness, spite and jealousy there is.."). It can be argued, in fact, whether or not the Oratory would have succeeded without Wiseman's help. The Bishop (until 1850) showed his support by coming to the Oratory in King Wiliam Street to preach. And soon there were crowds coming along, but many of the poor who came were refugee victims of the Irish famine, who could not in the mercy of Christ be turned away. Unfortunately they brought with them diseases. The rooms that served as the Oratory were badly ventilated and such became the danger of cholera that the chapel was closed for alterations. The brief hiatus, though, was timely, for all the Fathers were greatly tired and had been under considerable stress. Several needed a period of recuperation. For all this had happened within just four months of the Wilfridians transferring to London, no doubt bewildering for a 13-year old boy who had left Cotton with other lay followers, and who is recorded with other village children in one of Faber's hymns ( 'Jacob's lilac' in 'Flowers For The Altar''). He came as a page-boy and would go on to serve at the London Oratory all his life.
After the re-opening conditions were better, but that was all. Nevertheless, Faber had a renewed vigor. Among his congregation he identified a spiritual group he called his 'Belgravians'. Obtaining another room allowed for expansion. Newman started to come quite regularly and gave sermons, attracting such people as Thackeray and Charlotte Bronte. The name and work of St. Philip Neri was promoted, and the Confraternity of the Precious Blood established. It was a critical time however, being 1850. Not far away, the first Archbishop of Westminster, recently made Cardinal Wiseman in Rome, was a man also unflinchingly promotive of the Faith. Protestants were stirred, and there was discontent in Parliament. The very recognizable habits of the Oratorians led to lampooning in Punch, and in Birmingham, Fr. Newman had a sack of flour poured over his head. None of this deterred Fr. Faber's striving to make the chapel in King William Street a blaze of glory to God, to Mary, to the Saints, sometimes using four hundred candles in a vespers service. Lord Arundel was so apprehensive he would arrange for the fire brigade to be standing by!
Opposition notwithstanding, Fr. Faber could reflect and feel the Oratorians had arrived. He could even think about a country retreat (a small house in Lancing was soon made available), but mainly about a permanent House and church, which would be in the Italianate style, as will be seen in the concluding part of this study. These reflections, as he recorded at the time, also included his constant quest and prayers for purpose. "Why did I come here? Not to spend a lazy life, not to have pleasant companions, congenial duties, or a home without temptations. All these things I turned my back upon when I turned my back upon the world. I came here that I might love God fervently, and nothing but God .... And then to try and save souls for Jesus." This holy, focused priest was elected Superior of the London Oratory on October 11th, 1850, the Feast of St. Wilfrid.
From mid-October 1850, Fr. Faber was not just the leader in effect of his community of priests, he was the elected leader. The London Oratory was still looking for a permanent home and church, but even in the improbable premises in William Street, the Oratorians had made a name with their 'new' approach. Even the 'old' Catholics recognized them, and the Oratory's London significance in its way was comparable to that of the status of St. Paul's for Anglicans. The prayers and devotions introduced by the Congregation of Oratorians were, bit by bit, copied about London and elsewhere. By May 1851, through Faber's influence, Cardinal Wiseman, no less, would be preaching at the Feast of St. Philip Neri Mass.
Before this event, however, in November 1850, Faber was again quite seriously ill. Despite his protests medical advice insisted he take a rest, preferably for a good six months. It was arranged he should convalesce in the Holy Land, but on the way his sickness worsened and he disembarked at Malta, abandoning the rest of the journey. Heading back to England, he was, as he informed Newman by letter, able to visit Catonia, Syracuse, Messina, Palermo (where he visited his earlier and now reconciled patrons Lord and Lady Shrewsbury, who had a villa there) and Rome. Here he began to feel much better, and obtained an audience with the Pope. He got on well with Pius IX, who generously offered to grant some privileges. Fr. Faber declined anything for himself, but would be happy with "whatever your Holiness please to give my Congregation." He then produced a petition for a daily plenary indulgence for the Church of the Oratory. The Pope said "this must go to the Congregation of Rites." Faber replied, "ah, Holy Father, you can do it yourself if you will." At which the Pope laughed and signed the paper.
By the end of December, Faber was back in London, much to the surprise of Fr. Dalgairns, who had been left in charge. This premature return did not greatly please him or Fr. Hutchison. They worried he would be ill again and go into cantankerous moods. Dalgairns even conveyed these fears to Newman, complaining Faber ruled their House so completely, no-one dared point out faults they found with their Superior. Hutchison would not go this far, and was, in truth, an enduring and good friend. It has also been observed that Faber often seemed to prefer to write to people rather than talk to them, so part of an unco-operative side of his nature reflected perhaps more an idiosyncratic rather than a dictatorial personality.
Other Oratorians forced to convalesce did not return early like Fr. Faber, although the mother of one of these, Fr. John Bowden, who would be Faber's first biographer, made a much appreciated gesture for any future need of recuperation. She gave a piece of land at Sydenham, on which would be built a country retreat and a chapel. Foundations for this were laid in February 1852. But it was not until September that year that a site for the proposed Oratory was finally agreed upon. It was in Brompton, and, ironically, became available and accepted while Faber was away in Ireland. As ever there was opposition, including a petition by some to Parliament on the grounds that a Roman Catholic set of buildings would ruin the district. However, by 1854 the house, library and a temporary church were built, and the transfer of the fathers from King William Street was effected. Faber fell ill again as the opening took place in March, through exertion and worry about meeting deadlines. But anyone considering what he had achieved in less than ten years would hardly be surprised. He continued to deal with the problems the Oratory faced as it grew, but needed to spend more time resting, and Sydenham became a regular place of residence for him.
Even so, he did not neglect his practical and spiritual duties, nonetheleast as novice master from 1856. There were, too, times of great delight, such as when the Duchess of Argyll presented the Oratory with so impressive an organ, that extensions had to be made to the original church to accommodate it. The church we know today Fr. Faber never saw, though he would have approved. The architect, Herbert Gribble, stuck to the desired Italianate lines and the church was opened in 1884, having taken six years to construct. Indeed so strong is the Italian connection that some of the statues in the Oratory church have actually come the outstanding cathedral in Siena.
The general poor state of his health, though, continued to worsen, and he wrote to different people of how ill he often felt through 1858 and 1859. By 1861 there were long periods when he had to give up writing and preaching, and by July 1862 he was confiding that the pain and inactivity were 'almost more than I can bear.' Yet in 1863 his doctor did allow him to preach again, during Lent. He was able to preach on four occasions, the last sermon he gave being on Our Blessed Lord bowing His head upon the Cross. He said Mass for the last time just after Easter. By July the end was certain, but there was time, to Faber's joy, for Newman to visit him. In his last hours, always in the presence of his confessor, Fr. Dalgairns, he fixed his gaze upon a large crucifix, moving his eyes from wound to wound, to the end. He died, "with a touching expression, half of sweetness, half of surprise" (Bowden), on July 26th, 1863.
Fr. Frederick William Faber is surely a hero of the restored Faith in England. He is not without his critics, and at various levels: of priestly ambition and quirkiness of manner; of the theological writer; of the poet and composer of hymns. Nonetheless he impressed, overall, each of the first four cardinals of the restored Catholic Church hierarchy post-1850: Wiseman, Manning, Newman and Vaughan, and all, save Cardinal Vaughan who would be responsible for the building of Westminster Cathedral, he knew well.
Indeed, many more are the admirers of this all-round man of God. For example, a book written shortly after Faber died (on St.Louis Marie de Montfort by an anonymous Dominican priest, published 1870), is dedicated to him "in heartfelt gratitude for the greater love of Mary's name, which in no small measure through his ministry is now gladdening God's Church in England." However, it is not difficult to see how he could impress people much of the time, and yet on other occasions confuse or disappoint. His relationship with Fr. Newman perhaps particularly reflects this. But despite the times of uncomfortable correspondence between them, the lasting feeling of Faber for his friend and mentor was that Newman was the one "who taught me all the good I know," and whom he described as "the greatest scholar since St. Augustine." Newman in turn, many years later, when near his own death, requested a hymn of Faber's to be played to him when his last hours came, generously maintaining 'Eternal Years' was better than his own Lead, Kindly Light. A modesty too far!
He has caused consternation among his biographers too, nonetheleast one of the most respected, Ronald Chapman, whose conclusion, after a critical and balanced assessment is that " the Oratory is not simply a beautiful Catholic church. The Oratory stands for the spirit of St. Philip Neri which Faber brought into the hard dark London of the 1850s. That was his great achievement - to bring light and tender devotion into the darkness. He set out to do just that and did it."
So one has only to visit the Oratory in London to be reminded of his legacy (as well-known Catholic journalist Joanna Bogle says: "the Oratory is right next door to the V & A Museum. You can't miss it, and on a Sunday you don't want to - it has the most glorious liturgy in London and possibly any city in Europe."), but what of parish level in the provinces throughout the rest of the country? Christopher Graffius in his Catholic Times column recently (14.12.03) raised a most pertinent question: "how often do you sing Faith of Our Fathers in your church...and why not sing it? It is part of the rich tapestry of English tradition and we should not forget it." Amen to that! Fr. Faber knew that England had once been Our Lady's dowry, and were he alive in these also-difficult days, he would be striving in his exemplary way to bring it back to her. The third verse of this great hymn is now so relevant again, and shows us how his work for the Church continues long after he has gone to his reward:
' Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall indeed be free
Faith of our fathers, Holy Faith
We will be true to thee till death... '