I recently had the opportunity to visit Ushaw College (in pre pandemic, normal life days). Ushaw is a continuation of the English College seminary in Douai, which had to return to England due to Catholic persecution during the French Revolution. France was a safe haven for English seminarians during the English Reformation, but by 1795 it was safer for the English to return to England. In 1847, the college at Ushaw expanded to accommodate its growing number of students, and Pugin designed the beautiful chapel of St Cuthbert, which was later rebuilt twice the size. It is the kind of place that leaves me feeling like a pathetic writer; it is too beautiful to describe. I like to think I’ve seen it all, in terms of beautiful churches and chapels, but I audibly gasped as I walked in.
However, despite its beauty, and the beauty of the adjacent Lady Chapel (which also leaves me scrabbling inadequately for words) what really interested me were two very small chapels nearby. Small enough that only a few people could comfortably stand inside at one time; perhaps room for a priest and a server. Like St Cuthbert’s chapel, they were both exquisitely designed, but with one anomaly; instead of a tiled step or sanctuary area around the small altar, there is instead a step made from wooden boards.
This architectural quirk was explained as follows:
In the pre-World War One era, tiled floors in churches and chapels (especially on the sanctuary) were the only floor material allowed. This was, of course, in order that any spillage of the Precious Blood could be cleared up with due reverence. However, during the First World War, special dispensation was given so that Army chaplains could say Mass out of doors, in whatever suitable places they could find behind the lines.
When Ushaw completed these two chapels; their war memorial chapels, instead of a tiled step to the altar there are wooden boards. It is a simple yet poignant nod to the unprecedented situations chaplains said Mass in.
In the historical and cultural landscape of the First World War, we are familiar with much that has seeped into our collective consciousness. You only need say its name and images of trenches, dugouts and war poets leap to mind. But in any shorthand of a huge historic event, much detail is lost.
In 1914 Catholics in Britain were largely accepted in society, thanks to a complicated process of Catholic emancipation that trickled through acts and laws down the 18th and 19th century (even into the 20th century). Catholic priests, churches, and schools were all allowed, and London had a new Catholic cathedral. Still, prejudice and discrimination were rife, particularly against the Irish Catholic population who had done so much to further the development of England during the Industrial Revolution, and who had been a catalyst for Catholic emancipation. There was- and perhaps still is- a suggestion that being a Catholic in any professional position that serves one’s country; soldier, politician, judge, put one in conflict between loyalty to England and the Queen, and loyalty to the Pope, and Rome.
There were very few Catholic Chaplains in the British Army at the start of the war, and Kitchener wanted to keep it that way. He was to be disappointed; his wife persuaded him to allow the Catholics their priests, and religious orders quickly supplied chaplains for the fight. Unlike in France, British clergy, Catholic or otherwise, were exempt from conscription and plenty of chaplains made their way to serve and support the men in the lines.
There’s a wealth of information about Catholic chaplains during the First World War, and some very moving accounts of their loyalty and solidarity to their men, their bravery and their determination to minister the sacraments no matter the cost. Men were attracted to the tangible nature of the devotional life of the Catholic church; rosaries, prayer cards, crucifixes and Miraculous medals were all in popular demand. Confession, general absolution and Mass could all be offered to and for the soldiers by the priests. To any Catholic, these were (and are) necessities as vital as food and drink.
More deserves to be written about Catholicism during the First World War, especially within the narrative of how it furthered Catholic conversions in England at the time. The wooden boards at Ushaw are just one of many forgotten symbols that remind us that Christ was in the midst of the battlefields too.
I’ll give the last words of this post to Fr William Doyle, an Irish Jesuit, who wrote poignantly about saying Mass in the trenches:
By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice – but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.