Sunday, April 24, 2016

Father Mackonochie of St Alban's Holborn

(Above) the Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, and its first Vicar, Father Alexander Heriot Mackonochie. The church was built by William Butterfield in 1863. Sadly, on the night of 16th April 1941, it was largely destroyed by firebombs. When the war ended, Adrian Gilbert Scott was asked to produce a new, more economical design and he incorporated several features of the old building that had survived the fire, including the massive saddleback tower, the east wall and the chapel built in 1891 to honour Father Mackonochie.

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In September 2009 I was at a conference of Forward in Faith Scotland at St Mary’s Monastery, Kinnoull, Perth, followed by a period of ministry, meetings, preachments and Masses, based in the highlands at St Michael and All Angels, Inverness, whose Vicar, Father Len Black, now a priest of the Ordinariate, was Chairman of FiF Scotland. 

In those days, a notable aspect of Father Len’s varied ministry was his regular hour-long programme “Crossfire” on Moray Firth and Nevis Radio. He and I drove to Loch Leven in the west of Scotland for a couple of days, to make an episode in situ on the life and death of Alexander Heriot Mackonochie, an Anglo-Catholic hero of ours who died at the age of 62 on 15th December, 1887. We recorded segments of conversation and poetry in the places that were familiar to Father Mackonochie, including what had been the house of his friend, the Rt Rev'd Alexander Chinnery-Haldane, Bishop of Argyle, at Ballachulish, near Glencoe, the walking route through the Moor of Rannoch, the Forest of Mamore at the head of Loch Leven, the desolate region where Father Mackonochie died, and then to the large cenotaph cross of local slate that stands just outside the west end of St Bride's Church in Mackonochie's memory.

Father Len and I had both been priests of the Society of the Holy Cross (“SSC”) for many years. As Father Mackonoche was among its earliest members (serving three terms as Master, from 1863 to 1875, from 1879 to 1881 and in 1885), this pilgrimage to the place of his death was - for me - deeply moving. 

Father Mackonochie holds a special place among the second generation of priests of the Catholic revival on account of his austerity and holiness of life. His heart was on fire with love for God. He proclaimed and lived the Gospel. He taught the Catholic faith. He especially devoted himself to the poor, and provided for them a church in which Catholic worship was offered in its fulness, and the Gospel message preached with passion. Replying to those who deprecate the influence of such priests, Kenneth McNab has written that “the romantic picture of the SSC slum-priest living, working and dying amongst the poorest of society may owe something to Anglo-Catholic hagiography, but neither is it a work of fiction.” [McNab, Kenneth, 2006 “Mackonochie and the Controversies over Confession and Ritual.” In ed. William Davage, In this Sign Conquer: A History of the Society of the Holy Cross, 1855-2005. London: Continuum: 78-119.] In Mackonochie’s case, for his trouble he was hounded and persecuted by the Church authorities of his day, and even in his own time came to be considered something of a martyr. But through his ministry and that of his co-labourers, the Catholic revival took root in the Church of England, and all who in that Church have since learned the fulness of Catholic faith and worship owe them a huge debt of gratitude. 

The following account is my conflation of contemporary sources and other studies, including: Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir, by E.A. Towle; Alexander Heriot Mackonochie - An Appreciation;  Father Mackonochie, by I.G. Brooks (Forward Plus Summer 2013Reverend Rebels by Bernard Palmer; Martyr of Ritualism by Michael Reynolds.


Alexander Heriot Mackonochie was born at Fareham, Hampshire, in 1825. His father, Colonel Mackonochie, who had served with the East India Company, died two years later. His two boys, James and Alexander, were brought up by their mother, who, like her husband, was of Scottish descent. 

Very early in childhood Alexander felt he heard God calling him to the priesthood. In fact, his friends sometimes called him “the boy bishop.” As his health was never good, his mother moved first to Bath and later to Exeter where he attended private schools. At Exeter, he was confirmed and made his first Communion. Later, again, they moved to Edinburgh, and for a short period he studied at Edinburgh University.


In 1845 Mackonochie went to Wadham College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of Dr Pusey, and still more of Charles Marriott, both leaders of the “Oxford movement.” 

He graduated in 1848 and was made deacon in the following year by Bishop Denison at Salisbury. Then he went to his first curacy at Westbury. Here he “fasted too much and worked too hard.” He became known as a faithful visitor, even as he struggled to overcome a certain shyness and awkwardness with those he visited. But he always won their affections. In those early days he found preaching a real trial, costing him hours of labour. But motivated by his devotion to souls, he determined to overcome every difficulty standing in his way. He showed an unwearied zeal in ministering to the poorest In addition he would rise daily around four or five in the morning for prayer and meditation.

Mackonochie was ordained priest in 1850, and remained at Westbury for just over two more years. But he longed for more frequent Masses, together with worship along more Catholic lines. He was drawn to The Rev’d William Butler, Vicar of Wantage, in whose parish there was a daily Mass, a church open all day long, well-ordered services, and a well managed pastoral ministry. Years later, in 1889, Butler, then Dean of Lincoln, wrote of him: “Even at this long interval of time his name is remembered, and there are some still who love to tell of his assiduous visiting, the earnestness of his preaching, the wonderful influence which he gained over some of the most hardened and hopeless.”

In 1856 Mackonochie wanted to give himself to mission work in Newfoundland. But it became evident to him that this was not God’s will. 


Two years later he felt the call to mission work in East London. This brought him to Father Charles Lowder and Wellclose Square. Here he entered on his life’s work, for which his gifts and training had prepared him. “By his indefatigable labours, eloquent preaching, and unceasing care for souls,” wrote Father Lowder, “he set us an example of what mission work really was.”

Here Father Mackonochie began to experience the conflict in which he was to spend the rest of his ministry until he retired, a broken man. When riots occurred in St George’s Church, incited by a Mr Allen bringing with him a mob of over a thousand strong from Whitechapel, he entered on a spirited defence of his rector, the Rev’d Bryan King, but to no avail, for there was no natural justice in those days for loyal Catholics in the Church of England as Mackonochie was to experience again and again in the course of his ministry. 

In 1859, when things at St George’s were at their worst, Mackonochie was offered the Vicarage of St Saviour’s, Leeds. But he would not leave the Mission, where he felt he was just getting established. Nor would he desert Lowder, who relied on his support. So he laboured on indefatigably until, in 1861, his health gave way. He was laid up with rheumatic fever, and was for some time subject to relapses.


In 1862 a Mr Hubbard, who had built the church and clergy house of St Alban’s, on the site in Holborn, given by the generosity of Lord Leigh, where a thieves’ kitchen had stood, surrounded by slums and poverty, nominated Mackonochie as its first vicar. Here was a call to pioneer work in slum-land. He was excited and took up the challenge. So, in a cellar in Greville Street, services were held while the church was being completed. It was consecrated in 1863. And here Father Mackonochie began the twenty years’ ministry which was to make St Alban’s, Holborn, a praise and a glory throughout England. 

As a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross Mackonochie was ready to put his experience and his convictions into practice in the newly-created parish. His spiritual focus centred on Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament; his pastoral work centred on serving Jesus in the poor. Like his fellow-priests in SSC he regarded the physical welfare of his parishioners as one of his normal responsibilities.

In the appalling overcrowded slums which surrounded St Alban’s his care for the people soon became known. Never apparently in a hurry, Father Mackonochie laboured from morning to night, at the service of all who needed his help. He gathered round him a faithful band of workers, clergy and lay, and inspired them with his own devotion. He divided the parish into districts each under the care of a curate and a team of visitors. He established guilds for men, women, boys, girls, a parish school and nursery, night schools, a choir school, a soup kitchen, a blanket loan club, clothing fund, coal charity, a private burial ground, and numerous other agencies of welfare and relief. 

Father Mackonochie managed to find time also for his great work as Master of the Society of the Holy Cross, which for many years had an office at Greville Street, close to the church and clergy house.


Tait, Bishop of London and a fellow-Scot, heartily approved Mackonochie’s ministry to the poor, and the impact St Alban’s had on its neighbourhood. But Tait just as strongly disliked Mackonochie’s passion for what was often derided as “ritualism” - his desire to give due honour to the Lord Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, to clothe the worship of the Church of England in beauty and glory, to bring light and peace into the darkness of hard and troubled lives. It was persecution from the authorities of the Church he loved that in the end drained the strength of this great priest and hastened his death.

There were initial disagreements with the patron and benefactor who had paid for the building of St Alban’s. But these were relatively minor. The new church began to grow. In 1864, the year in which coloured vestments were introduced, there were 291 Easter communicants. In the next year there were 453. Incense was first used in 1866. By 1867 the annual communicant figure had risen from 3,000 to 18,000.

In February of that year the persecution began. The Church Association, formed in 1865 to fight "Ritualism" through the Courts, persuaded a solicitor who lived in Bloomsbury, but was secretary of a Holborn school, to initiate the complaint. Father Mackonochie was accused, under the Church Discipline Act of 1840, of disobedience to the Prayer Book rubrics by elevating the paten and chalice, kneeling “excessively” during the Prayer of Consecration, using lighted candles on the altar, using incense, mixing water with wine in the chalice.

The proceedings dragged on until January 1868 and judgment was given in March, ruling against everything except altar lights and kneeling. Not satisfied, the Church Association continued to hound Mackonochie year after year. Dozens of priests were prosecuted, but Mackonochie became their main target and was elevated into a figure of national interest A period of peace from 1871-4 ended with the passing of the Public Worship Regulation Act. Without going into minute details regarding the litigation, suffice to say that over the fifteen years from 1867 Father Mackonochie suffered suspension for a period of three months, had his stipend withheld by the Bishop of London for three years, and was eventually, in 1882, faced with being deprived of his position as vicar of St Alban’s. Throughout this time he had continued diligently, tirelessly and faithfully to care for his parish and his people and had won their affection. Now he would be forced to leave. 

It has been said that at St Alban’s, Mackonochie’s gifts ripened to their maturity, that he made St Alban’s, and, in a very real sense, St Alban’s made him. It made him and it broke him. A vessel fitted for his Master’s service, he asked nothing better than to be broken in it.

Lord Halifax spoke, soon after Father Mackonochie’s death, of his long “battle to vindicate for the Church of England in regard to her ritual, her doctrine, and her jurisdiction, not only the historical and constitutional rights recognized and secured to her by prescription and statutes, but also her inherent and indefensible rights as a portion of the one Holy Catholic Church.”

In the battle he fought doggedly. And it would be hard to over-estimate his contribution to the victories of the Catholic cause. In 1882, at the dying request of Archbishop Tait, who urged the public interests of the Church, in view of the unremitting prosecution and persecution of St Alban’s, Holborn, Mackonochie resigned his benefice. He was nominated to that of St Peter’s, London Docks, Father Suckling, Lowder’s successor at St Peter’s, being transferred to St Alban’s. Of this arrangement he wrote, with characteristic brevity: ‘Of course, it is a wrench to sign oneself out of St Alban’s, but it will be a counterbalancing satisfaction to take up Lowder’s work.’


He took up his duties at St Peter’s early in 1883. But in July of that year another prosecution had culminated in a sentence of deprivation. For himself, Mackonochie was prepared to undergo sacrifices, and to go doggedly on, as he had done in the past But to do so meant the loss of the endowment of £300 a year, which this poor parish could hardly spare: and there was a danger of the patronage lapsing into unfriendly hands. Acting on the advice of friends, he resigned St Peter’s at the beginning of 1884, and went to take up his residence - as a volunteer member of the staff - at his old parish, St Alban’s, Holborn.

The long strain had told upon him, but he went on working. He was constant in his visits to St Saviour’s Priory, he preached the Three Hours at Ballachulish, he gave a retreat at Cumbrae. Bodily he was well. But he was, to a noticeable extent, confused in mind, easily losing the thread of his thoughts. He had gone on trying to work during 1884 and 1885, when he needed rest. In 1886 he wrote:

“I am still not able to do much writing or anything else. This is very much due to my folly in trying (from about November, 1884, to about this time last year) to do some work. Since then, I have been unable to do any intellectual work.”

In 1887 Father Mackonochie reported himself “out of tone and unfit yet for work.” During these last years, he spent much time at Ballachulish, a welcome and honoured guest of his friend, Alexander Chinnery-Haldane, the Bishop of Argyll. He also paid occasional short visits to the Continent, and long ones to his brother’s house at Wantage.

But his ministry was ending. He seldom preached, and could rarely trust himself to celebrate, a sacrifice which must have cost him much. Since he found his inactivity a sore burden, he prayed “that he might not cumber the earth.” Returning to Wantage after a day trip to London, in 1887, he had got out of the train by mistake at Didcot, and wandered about the roads between Didcot and Wantage for a great part of the night.

Not that he was distressed. “He was only forgetful of names, and words, and incapable sometimes of expressing himself clearly. He was holy and happy in his tone of mind to the laSt” Such is the testimony of the Bishop of Argyll.


Yet he had a prevision of the end. Parting with his relatives at Wantage, they spoke of a future “when you are better.” “I shall never be better,” he replied, turning away for a few moments; then turning round again, tranquil and composed, he said a kindly farewell to each in turn. This was on October 19. On December 10 he arrived at Ballachulish to stay at the episcopal residence. Father Mackonochie was a keen walker who, in earlier years, thought nothing of a thirty mile trek over rough ground. He set out on the Thursday morning, December 15, with a packed lunch and a walking stick, to reach the head of the Loch, accompanied by the bishop’s two dogs, a little terrier and a deerhound. “You will be back before dark?” they said to him before he went. “I hope so, I hope so,” he replied; the last words which any of his friends heard from his lips. 

By nightfall he had not returned and the anxious bishop sent two men with lanterns to search the road to Loch Leven.

As a terrible storm rose, the bishop himself set out with a carriage and pair and searched unsuccessfully until 4am. All Friday an enlarged search party scoured the glens and forests in snow and hail, but not until Saturday did they find him, guarded by the two dogs who would allow no-one near their friend until the bishop approached. “His body seemed almost frozen, and his head was half-buried in the snow-wreath which had formed his last pillow”, wrote the bishop. “In his face was a pleasant and holy look of peace and joy.” Although his expression showed no sign of suffering it was evident that he had had a distressing struggle among the rocks in pitch darkness and raging storm.

The position of his body showed that he had died kneeling in prayer. His dear friend and fellow-priest Father Stanton pictured the scene: “The mystery of his stern, hard, self-devoted life completed itself in the weird circumstances of his death. He seems to have walked round and round the hollow in which he had taken refuge from the mountain storm, trying to keep life in him as long as he could; then, as if he knew his hour had come, deliberately to have uncovered his head to say his last prayers, and then to have laid his head upon his hand and died, sheltered ‘in the hollow of the hand’ of God, Whom he had served so faithfully; and at His bidding the wild wind from off the moor wreathed his head with snow.”

He had evidently lost his way and mistaken his direction within two or three hours of nightfall. Thinking he was returning towards Ballachulish he was, in reality, heading away into the trackless wastes of the deer forest of Mamore. 

Bishop Chinnery-Haldane helped to carry Father Mackonochie back to the episcopal chapel, then washed his hands, feet and face and clothed him in his mass vestments.

Mackonochie’s close friend, Father Russell, travelled from London to escort the body home by boat and train, and on Thursday morning he lay in the chapel at St Alban’s as Father Stanton offered the Mass. St Alban’s was full that evening for Solemn Vespers of the Dead, and the following morning for the Funeral Mass, with hundreds more outside.

Thousands witnessed the procession to Waterloo Station, with the servers, choir, fifty robed clergy, and hundreds of mourners walking four abreast, followed by thirty carriages. At Brookwood, in the cemetery which he had secured for St Alban’s, he was laid to rest among his beloved people. 

The struggle in which he had engaged had finally broken him, but the battle was won. His holy and dedicated life still inspires today. The Scots granite of the cross that marks his grave is a fitting symbol of the determination and the endurance of this remarkable priest.

The “old” St Alban’s Holborn during Eastertide (does anyone know what year this was drawn, or where it was first published?) Click on the image to enlarge it.

Father Mackonochie with the clergy he had gathered around him at St Alban’s, Holborn, pictured in 1874, the same year in which Parliament passed the notorious Public Worship Regulation Act. Front row (from left): H. A. Walker, Alexander Mackonocie, Arthur Stanton, H. E. Willington. Back row: H. G. Maxwell, E. F. Russell, G. R. Hogg. 


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