A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Nailsworth’s Italian Missionary – Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God
by Brian Torode and Richard Barton in 1987
Tucked between the hamlets of Forest Green and Windsoredge and the heart of modern Nailsworth, overlooking the wooded hillside of Watledge, stands Northfields. The original house was built in about 1707 as the manse or parsonage for the minister of the Forest Green Congregational Chapel. From about 1800, the enlarged house served as a small grammar school which was first run by the minister and was, in 1820, known as Chapel House Academy. The house is situated along Northfields Road, the old road from Stroud into Nailsworth, which passes many of the old cottages that are situated along the spring line. This route would have been well-trodden by the many clothiers, weavers and cloth workers of the area prior to the turnpike roads being constructed along the valley bottoms.
Less than a quarter of a mile away, up the hill, the Independents used to meet in a forest clearing, from as early as 1672, and this outdoor gathering grew into the Forest Green Congregational Church. At this time, Nailsworth was not a town, as we know it today, but merely a collection of scattered hamlets. Forest Green was actually situated within the ancient parish of Avening and, because it was situated over two miles from the medieval parish church, there the practice of non-conformist or independent worship flourished. Quaker meetings thrived in Nailsworth from 1655 and warranted visits from George Fox on three occasions. The most successful church in the area was Shortwood Baptist meeting which boasted a congregation of nearly 700 in 1840 and a chapel which sat 1200. In fact, it has been said, that the established religion in the area was Baptist and the established church, Shortwood. Nailsworth was, indeed, an unusual place developing, as it did, around the textile industry, with clothiers and clothworkers worshipping side by side and participating with equal fervour in the life and worship of these chapels.
It was not until the year 1794 that an Anglican chapel-of-ease was erected in Nailsworth by a group of the newly arrived, wealthy, factory mill owners. In spite of this development Nailsworth remained essentially non-conformist in its sympathy and practice. The fervent Baptist and Congregational chapels resisted the preaching of John Wesley in 1739 and George Whitefield, in 1743, at nearby Minchinhampton, although a Tabernacle was soon erected at Rodborough and Wesleyan chapels at Littleworth in 1790 and at Downend in 1820. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the chapels of the Nailsworth area were to be threatened by a further intrusion.
William Leigh was born in 1802 and educated at Eton and Oxford. Before settling at Little Aston Hall in Staffordshire. Whilst studying at Oxford he was influenced by Newman, Keble and other figures from the Oxford Movement. In 1844 he was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, one year before John Henry, later Cardinal, Newman. Leigh’s conversion caused him to be ‘cold-shouldered’ by his neighbours and so, in November 1845, he purchased the thousand-acre Spring Park Estate from the second Earl Ducie.
Here, at Woodchester, Leigh intended to provide not only a stunning Gothic revival residence for his family, but he wished to establish a Catholic mission to be served by a community of religious. At this time, the nearest Catholic places-of-worship were at Gloucester, Cheltenham and Chipping Sodbury. To the east, at Fairford, was a new church, constructed in that year, by members of the Iles Family. There is a tradition that Mass was celebrated at a cottage in Nympsfield as early as 1842 but, other than the occasional celebration of Mass or a baptism in other private houses by visiting priests, there was no centre for Catholic worship in the Stroud area.
When William Leigh acquired Spring Park he contacted Bishop Nicholas Wiseman who suggested that the Passionist Order might be interested in undertaking the proposed mission, ‘as the Catholic authorities had been anxious to see a mission established at Stroud, feeling satisfied that in it and its populous neighbourhood, if a chance was given, Religion would be easily established and flourish exceedingly.’ The Congregation of the Passion took fifty-five years to establish and was founded in the eighteenth century, in Italy, by Paul Francis Danei, known to us as St Paul of the Cross.
To this Company belonged one, Dominic Barberi, who was born, north of Rome, on 22nd June 1792. He was orphaned at an early age and was compelled to provide for himself by working as a shepherd. During Napoleon’s occupation of Italy, he became acquainted with some Passionist priests whose company had been disbanded along with other religious orders. When allowed to re-assemble upon Napoleon’s exile, young Barberi presented himself and was admitted as a candidate for the Passionist order, taking the religious name of Dominic of the Mother of God. Since he had little education the Provincial admitted him as a lay-brother, however, the novice master quickly spotted Dominic’s intelligence and his potential and had him re-admitted as a clerical student. Dominic was a rapid learner and, ultimately, became a Professor of Philosophy and Theology in Rome. Drawn to missionary work his enthusiasm for England was kindled both by a series of visionary experiences and by friendships formed with English visitors to Italy, amongst whom was a later convert, Sir George Spencer.
At this time the Catholic Church in England was regarded with much suspicion and not a little enmity. Its supporters were chiefly old Catholic families and their households. England as a missionary territory was divided into districts and served by bishops who were called Vicars-Apostolic. Gloucestershire was in the Western District and its Vicar-Apostolic lived at Prior Park in Bath and later in Clifton, Bristol. From the 1830’s this small number of Catholics was swelled by Irish immigrants as well as converts from the Church of England, many of whom had been influenced by the Oxford Movement. The Western District expanded from having about 5,500 Catholics in 1815 to a figure of 12,000 in 1826 and 24,580 in 1840.
On Guy Fawkes’ Day, 1840, Dominic Barberi arrived in England and within a relatively short time established missions at Aston and Stone in Staffordshire. He must have appeared a most unlikely ‘Apostle to England’ even though he was a learned academic theologian. At Aston he became the laughing stock of the place as he looked funny, being short and rather stout of body. We are told that his clothes never fitted properly and his squeaky Italian voice offered little magnetism. His gait was shuffling and his countenance appeared to be grieving and he was very often unshaved. He knew next to nothing of the ordinary life of Anglican clergymen nor much about the Church of England in general. Gradually, his sincere holiness and sincerity disarmed all and, in spite of his appetite for florid Italian devotions, which antagonized Protestants and traditional English Catholics alike, he made numerous converts, the most influential being Newman. Newman later wrote, ‘When his form came into sight I was moved to the depths in the strangest way. The gaiety and affability of his manner, in the midst of all his sanctity, was, in itself, a holy sermon…. I wish all people were as charitable as I know him to be…. He was a great lover of England’
On February 9th, 1846, Dominic Barberi made his first visit to Gloucestershire being met by William Leigh at Frocester. Barberi wrote later to his superior in Rome, ‘The place is very beautiful and suitable for us in every way. The country round about is thickly populated… but there is no city near at hand. The nearest town is about three miles away (Stroud) but it is not much more than a village. The house which it is planned to build for us would be very solitary, upon a slight eminence or hill, and overlooking a number of houses and distant villages containing a scattered population of about ten thousand inhabitants… The population is entirely Protestant, but there are well founded hopes that many would become Catholics with a little help and encouragement.’
In 1844 the minister of the ‘Pepper Pot’, the Anglican chapel-of-ease in Nailsworth, described the moral state of the population as being, ‘very low and their habits idle and thriftless.’ Dominic Barberi was also surprised to discover, ‘many non-Catholics here who could not tell me clearly who Jesus Christ was.’
The site planned for the proposed church was on land belonging to William Leigh in an area of South Woodchester. For the time being Leigh hired Northfields, at £20 per annum on a two-year lease, from the minister of the Forest Green Congregational Church, ‘who little suspected that his place was to be a receptacle for the professors of popery.’
Before occupying the house, Father Dominic spent a week in Gloucester with a lay-brother, Thomas. Before taking possession of the property Barberi wrote an assuring letter to Leigh, ‘Do not trouble yourself about the furniture; a very few things will suffice for poor monks accustomed to hardships of every sort… The most essential things would be an altar for Divine Service and some straw to lie upon. Other things such as chairs, tables, books and the like, will be provided by degrees. The nuns of Mount St Benedict have promised me a set of vestments and I shall carry a chalice and a little ciborium with me. The rest will come in time.’
On March 25th 1846, the Feast of Our Lady of the Annunciation, Dominic Barberi celebrated his first Mass at Northfields in a room hastily fitted up for the occasion and six Catholics attended. Father Dominic described his new residence as, ‘a fine, large place’ which could easily accommodate fifteen religious. Within a few days two more Passionists arrived at Northfields including Father Marcellian, who, it was planned, would become Superior of the community when Father Dominic had set the new foundation firmly on its feet. Barberi was soon able to report to Leigh, ‘We are very comfortable here even without furniture except for what is quite indispensable. We have a few things for the kitchen, one table and four chairs sent by Mr Harrison; our straw mattresses are now on the floor but we sleep very well.’
On the following Sunday, Passion Sunday, Father Dominic preached to about fifteen persons in the morning and again in the evening. Another account refers to him preaching to twenty people in the parlour of whom several had travelled seven miles. He was, of course, hoping to attract non-Catholics and he was pained to discover that one man had actually been turned away because he was not a Catholic.
On Palm Sunday, the week afterwards, he was able to report that the crowd was so great that he was unable to genuflect before the altar. He was half suffocated by the crowds and the heat meant that he struggled to continue. Leigh estimated that three hundred people attended the service even though there were no seats, inadequate ventilation and a sermon which lasted for an hour and a half! As the community moved into the Holy Week Liturgy they decided to convert the former schoolroom into a make-shift chapel. This meant that within the space of a fortnight they had achieved much and Barberi was able to report home that the chapel, ‘looks beautiful with its antependium and four benches.’ Northfields now housed not only the members of the community but also a table for the refectory, six bedsteads, six chairs and three writing desks, all of which had been given.
The crowds continued to gather around Northfields and those who came were able to experience the Triduum celebrated with all possible solemnity. On Good Friday Father Dominic preached three times on the passion of Jesus and the sorrows of his mother, Mary. The chapel was packed with people, many of whom stood outside. Inevitably there was some opposition and it was serious enough for Dominic to seek out some protection from the Police, ‘to keep the people in order and to prevent the boys from coming to the chapel.’ It would seem that many of the curious asked for books and some even enquired about instruction. In response, Father Dominic promised to preach every evening at six o’clock and this proved popular so much so that children were excluded so as to cram in more adults.
On Easter Sunday 1846, Barberi travelled over to the new church at Fairford where he celebrated Mass, there being no resident priest. This was to result in a monthly supply there from Northfields and a number of baptisms were celebrated by the Fathers too. Barberi is also reputed to have celebrated Mass in what later became ‘Barberi Cottage’, at Nympsfield. By June of that year he wrote home, ‘we say Mass wherever we can, even in taverns where we can find any kind of suitable room.’
Not everyone welcomed Dominic, and this is illustrated in the story of him visiting a local house, one evening, and the door being slammed in his face by a child. It would seem that the children at the local school had been instructed, ‘about the proper way to deal with the wicked monks.’ On the other hand, another story is told of a local housewife, who later became a Catholic and a real mother to the little community, who happily presented loaves of bread to Father Dominic whenever he called at her house. Her conversion apparently caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood because she was a well-respected Baptist, known for her piety. Other converts during that period included a local landowner and his family and, also, the son of a local Anglican clergyman. Mrs. Leigh was also received into full communion with the Catholic Church by the Passionist Fathers.
Within two months of their arrival, Father Dominic was able to write home, ‘the people come in crowds every Sunday. We preach thrice every feast day and our little church is packed full to the door, mainly with Protestants as the Catholics, of course, are very few.’ During the space of a few days the members of the community distributed six hundred Catholic catechisms free of charge. Later, in a letter to his Superior, Father Dominic observed that, ‘The Protestants here are rather fond of money and like things free. Woe to whoever touches their pockets!’
As the summer progressed, Leigh saw that the time was now ripe to realise his desire for a proper church at South Woodchester. He had some plans drawn up by Augustus Welby Pugin but these were considered to be too costly to realise. Pugin had thought that the site was difficult and he commented that it would, ‘take the cost of building an ordinary church to get it level.’ Leigh was determined to make the most of his conspicuous site and so he abandoned Pugin and commissioned new plans from Charles Hansom of Bristol. The site was certainly a fine one and, Barberi observed, ‘it is the most beautiful I have ever seen in England and the air is most healthy’. The foundation stone of the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation was laid on November 26th, 1846. Certainly, the church was of a beautiful design but it was an expensive one to build, costing £10,000, all at Leigh’s expense. It was further intended by their benefactor that the Passionists would receive eleven acres and an endowment of £100 per annum.
The little community at Northfields continued to flourish and Barberi was able to report, ‘The concourse of people to our little chapel, from the first, has been great; so much so, that it could not afford sufficient accommodation. Surely all do not attend with good dispositions; some to criticize, some through curiosity, and finally, some disturb the devotion of this little congregation. However, with patience and perseverance, we have been enabled to get on. Several Protestants have been received into the bosom of the Catholic Church (the first of whom is already dead and buried where the new church is being erected); many are under instruction and amongst others, a person of great piety, Mrs. Evans, who from the first arrival of the religious here, has shown maternal charity towards us.’
By the end of the first year, 1846, the community had increased to ten religious, some were engaged in the affairs of the house and others were involved in pastoral endeavours. Northfields had now become the study house for the English Passionists and both novices and the missionaries from Italy were living in this house or ‘retreat’. Here, Father Dominic engaged with his religious, teaching them both philosophy and theology.
Barberi intended to open a school for the children and soon a teacher was appointed and she received a remuneration of £25 per annum.
In January 1847 Barberi, who had acted as the superior at Northfields as well as being the Provincial of the order in England, decided that he should reside elsewhere and so he appointed Father Marcellian as rector at Northfields. Unfortunately, the house was to be plagued with illness and it was at about this time that Father Dominic is supposed to have miraculously cured a consumptive novice. In March 1848, Father Marcellian died of cancer and, shortly afterwards, eighteen-year-old Brother Andrew died too. With the death of Father Marcellian, Father Vincent Grotti was appointed to succeed him. Even though Barberi had moved away he still paid visits to Gloucestershire.
Leigh saw that the mission was prospering and he continued to be a generous benefactor to the community. He installed a ‘first rate organ’ in the temporary chapel at Northfields. However, Father Vincent became somewhat alarmed and reported, ‘He wants to make us too rich.’ The relationships between the Leighs and the ‘monks’ at Northfields was still warm and Barberi was clearly impressed by Leigh’s personal piety. It was noted that the Leighs had decided to live in their gardener’s cottage until the church and retreat were completed, rather than starting work on their own home first.
On Tuesday, March 20th, 1849, the community moved from Northfields into a large cottage, Park Hill, which was situated near to where the new church was under construction. This property is known, today, as St Mary’s Hill House, and in the attic one can still see the remains of their dormitory. This house had been fitted up by Leigh as a temporary arrangement until a proper ‘retreat’ was erected adjoining the new church. There was insufficient room in the house for a public chapel but, it is said, that the spacious room over the sacristies of the new church was used for the celebration of Mass until the church was completed and formally opened.
The Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation was a lavish expression of Leigh’s faith and it contained work by the finest craftsmen. This was to be a tangible link between England’s rich medieval past and the modern expansion of Roman Catholicism. However, it must have seemed strange that Leigh had chosen to staff his Early English revival church with Italian religious, dressed in their conspicuous habits. However, although the Passionists were slowly attracting English vocations they were not prepared to have them spending long hours in Leigh’s choir stalls chanting the monastic offices. Their mission was to preach retreats in populous places.
What Father Dominic made of the new church is not really known. He visited the church, prior to its completion, and, on seeing his head painted in Henry Doyle’s fresco above the Rood Screen, remarked in his last letter to Leigh, ‘Oh what an ugly figure.’
Six months later, on August 27th, 1849, whilst travelling to Woodchester for the opening of the new church, Dominic Barberi suffered an acute heart attack on Pangbourne Station and he was transferred to the Railway Hotel in Reading where he subsequently died. He was buried at Stone after a solemn Requiem Mass which was witnessed by a large silent crowd. Many would have remembered him walking amongst them there, bravely facing the insults and mockery of his assailants. After all, he had come amongst them as a friendless stranger seeking only to serve them and to preach Christ’s gospel and his passion. The coffin was opened in 1886 and his body was found to be incorrupt. On September 27th, 1963, Dominic of the Mother of God was beatified by Pope Paul VI in Rome.
In Gloucestershire, this ‘Missionary to the Nailsworth Valleys’ was to be remembered in the small Catholic community that he helped to establish there. During the five years that the Passionists spent in the area they received over sixty converts and baptised fifty children, Their new church was consecrated on November 26th, 1849, in the presence of Spencer, now Father Ignatius of Saint Paul. The community only stayed at Woodchester until October 1850 when they moved to Broadway as they found Leigh’s expectations of parochial work and monastic living incompatible with the rules of their institute. The Dominicans were invited to continue the work that the Passionists had begun and they remained at Woodchester until 1985. In 1853 their priory was completed but this was demolished in about 1970.
Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God and his Passionist brethren kindled the flame of Roman Catholicism in the Stroud Valleys. Today, the beautiful Priory Church stands as a visible reminder of Barberi, who has been described as, ‘the new Apostle of England.’ Although he is little remembered in Nailsworth, there is still a strong following in this country and the cause for his canonisation continues and miracles have been attributed to his intercession. His body rest besides that of Father Ignatius Spencer in the simple new church, dedicated to St Anne and Blessed Dominic, at Sutton, in Lancashire.
Father Dominic Barberi by Denis Gwynn, 1947
The Life of Father Dominic, by Pius Devine C.P., 1898
Venerable Dominic Barberi in England, by Urban Young C.P., 1935
Life and Letters of the Venerable Dominic Barberi, Urban Young C.P., 1926
Il. B. Domenico della Madre di Dio, Conrad Charles C.P., 1963
Blessed Dominic Barberi by Alfred Wilson C.P., 1967
Ignatius Spencer by Jerome Vereb, C.P.
Portrait of Nailsworth by Betty Mills, 1985
Woodchester Priory by Edwin Essex
Story of Nympsfield by Christopher Dove, 1977
See my Podcast on Blessed Dominic Barberi:
and the essay, ‘Passionists in the Cotswolds – the Passionist Retreat at Broadway’: