A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

Gloucester’s saintly Abbe Josse


More pages from the historical writings of James Newton Langston (1884-1959)

In February, 1828, another French émigré priest, the Abbe Augustine Louis Josse (1763-1841), took charge of the Gloucester mission. He was a priest of the Breton diocese of Vannes and had narrowly escaped falling a victim to the horrors of the French Revolution. He managed to reach Spain, where he remained four years and, during that time, mastered the Spanish language. He then came to England and took up residence in London, where he wrote and published several classical and grammatical works in the Spanish, Italian, and French languages. In 1813 he was appointed Professor of French Literature in the establishment of the Princess Charlotte of Wales. He also received as pupils in the above languages many members of the nobility and gentry, among who were named the Duke of Wellington, the Countess Powis with her two daughters (one of whom, afterwards the Duchess of Northumberland, became the governess of Queen Victoria), the Earl of Harrowby and his son, Viscount Sandon, the daughters of Lady Crofton, John Kemble, the celebrated tragedian, the family of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, including the subsequent Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1828 he published his ‘Nouvelle Grammaire Espagnole Raisonnee.’

Ill-health obliging him to leave London, he made a short tour through the country, and, after a brief stay at Clifton, finally settled in Gloucester. “H.Y.J.T.” said “he had been brought to Gloucester by good old Squire Canning of Hartpury.” He was 63 years of age when appointed to St. Peter’s mission in that city, and he remained there as the resident priest for almost thirteen years.

Canon Barron, speaking many years later, in 1888, referred to the Abbe Josse as one greatly beloved and who still lived in the remembrance of many of the older inhabitants of the city. “An Old Gloucester Boy” was one who could just remember the Abbe and was able to recall many details of his work. His moral and heroic grandeur compelled admiration. When he came to Gloucester he could expect little monetary support from his small and scattered flock of ardent devotees which was even more poor and needy than himself. Supplementing the meagre endowment by teaching French to the sons and daughters of the county families, he devoted his earnings to the Church, to the poor, to the sick and the dying.

In another article contributed in 1889, this anonymous writer told how the first Catholic school in the city was started by Abbe Josse in 1835. In that year (he said) there were not more than five “well-to-do” Catholic families in the city and neighbourhood, and about six poor Irish families; and an aged Catholic, taxing her memory, thought there were at that time not more than seventeen Catholic children living in the city. The Catholics were poor, obscure, and despised. There was no Catholic school and no funds, though this latter fact could not daunt the erudite and pious priest whose nature was too benevolent and too heroic to be tamely subdued by difficulties. The remainder of the story was told by the writer as follows:-

“He (the Abbe) resolved to open a day school for the education of the poor children of his little flock. The school was opened and commenced in the only room at his command, which was over the sacristy, and which was exposed to the open garden. It was unprotected from the coldness and inclemency of the weather, and the wall were damp. The room was more comfortless than many gentlemen’s stables or saddle rooms, but there was one consolation, the crucified Saviour was born in a manger.

The good Abbe had another difficulty of even greater magnitude than the obtaining of a room. He wanted a teacher or governess. He was not long in persuading one of his little flock, a well-educated young lady, Mary Caroline Dos Santos, to be the governess of the school. Although her parents were zealous and exemplary Catholics, yet they were nervously apprehensive that the necessary application might be injurious to the health of their amiable and highly accomplished daughter. The Abbe with his fervent eloquence prevailed over the scruples, and the reluctance of her parents, and they gave their consent.

“In that damp, cold, cheerless, and miserable place, she with Christian charity, fortitude and devotion, commenced her benevolent and pious mission. She was governess of the school for nearly four years, and neither received nor expected one farthing as a remuneration for her monotonous and arduous services.

She began with a few children, and when she relinquished her charge, there were sixty-one children in the school. A great many of the children were too poor to pay anything for their tuition, and the money of those who could and did pay their small fees were devoted to the purchase of coal, books, pens, ink, etc. In addition to teaching, the governess was absolutely compelled to ‘go a-begging’ for clothes, and even food, for many of the poor little children entrusted to her care. This governess taught everything which she thought would be useful to her pupils in after life, and her teaching was crowned with results of the most happy and pleasing character.

Through the cold and dampness of the school during an ungenial season the governess had an attack of rheumatic fever which endangered her life. She was critically indisposed for more than six months, and this illness terminated her school career. Her only consolation and regard was that she had done her duty to the lambs of the fold as a Catholic Christian with fidelity and zeal.

The little school was so highly appreciated that before she left it was attended by a number of Protestant children. That governess was an accomplished needlewoman, and she worked all the beautiful lace (valued at more than one hundred pounds), which was around the altar of the church of that period.

The governess to whom I have alluded has a MS. Book of the most superb penmanship, which was written by Sister Jane Frances of the Hartpury Convent. The Sister presented it to her as a mark of affectionate appreciation. This governess is still alive. She is growing aged and infirm, and I regret to aver that she would now be glad of that charity which in other days of her prosperity she had bestowed upon others, and may she not cry in vain, ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende.’”

Catholic Magazine and Review 1833:

‘Sacrilege – The winter outrages have already commenced. On Monday, October 21, the chapel at Gloucester was entered, and plundered of a chalice and paten, and a very rich vestment, with some other articles. To the great joy and consolation of the good pastor, Rev Abbe Josse, the tabernacle, with its sacred contents, was left unviolated, though the key was actually carried off.’

Anne Helen Dolman (Stapleton) wrote in her Memories for 1835, (From ‘Much Love and Great Sadness’):

‘Then I took farewell of my dear home, and we started that afternoon for Gloucester, stopping at the “Belle Hotel” (sic). The next morning, dear John went to Church, and returned with the Abbe Fosse (sic), an old family friend. He was a very old venerable émigré French Priest who had resided and done missionary work for 30 years at Gloucester. He was an excellent man, quite a courtier in manner, and wore his hair powdered. After breakfast we took leave of him and made for Salisbury..’

 An incident described by “An Old Gloucester Boy” merits quotation because it affords a glimpse of the interior of the chapel, and also serves to illustrate how Protestants regarded Catholicism in those far-away days. After alluding to the little chapel standing in the garden behind the Abbe’s house, he continued;

“One Sunday afternoon, when a child, I was tempted to enter the front door of that mysterious house. I heard strange rumours about it. It seemed to me to be the entrance to some cave of Jack the Giant Killer, where little boys and girls were devoured by the demons or evil spirits.

I shall never forget my sensation. I crept along the passage in a state of trepidation, hot, and feverish with excitement and terror. I turned to the left, and saw a little building as unpretentious as the back kitchens of some modern houses. I paused. I hesitated. My apprehensions were terrible. I felt inclined to run away, but did not. My heart palpitated. My face was suffused with beads of perspiration. I entered and sat down. I found myself almost alone. I think there was one boy, a woman, and a man present. These composed the congregation. All was calm and subdued. The silence to me was awfully solemn and mysterious. There was no glare, and no ornament. All was plain and simple. There was a simple and an almost diminutive crucifix on the altar covered with a white cloth, and the candles were not much bigger than my mother’s rushlights. There I sat for a few moments listening to the litany of my own heart-throbbings, expecting to see something terrible and to hear occult prayers in a dead tongue.

A venerable aged man entered attired in a simple ecclesiastical habit. He knelt in front of the crucifix and prayed in silence. I was given a little book in blue sugar paper covers. Then the prayers commenced. To my amazement they were in English. The language was simple, tender, so simple, yet so grand, and so beautiful. I expected terror where I found delight. That scene has never been entirely effaced from my memory. In my mental ruminations it is often resuscitated as vividly as it was presented to my eyes in the simple wonder of my boyhood.

I frequently attended these afternoon services until I was forbidden by nervous friends. I then knew nothing about creeds, churches, sects, doctrines or dogmas, but no devotional exercises have ever given me more real delight than those simple services where I knelt and worshipped God in fervency and with sincerity.”

Another account of the chapel interior is found in a letter of “H.Y.J.T.” printed in the ‘Gloucester Mercury’ in October 1876. He wrote:

“When I was a boy I frequently went to the Catholic Chapel. It was a little red-brick building in a garden at the back of the priest’s house, in Northgate Street. It was not much larger than some country squire’s cooking kitchen. It was a plain and unpretending structure. The interior was as simple and as plain as the exterior. The walls were bare and undecorated. A plain wooden rail divided the altar from the church. The altar was plain and unostentatious. A simple crucifix stood on the altar in the midst of a few flowers. The altar cloth and furniture was plainer than the toilet tables of many village maidens. Abbe Josse was the priest. There was something very primitive, devout, and apostolical in his manner.”

The Abbe Josse, then in his 77th year and evidently in failing health, resigned his charge on 28th January, 1841. He died only three days later, and was buried in St. John the Baptist churchyard in the same vault as his one-time friend and predecessor, the Abbe Giraud. On 1st February was followed to the grave by many of the clergy of the Church of England, and, according to “H.T.J.T.”, the service was conducted by “Parson Bayley” (sic), who was the incumbent of St. John’s, and who evidently stood firm upon his legal right to say the Anglican Prayer Book service even at the burial of a Catholic priest.

A notice in the “Gloucester Journal” referring to the Abbe Josse, said that during:

“the faithful discharge of his holy duties in this city, his saintly life and active benevolence have endeared him to the hearts of every member of his own religious persuasion. His talents, his amiable manners, and his charity – distributed to all, without distinction or creed, whom he found labouring under affliction, or suffering from pecuniary distress, have rendered him an object of well-merited and universal love. His loss will be long mourned and deeply felt, and his memory will live in the cherished and affectionate remembrance of all classes for many years to come.”


‘Gloucester Journal’, November 10th, 1888:

“The Catholic Mission. An Old Gloucester Boy writes; I omitted to state last week that Abbe Jose (sic) was buried in St John’s Churchyard which is situated in St John’s Lane. Excluding and avoiding every religious prejudice I am absolutely compelled to admire the moral and heroic grandeur of Abbe Jose (sic): his sufferings, his persecutions, his isolation, his mental anguish, his devotion to duty, and his self-denial in his long exile constituted a living martyrdom, which few men under the circumstances of the period could or would have endured. Expelled by violence for his native soil – his beloved France – deprived of everything he possessed, he came to England homeless, food-less and friendless. How he came – why he came, or by whom he was introduced to Gloucester, I cannot tell. Hartpury was then a Catholic Asylum for exiles and refugees, who fled before the flames of persecution. I will give you a glimpse of the moral grandeur of the man, of his heroic self-denial and of his martyr spirit. When he came to Gloucester what support could he expect or claim from his little congregation which was poor and more needy than himself, even in the midst of all his anxieties, privations and sufferings. He was like Paul the tent-maker. He earned his own sustenance while he ministered to his little flock or ardent devotees. At one period he supported himself in this neighbourhood by teaching French to the sons and daughters of our county families. His labours enabled him to keep the old light of an ancient faith burning on the altar of his fathers. His own precarious labours also enabled him to administer to his poor and scattered flock, the rights (sic) and spiritual consolation of his church. The unselfish and self-denying spirit of the man gave a greater and grander e’clat to his zeal and spirit than men of greater and pretension have deserved. He devoted his earning to Church, to the poor, to the sick and dying. Two or three times a week amidst the heat and cold he trudged along the Upton Road to teach the youth of the Byles family at Bowden Hall his native language. What should we now say of a Canon, a clergyman or a Dissenting minister who supported his own Church and alleviated the distress of the poor and the miserable and administered to the comforts of the sick and dying by teaching the French language? Regardless of creed or party such a man as I have described would have excited the admiration of mankind.”

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