Dom Bernard Orchard

Monk and twice headmaster who transformed Ealing Priory School into the modern St Benedict's


John Archibald Henslowe Orchard, monk and biblical scholar: born Bromley, Kent 3 May 1910; clothed a monk 1932, taking the name Bernard; ordained priest 1939; Headmaster, Ealing Priory School (later St Benedict's School) 1945-60, 1965-69; died London 28 November 2006.

Benedictine monks in Britain are seen, rightly or wrongly, as "well-bred, well-read and well-fed". Their abbeys and schools such as Ampleforth, Downside, Ealing and Worth are grouped in the English Benedictine Congregation or EBC, an acronym which, according to the mischievous, also stands for "Every Bodily Comfort".

The caricature, whatever tiny grain of truth it may contain, does much less than justice to monastic and educational labours which, as the late Cardinal Basil Hume's life exemplified, has produced figures in whose achievements in public life the order can take pride. Bernard Orchard was one such: he transformed a small and struggling establishment, in the London suburb of Ealing, whose survival in the 1940s seemed beyond the capacities of the monks of Ealing Priory to ensure, into a prominent London Roman Catholic school - St Benedict's - whose old boys include the former EU commissioner Lord Patten of Barnes and the writer Peter Ackroyd. His life also illustrated the personal tensions which sometimes underlie the plainsong of even the most peaceable monastic communities.

Ealing Priory School, as it was known when Orchard became Headmaster, had been founded with "three boys and a five-pound note" in 1902 by monks of Downside Abbey near Bath. By 1919 Ealing had yet to see any pupil leaving for a university. In 1933 Downside bought land at Worth in Sussex, where a second dependency and school, rivals to Ealing for its mother house's attention and resources, were to be founded. With the Downside monks occupied in maintaining three schools, Ealing and its school survived in the utmost precariousness. It appeared doomed to extinction even before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Father Adrian Morey, appointed Headmaster at Ealing in March 1938, reported to his superior, Abbot Sigebert Trafford of Downside, "The inefficiency of Ealing school has done, and is doing, great harm to Downside in Catholic circles." Alarmed by the financial and staffing situations, he appealed to the Abbot for more funds and monks from Downside and, in particular, for the young and promising Father Bernard Orchard who had himself attended the school. In vain. In December the imperious Trafford told the Headmaster that the school would be sold, but that he should stay on until it was.

In the event the school was saved by the outbreak of the Second World War and opposition of parents to its closure. Three bombs fell on the premises in late 1940, wrecking the church and some school buildings, four monks went off to become army chaplains and the fire service took over part of the school. Yet classes continued on a reduced basis, though with virtually no teaching resources. One pupil remembers learning geography from advertisements given away with Libby's tinned peaches.

John Orchard was educated at the school he was later to transform. With three other Old Priorians he had joined the Benedictines at Downside in 1932, setting aside opportunities in banking which his father had arranged for him. He took the religious name of Bernard and went up to Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge, to read Politics and Economics. In 1945 Orchard was appointed Headmaster of a school of 200 boys, beginning a 15-year tenure during which his single-mindedness did not allow him or the school to think for a moment of failure.

He was totally confident that the monastery could become "the chief spiritual centre for west London". Still only in his mid-thirties, he was tall, athletic, charismatic and so strikingly handsome that he was known by some as "the poor man's Cary Grant". A lover of music, he did his best for the school choir which, under the gifted direction of William Bowyer, sang in the priory church, performed on the radio and toured abroad. Orchard was not as good a conductor as he thought he was, but had a fine tenor voice and his singing of "Christus vincit", the Latin hymn dating back to Charlemagne, thrilled all who heard it.

The history of the school by Nigel Watson, From the Smallest Beginnings (2003), recounts how Orchard was once sailing along a corridor "like a proud yacht" when some fourth-former rounded a corner and ran straight into him. "Oh, my God!" exclaimed the boy. "And don't you ever forget it!" replied the headmaster.

By 1947, the year in which Ealing Priory became independent of Downside Abbey, the Headmaster had got the Ministry of Education round to recognising the school as efficient. Another milestone was passed in 1951 when Orchard was elected to the Headmasters' Conference, an action which made St Benedict's a public school, the only one of the seven Catholic ones which was a day school.

Orchard was always conscious of the need to redeem the school from its earlier status as a cultural desert. Without the community's permission he splashed out on an expensive Blüthner grand piano. With varying degrees of success he crammed the boys into the gym to listen to visiting artistes perform classical music. In 1954, after wartime restrictions were relaxed, he pushed his brethren in the priory to embrace plans for a new library, a dining hall and more classrooms.

Ambitiously, he arranged a river cruise from Paris to Le Havre for boys from Ealing and a French school on a barge, the Sportif, and was fortunate that the conditions of health and safety aboard did not carry off some - or all - of those involved. Some in the community felt the demands of the school were getting out of hand and Orchard's occasional abrasiveness did not help his relations with some of the community. In 1959, at 50, he was asked to stand down by the Abbot.

He turned to pastoral duties in the Ealing parish. Six years later, after the death and resignation respectively of his two successors, he was called to resume the headmastership. He did so reluctantly.

Further storm clouds slowly built up. He simplified school rules and petty restrictions, but insisted on compulsory attendance at a weekly school mass. At the same time, he was eager to increase school numbers and swell the sixth form to 225 and announced that would take place. This would have demanded more staff and larger premises and would have challenged the resources of an abbey still struggling with the debt incurred in the restoration of the church and previous school extensions.

The monks demurred and the newly elected abbot, Father Antony Francis Rossiter, a man still in his thirties whom Orchard had taught as a pupil, rejected the ambitious strategy. Orchard expressed lack of confidence in him and tendered his resignation. Reluctantly Abbot Rossiter accepted it, in March 1969, though he was conscious that the abbey had no one to replace him.

Orchard, by nature a conservative and uncomfortable with some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, devoted the rest of his life at the abbey to scriptural scholarship which allowed him to continue expressing forthright views with passion, even combativeness. For instance, defending the traditional teaching that St Matthew's gospel antedated St Mark's, in the US Catholic magazine This Rock in 1996 he commented with characteristic tartness,

It has been unfortunate that the combination of an exhilarating freedom to pursue historical criticism with church approval and the reassuring support of the prestigious faculties of the German and American universities has convinced the Markan Priorists that they cannot be wrong.

Orchard was the author of A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture: Matthew, Luke and Mark (1976), Synopsis of the Four Gospels in English (1982), Synopsis of the Four Gospels in Greek (1983), The Order of the Synoptics (with H. Riley, 1987) and other books and papers on scriptural questions.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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