Dom Daniel Rees

Downside monk and historian


David Melville Benyon Rees, monk, historian and teacher: born Newport, Monmouthshire 28 August 1931; clothed a monk 1955, taking the name Daniel; ordained priest 1961; Prior, Downside Abbey 1985-91, Librarian 1987-2007; Cathedral Prior of Gloucester 1997-2007; died Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset 10 January 2007.

The English Benedictine monastery of St Gregory's, founded at Douai in Flanders in 1606, and transplanted to Downside in 1814, numbered several eminent Welshmen among its early members, notably the martyr John Roberts, of Trawsfynydd; the Hebrew scholar Leander Jones, a Breconshire man; and Augustine Baker of Abergavenny: lawyer, antiquary and spiritual writer. Dom Daniel Rees continued that tradition.

David Melville Benyon Rees (in religion, Dom Daniel) was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, in 1931. He owed his stability of character to his home, and his intellectual formation to Barry County School for Boys, an enlightened and progressive institution shaped by the personality of an earlier headmaster, Edgar Jones, who has been described as the Welsh Thomas Arnold. The novelist Gwyn Thomas taught Spanish there in the late 1940s, and David Rees's contemporaries included Keith Thomas (who was to join him later at Balliol) and the actor Keith Baxter. It was to T.T. (Teifion) Phillips - one of a succession of inspired history teachers - that he acknowledged his greatest debt.

After two years of National Service in the RAF he went up to Balliol as a Domus Exhibitioner in 1951. He found Oxford at first intimidating, but after a difficult year under the tutelage of Christopher Hill he switched to Medieval History as a pupil of Richard Southern. "It is one of the great blessings of my life to have known him," he wrote later, " and I don't think I could have got through Oxford without him."

Brought up in the Church in Wales, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church when in the RAF. During his time at Oxford he felt increasingly drawn to the religious, and specifically to the Benedictine, life. After a year of teacher training he entered the community at Downside in September 1955. Over the next 50 years he was to give his adopted family unstinting service.

From 1959 he spent five years in Rome at the international Benedictine college of Sant' Anselmo on the Aventine, graduating as a Reader in Theology in 1962, and taking a further degree at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1964. His knowledge of the city of Rome and its churches was encyclopaedic.

His return to Downside in 1964 coincided with the beginning of a time of ferment, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, but his firmness of purpose and a certain inner steel enabled him to keep his head while others about him were in the process of losing theirs. He was put in charge of the junior school, and, besides teaching History in the sixth form, lectured in Hebrew at the newly established Downside Centre for Religious Studies affiliated to Bristol University. Over a period of 40 years he served his community as novice-master, school housemaster, Librarian, Prior and Sub-Prior.

For 30 years he was the Master of Studies of the English Benedictine Congregation, and for eight years he chaired the commission set up by the congregation to review the place of the monastic life in contemporary society. Its report, Consider Your Call: a theology of monastic life, was published in 1978. He also edited and contributed to a volume of essays marking the 1,400th anniversary of the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury: Monks of England: the Benedictines of England from Augustine to the present day (1997 - a title, it was remarked, incongruously reminiscent of the anthem in Animal Farm).

His gifts as a writer are shown to best advantage in the many learned and stylish reviews he contributed to the Downside Review - a journal of theology and church history that he edited for some 30 years. In 1983 it emerged into a brief glare of minor publicity following the publication of an article by Colin Richmond entitled "A Blatter of Rain and the Origins of Penkhull". The writer had an absorbing tale to tell: how, in the steps of Edmund Bishop, he had followed the trail of the reliquary of St Penket (an obscure Anglo-Saxon virgin) from the cathedral of Fribourg in Switzerland to the Potteries and, eventually, to the garden of Jorge Luis Borges' grandmother's home at 21 The Villas, Hanley. The erudition and ingenuity of the hoax (for such it was) were a worthy tribute to Borges.

Rees's most tangible literary monument is the monastic library at Downside. He was appointed de facto librarian from 1967, the year after the opening of its purpose-built new premises designed by Francis Pollen. Its unique collection of books and pamphlets on monastic history had been largely formed earlier in the 20th century by Dom Raymund Webster, an Old Harrovian convert whose patrimony contributed to its funding. It was this collection which provided the source material for the first volume of Dom David Knowles's work The Monastic Order in England (1940). More specialised, but as valuable, is the collection of liturgical books bequeathed to the community by Edmund Bishop.

During Rees's tenure (he became formally Librarian in 1987, and remained so until his death), judicious acquisitions and generous bequests greatly increased this nucleus, and he oversaw the incorporation of the hitherto homeless library of Catholic recusant books of the 15th and 16th centuries amassed by the bibliographer Joseph Gillow. This was further augmented by a substantial gift from David Rogers, one of the leading authorities on recusant literature and an assistant Keeper at the Bodleian.

The library, which reflects its librarian's wide-ranging interests (which included Judaism, the Eastern Churches and Irish church history), was made more accessible to visitors, and their enquiries, however recondite, rarely failed to produce a ready answer.

As a biblical scholar and historian of the Church Rees was uniquely qualified to write the biography of his first religious superior, Christopher Butler, Abbot of Downside and later Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, who played an influential part in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. His multifarious commitments, however, as well as a certain cautiousness prevented him from carrying through the project. A glimpse of what might have been is to be found in the brief but insightful biographical essay he contributed to the proceedings of a Butler Symposium published in the Downside Review of January 2003.

Dom Daniel wore his learning lightly, and put the duties of pastoral care before scholarship. His warmth of personality, irrepressible humour and gift of empathy (backed by a phenomenal memory for names) won him affection and respect. When he warmed to his theme or recounted a favourite anecdote, his customary imperturbability would give way to a flight of fancy, delivered with relish - to the delight of his hearers - in the accent of his native Wales. He had a keen appreciation of the absurd aspects of ecclesiastical life, and was quick to detect signs of folie de grandeur.

After his retirement from school teaching he was appointed chaplain to the Gregorian Society, the alumni association of Downside School. He turned what might have been a sinecure into an active pastoral ministry, keeping in touch with families by means of a voluminous handwritten correspondence, visiting the sick and giving wise counsel.

He put his biblical scholarship to wider service when in 1990 he was appointed lecturer and examiner for the Divinity course at Maryvale Institute, a Catholic adult education college affiliated to the Open University. He wrote coursebooks on the Pauline Epistles and Acts, and was much appreciated as a tutor.

His service to the English Benedictine Congregation was recognised by his appointment in 1997 as Cathedral Prior of Gloucester - an honorary title recalling a time when Benedictine monks formed the chapters of nine English cathedrals. The invitation he received from the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester to preach there gave him much pleasure.

Martin Murphy

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