Obituary: Fr Conrad Pepler
CONRAD PEPLER - priest, Dominican, lecturer, editor, publisher, writer, bed-maker, washer-up and much else - was responsible for setting up the first Roman Catholic conference centre in the UK, Spode House, in Staffordshire.
He was born Stephen Pepler, in 1908, the second son of HDC Pepler and his artist wife, Clare Whiteman, in Hammersmith, west London, where his father was running a working-men's club. 'I was, alas, an uplifter, much concerned to change the habits of the people,' quoted Fr Brocard Sewell in an appreciation written at the time of Hilary Pepler's death in 1951. He was involved in Borstal schools and the Home Office wanted to recruit him. He wrote one or two books. This restless, highly talented man decided he could not bring up six children in the city, and in 1916 followed his friend Eric Gill to Ditchling in Sussex. There he and Gill, largely with Pepler money, set up the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a lay community of band workers, farmers, craftsmen and printer, St Dominic's Press; Pepler was the printer.
Stephen, whose father had become a Roman Catholic in 1916 under the auspices of Fr Vincent McNabb and Eric Gill, went to the Dominican school at Hawkesyard Priory, Staffordshire, and after he left worked for three years in the printing shop with his father. In 1927 Stephen decided himself to become a Dominican; and he became Conrad Pepler OP.
He found himself in the community at Hawkesyard. Among the students were some brilliant men; he always thought that he had been educated by them rather than by the official teachers. After his ordination at Blackfriars, Oxford, in 1933, and his first theology degree, he went to Rome to get the second, the licence to teach. He returned to Rome to teach there himself, in 1939, but, with Italy's entry into the war, came back to England in the summer of 1940.
He started there the unlikely story of his various careers. He was appointed acting editor of the Dominican review Blackfriars, when the editor became a chaplain in the RAF; and editor in 1942.
During these years he went with his violin into the tube shelters in London, packed with potential platform sleepers. There, with the help of some of the brethren, with laity, and the enthusiastic encouragement of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hinsley, he collaborated in hymn services and readings - the danger of bombs above, and the singing down below.
After the end of paper rationing Pepler found himself the editor of two monthly periodicals, Blackfriars and Life of the Spirit, and, under the imprint Blackfriars Publications, a publisher. Under his direction these periodicals were in no way 'sectarian' in the sense of taking a particular line; some might have thought that he was too catholic in the breadth of his acceptances. He hoped that the reviews would be 'scientific without being academic, popular without being cheap or vulgar', in fact in the tradition of Vie Intellectuelle and Vie Spirituelle of the French Dominicans. For anyone who chooses to look, Pepler's edited publications are full of still fascinating items.
When, much against his wishes, Pepler was told to go from Oxford to Hawkesyard to set up the old house as a conference centre, he sacrificed the time that had been consumed by his writing and reading for the service of others. Here again, his scope was very wide - from novice mistresses to priests who had left to get married.
Somehow he overcame all the difficulties that a time of change could richly provide. Spode House in his time had a character all its own, acknowledged by all the many thousands who visited it. There was nothing smart about it. It was, if anything, dingy; but this was overcome by the characters of the warden and his helpers, warm, delighted when people wanted second helpings, and himself at the hotplate, and later in the pantry. All were welcome, and, he hoped, felt at home. There had been a number of other conference centres started. None of them had the 'atmosphere' of Spode; most were materially superior. The question was, what was to happen when Father Conrad, this all-present personality, retired in 1981. Much against his will, he was sent to Cambridge, leaving the dreams, successes and ideals behind him. 'I never thought I would ever retire,' he said.
I asked someone who knew Conrad Pepler well what was his most notable characteristic; the answer, 'He was so humble, never pushed himself forward for his own sake.' But for the sake of the work it was quite another matter: for Conrad there was no other way.
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