Obituary: Monsignor Alfred Gilbey

Gerard Noel
Saturday 28 March 1998 01:02 GMT

"THE LAST thing I want," said Alfred Gilbey one evening after dinner, "is to have an obituary about me saying what I did, rather than what I tried to be."

Monsignor Alfred Gilbey was probably the best-known Roman Catholic priest in England during the last quarter-century. Indeed, it was precisely for what he was that he was so well known. For he did not just "act as" - in the popular but distinctly non-Gilbeian phrase - Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University for 33 years. Rather, he was the archetypical Roman Catholic University chaplain for the England of the 19th century. Spiritually and psychologically he remained undetachable from the late Victorian world, espousing a brand of Catholicism that was Roman rather than, in any way, ecumenical, and English rather than, in any way, Irish. That his death marks the end of an era is a cliche that, for once, is literally true.

Alfred Newman Gilbey was born on 13 July 1901. To have been born a day before or a day after, as he himself was often later to aver, would have been singularly inappropriate. For 12 July is Orange Day. In commemorating, as it does, the triumph of the Protestant King William of Orange over the last of the Stuarts, it was anathema to Alfred Gilbey. For he was a passionate lover of the "old" Catholic idea of monarchy and its personification in the person and ideals of James II. Indeed, for him, the latter was not the "last of the Stuarts" at all. By his reckoning, the "legitimist" line never died out and portraits of "James III", and even "Henry IX" (Cardinal Duke of York) adorned the walls of Fisher House - home of the Catholic chaplaincy - during his days at Cambridge.

It would have been scarcely less convivial to him to have been born on 14 July, Bastille Day. For his distaste for all that was associated with the slogan "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" was unbounded. Such distaste must be understood within the context of late-19th-century papalism as represented, in particular, by Pope Pius IX, and the subsequent campaign against "Modernism" in all its forms. The rot, according to this school of thought, had started with the French Revolution. Thus, not only was "liberalism" condemned but so were "religious freedom" and individual rights of conscience as then understood, that is, as implying the possibility of any legitimate opposition to Rome's monopoly of the truth.

The overturning of these notions at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 became the main ground for "traditional" Catholic resistance to ecumenism and an updated vision of the Church. Gilbey's adherence however, to pre- Conciliar ideals endeared him to the world of England's "old Catholic families". Though not born into this world himself, he became its most enduring hero. He represented the triumph of hope over experience for those who still longed for the "conversion of England" (back to the "one true faith")

Alfred Gilbey was brought up at the family home of Mark Hall near Harlow in Essex and was sent, in 1914, to what was then England's most fashionable Jesuit school, Beaumont College in Old Windsor. He derived his vision of Catholicism principally from his mother, Maria Victoria de Ysasi, born in the sherry-producing town of Jerez-de-la-Frontera. As he was later to put it, "She possessed the faith to the marrow of her bones." Hers, in other words, was that profoundly pious but blinkered religious outlook which cloistered such well-to-do Spaniards of that day from all other churches and beliefs. She introduced this intensely Catholic atmosphere into every aspect of daily life at Mark Hall, which was visited every week by a priest to say Mass and hear confessions. He was dressed in severely Victorian clerical style, a circumstance which, though natural enough at the time, had a surprisingly deep and durable effect on the impressionable young Alfred.

The Englishman with whom Victoria Maria fell in love, Newman Gilbey, was told by her mother that he would be acceptable as a prospective son-in-law provided he became a Catholic. This he obediently did and duly became a devout practitioner.

It was from him that Alfred derived his middle name, which turned out to be particularly apt. For it was the 19th century's most famous Catholic "convert" - a word now dropped from official use - who supplied not only the name for Oxford's pioneering Catholic chaplaincy, the Newman Society, but also the main inspiration for vigorous Catholic participation in tertiary education. (The papal ban on English Catholics attending university was only lifted in 1895, six years before Gilbey was born.)

During Gilbey's years at Beaumont, Jesuit educators in England still thought in terms of the great post-Reformation counter-attack, spearheaded by their original predecessors, against Protestantism (the "Counter-Reformation"). The other principal leitmotiv of their system was contemplation - as taken from the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, St Ignatius - of death, hell and final judgement. In a chapel eerily lit by a solitary blue bulb (in case of air-raid) night prayers would end with a meditation on Death. The boys would then walk in silence to their dormitories to undress in their cubicles, behind tightly drawn curtains, while a prefect read the De Profundis.

From Beaumont, Gilbey went up, in 1920, to Trinity College, Cambridge, "scraping", in his own word, an indifferent degree in Modern History. This was due to no lack of intellect on his part, for he had a quick mind and, until late in life, a retentive memory for past facts. The family's distinguished connection with the wine trade made Gilbey a lifelong lover and true (that is moderately partaking) connoisseur of wine: but it could not, as a career, compete with what he was later to call "the sublime and awful gift of the priesthood".

He thus entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome in 1925 and became a priest four years later. He was ordained "under his own patrimony", a privilege now discontinued, meaning that, as a man of independent means, he was not subject to any diocesan bishop's jurisdiction. He could, had he so wished, have enjoyed the life of a country gentleman in the "recusant" atmosphere of some old Catholic family house. Instead, after three years as secretary to the bishop of his adopted diocese (Brentwood), Dr Doubleday, he was appointed chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates of Cambridge. This post was to last for 33 years and to be his life's work, an immensely fruitful one as a priest. He is still remembered with affection and respect in Cambridge for his charm, urbanity and generous hospitality, and for his ability to attract young men of the "right kind" to Roman Catholicism.

In the Cambridge of the Thirties, the term "undergraduate" applied to men only. Women were not admitted to undergraduate status until 1948. This was the technical reason for the non-admission of Catholic (women) "students" (taking only titular degrees) to the life of Fisher House. The Oxford chaplaincy, on the other hand, as of the Second World War, became and remained "mixed". The result was a thriving social life, as a by-product of the pastoral function of the chaplaincy, productive of many happy friendships and, in the happiest cases of all, lifelong romances between Oxford's Catholic young men and women.

Until the end, however, Gilbey maintained his opposition to the admission of women. The ultimate reason was his rejection of the notion of "equality of the sexes" in the modern sense of the word. He was strongly opposed to women, whether Catholic or not, being admitted to the university at all. The Monsignor (he became a "domestic prelate" to the Pope in 1950), never fully at ease in female company, resigned as chaplain in 1965 when it became certain that Fisher House would open its doors to women undergraduates. He had, by then, completed exactly 100 terms as chaplain. His final bequest to the chaplaincy, and Cambridge in general, was the successful outcome of his untiring efforts in helping to save Fisher House from the developers' bulldozer.

His intense conservatism was reflected, perhaps above all, in his liturgical tastes. He was said to be a devotee of the "Latin Mass", but, here, a widespread misunderstanding has taken root. It arises from the erroneous supposition that Mass in Latin has been abolished because of the reintroduction of the more ancient tradition of vernacular language for liturgical worship.

What differentiated Alfred Gilbey from other post-Vatican II Catholic priests was that he continued, with special permission from his Bishop, to say Mass in the form fixed by Pope Pius V after the Council of Trent (hence "Tridentine"), complete with all its medieval accretions and the novel theological overtones thereof. The "Tridentine" Mass is, nevertheless, still passionately favoured by some Roman Catholics, being the Mass, par excellence, of the Counter-Reformation and the shibboleth thereafter of anti-Protestant "orthodoxy".

Another notable Gilbeian characteristic was adherence to the clerical dress of another age. For everyday wear: shovel hat, flyless breeches, double-waisted waistcoat and frock coat. For formal occasions: monsignorial cassock with colourful silk cincture, piping and embellishments. When "robed in the sanctuary": watered-silk purple soutane, tasselled cape and purple pompon to biretta. This was as much a protestation of his Victorian outlook and "ultramontane" Catholicism as a mere question of sartorial preference.

One of his proudest achievements was his authorship - at one remove - of a small book called We Believe (1983), a lengthy paraphrase of the old "penny" catechism. It was compiled by four young friends who, in his own words, "gave me no peace until I agreed to have my thoughts recorded". In 1992, following his 90th birthday, a second impression appeared, and in 1993 The Commonplace Book of Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, a book of his favourite extracts from literature.

In May 1995 he made his one and only visit to the United States to promote We Believe. There he met Mother Angelica, the eccentric television nun whose views on the Church were even more ultra-conservative than his own. He was interviewed by her on Eternal Word Television, a network sponsored by rich right-wing American Catholics. He greatly enjoyed his visit and his success with his American audience was a perfect example of his unfailing old-world charm. The ease, moreover, with which he adapted to late-20th- century American television was a revelation.

Gilbey spent his last years in the Travellers' Club, in Pall Mall in London, still maintaining an active pastoral and social life and entertaining with his familiar generosity and Epicurean flare. He said Mass every day at 7.30am, usually in the (Brompton) Oratory, but sometimes in his own private chapel, a privilege he enjoyed in his years of retirement. This "chapel" was a converted attic in the Travellers' Club where the Blessed Sacrament was "reserved" and the rosary recited every evening at seven. He also used it, with inspiration from the valuable furnishings and works of sacred art, for periods of private prayer and meditation.

Alfred Gilbey was a man of regular and moderate habits; of elegance and charm; of wit and wisdom; of precision and contentment; of holiness and spiritual contentment. He was probably more widely loved than any Catholic priest of modern times.

Alfred Newman Gilbey, priest: born Harlow, Essex 13 July 1901; ordained priest 1929; Roman Catholic Chaplain, Cambridge University 1932-65; died London 26 March 1998.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in