Our oldest monk, Fr Wulstan, died on Saturday. He was 99 years old and more than 79 years a son of St Benedict, almost 70 years a priest. With him dies a great chunk of the history of our community and his loss is keenly felt by our little community, especially by Brother Thomas, Brother Michael, and Brother Anselm who cared for him day and night for these last years.
Dom Wulstan was born in October 1912 in Essex, the son and grandson of officials of the Westminster Bank. He studied at Epsom College from 1926 to 1930. Having fallen under the High Anglican spell of ‘South Coast religion’, which was at its height at the time, he was received into the Catholic Church in May 1928. In August of 1930 he took the Capuchin habit at Pantasaph Friary, but left the following May, convinced that the Franciscan way was not for him. He would often recount that the Capuchin declarations obliged him to sport a beard ‘both natural and manly’ but the teenage Reginald Hibberd was not up to a beard, so he left.
He visited Farnborough Abbey for a week in August 1931. He fell in love with it. The community at the time was nigh entirely French, but a young junior from Romford, Brother Joseph Warrilow, encouraged him to apply. Abbot du Boisrouvray discouraged him. ‘There is nothing here for an English,’ he said. The abbot’s English was not strong, the novice master spoke very little English, and even Joseph Warrilow had been obliged to spend 6 months at Malestroit before entering Farnborough. So, rejected by his first love, he went to Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester. Fr Wulstan’s father approved of Prinknash because in those days a dowry was expected from the candidate to pay his keep, and Prinknash’s rates were more reasonable than Farnborough’s.
Prinknash was at its height. Its conversion from being an Anglican community to being a Catholic one had attracted vocations and it was full of energy and youth. Fr Wulstan would boast that the oldest member of the community in those days was in his 60s, and they all thought him ancient! Fr Wulstan had no room when he entered, but had to make do with a curtained bay-window near the present-day sacristy. His Novice-Master was Fr Illtyd or ‘Tootles’ as Fr Wulstan called him.
Eventually he was ordained deacon. He was always keen to point out that the grand ordinations of today were not ‘traditional’! He was ordained deacon quietly in the Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey while the Conventual Mass was in progress in the main church. He lamented that today’s ordinations resembled society weddings.
In October 1942 he was ordained a priest. His ordination was delayed because he was discovered reading the Church Times. For a convert to read an Anglican newspaper was evidence enough that he might be seeking valid orders in order to return to the Church of England. As an old man he would still sneak the Church Times to his cell tucked inside the Catholic Herald, and often complained that the Church of England he loved no longer existed.
He found his early monastic life frustrating. He would tell tales of picking strawberries which were left to rot, and claimed that the Prinknash of before WWII defined itself more by what it didn’t do than by what it did. ‘We do not preach’ he would say, we do not serve parishes, we do not do this, do that, or do the other…I was often left wondering what exactly we did do!’ He took delight in giving an example of the futility of his work. He spent years in the vestment workshop sewing maniples, only to find their use discontinued in the 1960s.
Two World Wars had depleted the Farnborough French community and they approached Prinknash in the hope that some English monks might be loaned or donated to turn Farnborough into an English-speaking monastery. Negotiations with Abbot Wilfrid Upson proved fruitful, though when the deal was sealed it was felt that the jurisdiction for Farnborough would be better given to the Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance. Solesmes was still ‘la Congregation de France’ and the future of Farnborough would be English. So Father Wulstan found himself able to return to his first love, Farnborough, in 1947. He would often tell stories at recreation of Dom Zerr, the last French monk to die at Farnborough in the 1960s. Zerr thought that the English arrivals ‘barked like dogs’ when they sang out the chant rather than whispering it in the French manner. So Father Wulstan was a great bridge – the only person to have met all three abbots of Farnborough. From 1961 until the 1980s he served as guest master, and was responsible for tours of the church and crypt. A famous actress attended one such tour and followed him onto the sanctuary for a closer look at the altar. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘kindly remove yourself from my sanctuary.’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ she retorted. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea or interest, ‘he replied. ‘Kindly remove yourself from my sanctuary!’
He loved the Second Vatican Council and would eagerly read each new decree with his friend Dr Alan Porter. He would frequently advocate avant-garde liturgical practices but would denounce them wherever he witnessed them in other places! He said he hated Latin but would sway, and raise and lower his gradual as he sang the chant and clearly loved it. He said he liked the way we sing the chant at Farnborough because ‘we sing it as it is written, without the new-fangled theories ruining it’. He loved correcting spiky novices on ceremonial. There was a discussion once about ceremonies at Mass. ‘No, no, no’, said Fr Wulstan, ‘ you young ones know nothing ! the deacon doesn’t stand at the side and pass the holy water, he maintains an erect posture at the epistle corner whilst he proffers lustral water to the abbot!’ He feigned a lack of interest in the liturgy and liked to think of himself as being Protestant in his tastes, though this was far from true.
He said he liked Therese of Lisieux ‘because she was a simple bible Christian’. He was too. He always had a Greek Testament to hand and loved the commentaries of the giant scholars of the nineteenth century. He loved history and would read again and again his favourite authors and biographies. Architecture too was a passion. He loved the Cathedral of Amiens, and would take day trips there, but wouldn’t stay the night in case he had to eat foreign food or meet a French person. He always claimed to detest the French, perhaps a throw-back to his rejection in the 1930s. He referred to them as our ‘eternal enemy’. He claimed not to know a word of French language, though two published works in our library give his name as the translator! Americans also suffered under him. A young American beamed, ‘Have a nice day!’ Dom Wulstan replied, ‘Don’t assault me with your New World imperatives!’ Woe betide anyone who intruded an Americanism into a refectory reading, or thought it all right to write alright! To say ‘O.K.’ was to end the conversation. His between-the-wars English had no time for changing pronunciation. The Book of Common Prayer was at his side till the end. He read the psalms again and again and would offer the first two or three of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as beautiful and orthodox expressions of the doctrine of the Trinity. His post communion thanksgiving was always a eucharistic hymn from the English Hymnal in his choir stall. He would follow the words with his finger. He considered the hymns of Wesley Catholic. . He was delighted to hear from brethren from Ghana that their language was Twi. ‘I like the idea of talking twee!’ he said. He had no truck with modernity. The radio was the wireless. The car was the motor car.
He was ‘old school’ when it came to poverty. He was given ten pounds in a birthday card once, and asked to retain five to buy a second hand book. He then handed in the change of three pounds.
He was not always easy. Once, during a Visitation, a monk of another house complimented him on being so helpful. ‘I had always heard you were the most difficult man in the province’ he said. This hurt Fr Wulstan a great deal and every few weeks he would recall this comment and the pain that it caused him. If it were true of his earlier years it was certainly untrue of his old age. He could be difficult, but those who persevered in friendship with him found him kind in the extreme and a faithful friend. For a time he assisted in the parish within which the monastery is located. He would visit some families and take Holy Communion to the elderly. For a couple of years he assisted the Benedictine nuns of Oulton as chaplain – his first experience of life outside of the monastery since his teens.
In the mid 1980s he gave up his bicycle. He would sweep the main drive of the monastery most afternoons, a task he took over from Dom Zerr in 1947, and would make little bonfires of the leaves. These provided a natural clock for the other working monks who could see that tea time was approaching as the fires got nearer to the monastery. Even in his 90s he would help Brother Thomas with this task. His signature woolly hat which served him in his outdoor work went with him to his chair and to his bed. When the abbot brought him Holy Communion he would knock this hat onto his shoulder. He remained faithful to the Divine Office for as long as he could. The Abbey Church at Farnborough is built on a hill, and so he would return to the monastery via the internal staircase to the crypt, walking backwards down the stairs for safety. He loved the liturgy, and knew the rubrics and old monastic customs and ceremonies very well. He would repeat and indeed lived, Abbot Cabrol’s frequent saying that a monk should always be in the chapel, the library, at his work, or in his cell.
For the last few years he was confined to his room, which came to be a centre of the life of the community. A steady stream of faithful friends came to see him. His German friends visited annually. He gave up his pipe, which he had smoked for years, though some pleasures continued. Although he never left his room, a drawer of Cadburys’ chocolate buttons miraculously replenished itself. He was spoon fed his meals by the brethren, and took great delight in being fed occasionally by Fr Abbot. ‘Shows how things have changed since my day!’ he would comment. The young members of the community adored him and very much miss him. There was a ‘saying goodnight to Fr Wulstan’ ritual after supper and before community recreation. He would encourage perseverance and stability by his words and by his example. Fr Wulstan once declared himself a ‘reluctant Benedictine’. He wondered daily where other paths might have led him, yet, after more than 79 years in the Benedictine habit he proved his stability in the monastery and his perseverance usque ad mortem even unto death.
His last public engagement was the Golden Jubilee of priesthood of Fr Magnus last September. We carried Fr Wulstan downstairs in his wheelchair to the refectory. He burst into tears, and the young monks rushed to wipe his eyes and hold his hands. One of the guests was very moved by this and commented on how he had realised that a monastery is, in fact, a family.
In his last weeks he constantly thanked the brethren for their kindness to him and asked forgiveness for any ways in which he had offended them. Often in the night he would press his call bell and ask for the abbot to check that he had said all the office the abbot had agreed he should say. Towards the end, this was just the canticles of Lauds, Vespers, and Compline. He would usually fall asleep before he reached the ‘Amen’.
On the 18th February he was unwell after breakfast. Fr Abbot anointed him and one of the brothers read morning prayer to him. At the end of these prayers he fell asleep in the Lord.
May he Rest in Peace.
Fr Wulstan’s Requiem Mass will be at the Abbey on Friday March 2nd at 2p.m.