Caldey Postcard – New Order for an Old Postcard

Caldey Abbey by Joseph Pike

Readers of this blog will already be familiar with my biography of the artist Joseph Pike and my original post about his 1913 set of twelve postcards showing the monastic buildings and other scenes on Caldey Island.  He did those drawings while staying on the island with Bede Camm, who had assisted the Anglican monks in their mass reception into the Catholic Church in March of that year. For various reasons, not least of which were the effects of World War One and the withdrawal of support from High Anglican donors, the community struggled in the years after the ‘Caldey Conversions’. Although Aelred Carlyle was blessed as Abbot of Caldey in 1914, he resigned in 1922 and was replaced by Dom Wilfrid Upson as Prior. I have written elsewhere – in A Monk and His Movies – about Dom Wilfrid’s time in Hollywood. Eventually the monks left Caldey in December 1928 and moved to Prinknash in the Cotswolds. Caldey then passed from the Benedictines to the Cistercian Order, as it became the home of Cistercian monks from Scourmont Abbey in Belgium. This monastery is home to the Chimay brewery, where the monks produce three ales: Chimay Rouge, Chimay Bleue, and Chimay Blanche. While staying in Brittany last summer I was able to pick up a few bottles of Chimay ale in the local supermarket, but a new venue has opened up in Exeter – the South Street Standard – that serves Chimay on draught, which I would definitely recommend. Anyway, I digress – the point of this post was that I recently picked up the postcard above, which is obviously been printed for French-speakers interested in the abbey, and reveals that the Trappist monks of Caldey re-used Joseph Pike’s postcards after 1929. They have printed additional French text in the border space at the bottom and appear to have given the card a deeper sepia tone than the original. I wonder if the artist continued to receive payment for the reproduction of his artwork on the same terms as he had arranged with the Benedictines?

Joseph Pike: the ‘happy Catholic artist’


Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist

My latest book, Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) is a detailed biography of a master of the art of pencil drawing. Joseph Pike (1883-1956) produced evocative sketches and illustrations that were commissioned by authors, architects and publishers, reproduced in books and on postcards, sold as prints and exhibited on the walls of the Royal Academy.

It was due to his postcards of Caldey Island – drawn in 1913 – that I became interested in Joseph Pike, and you can read all about this on my original blogpost here. After reading this, one of the artist’s grandsons contacted me, and we began discussing the idea of my writing a short memoir about the artist. What began as a fairly modest project ended up being rather larger than originally intended, but the Joseph Pike’s friendship and collaboration with Benedictine monk Bede Camm meant that I was able to incorporate some of my PhD research on visual culture and monastic life. With access to family papers and photographs, augmented with my own collection of Joseph Pike artwork and knowledge of the Catholic literary revival, there was ample material for a detailed and illuminating biography.

Further research in various archives uncovered more little-known details and rare illustrations, and I was able to show how developments in the publishing world and printing technology impacted upon his work, as well as exploring the importance of the Catholic faith side in his personal and professional life – his acquaintance with Bede Camm and other leading figures in Catholic cultural life, such as Ronald Knox, played a key role in shaping his career as an illustrator.

Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) – ISBN 9781788037778 – is available from various outlets, including direct from the publisher here 

An e-book is also available, ISBN 9781788034746

I would love to hear comments and feedback from anyone who has read the book or wishes to share their thoughts on Joseph Pike and his art.


A Monk of Magdalen:   Abbot Oswald (David) Hunter-Blair O.S.B. (1853-1939)

Abbot Oswald in 1919

​One may be sure that when Gibbon wrote sarcastically of ‘the monks of Magdalen’ he never envisaged any real association between his Oxford college and those men who take religious vows according to the Rule of St Benedict. Yet just over one hundred years after Gibbon’s death a monastery was founded in Oxford itself, and this little Benedictine house of studies was known as Hunter-Blair Hall after the name of its Master. Oswald Hunter-Blair was not only a monk and a graduate of Magdalen, he was also a baronet, would later become an abbot, and stands out as one of the most colourful Catholic converts of his time.

David Hunter-Blair was born on the 30th September 1853, the eldest of thirteen children (nine sons and four daughters) of Sir Edward Hunter-Blair (1818-96), 4th Baronet of Dunskey, and Elizabeth Wauchope. Dunskey Castle is in Wigtownshire on the southwest coast of Scotland. His mother’s family, the Wauchopes of Niddrie, had remained Catholic for almost two centuries after the Reformation before going over to the Scottish Episcopalian Church in 1750, but although all his siblings were baptised by Episcopalian clergy the future Benedictine abbot received the sacrament from the Presbyterian minister of Portpatrick.

In 1854 his father’s elder brother was killed at the Battle of Inkerman and Sir Edward inherited the baronetcy and estates. According to the arrangements of the settlement he was obliged to divest himself of the estate of Dunskey if he was to possess Blairquhan. His eldest son David therefore became the laird of Dunskey at the age of four.

In the summer of 1863 the family left the country for Spa in Belgium where they were to live for over a year before moving on to Boulogne. David returned to Britain in January 1864 to attend prep school at May Place, Malvern Wells – a select establishment where almost every boy had a Duke or a Marquis for a father. From here he proceeded to the Upper IVth form at Eton.  He was a fifteen-year old pupil here in 1868 when he heard the sensational news of the conversion to Catholicism of the 3rd Marquess of Bute. A favourite uncle of his, Colonel David Hunter-Blair (1827-69) took the same step the following year. His own mind was already intrigued by the Catholic past through reading Walter Scott’s novels and he noted in Eton ‘the aura of Catholicism which still hung faintly about her venerable halls and cloisters.’

Hunter-Blair went up to Oxford and studied at Magdalen College from January 1872 to December 1876. For the winter term of 1875 he received permission to study music in Leipzig under Karl Reinecke (1824-1910), the pianist and conductor of the Gewendhaus and also Professor at the Leipzig Conservatorium.


WHF Talbot, ‘An ancient doorway in Magdalen College, Oxford.’ Salt print from a calotype negative, 9 April 1843

By this time the religious question was clear in his mind. With his fellow student Harold Willoughby he left Germany for Rome, arriving in time to see Manning receive his cardinal’s hat on the 15th March. Ten days later on Maundy Thursday, 25th March, 1875, he was received into the Catholic Church by Fr Edward Douglas C.SS.R. in the Redemptorist house on the Esquiline Hill. Fr Douglas (1819-98) was a kinsman of the Marquis of Queensberry and himself a convert. From Rome it was back to Oxford in April to begin the summer term: unlike Gibbon he was not forced to leave because of his apostasy. Instead of the High Anglican services of old he now walked over Magdalen Bridge each Sunday to attend Mass at the dingy St Clement’s Catholic Church. He also renounced membership of the Masonic Lodge, regarding this as incompatible with Catholicism. A number of students were especially interested in Freemasonry at this time because Prince Leopold – Queen Victoria’s youngest son and then a commoner at Christ Church – was also Grand Master of the Freemasons.

His friend and fellow-student Oscar Wilde had been initiated into the Masons just weeks before Hunter-Blair became a Catholic. Filled with a new convert’s zeal Hunter-Blair was determined that Wilde would follow him; the poet’s fascination with the Catholic Church was then at its peak. Wilde visited Italy in the summer of 1875 with staunch Protestants Professor Mahaffy and William Goulding, and on the 15th June he wrote the poem ‘San Miniato’ which was published in the Dublin University Magazine the following March. He had to break off the trip at Verona, leaving his friends to go ahead to Rome, in consequence of which he composed ‘Rome Unvisited’. Hunter-Blair thought highly of this poem, as did another Oxford convert, John Henry Newman, and when his friend returned for the autumn term he sought to carry Wilde over the threshold. Together they attended the opening of St Aloysius’ Church on 23rd November 1875, at which Cardinal Manning preached on the Oxford motto Dominus Illuminatio Mea, denouncing the university for its spiritual apathy and decay. Hunter-Blair kept on at Wilde, often sitting up all night talking to him about his religious views. During one heated discussion he hit him on the head and shouted ‘You will be damned, you will be damned, for you see the light and do not follow it.’ Their mutual friend William Walsford Ward, known as ‘Bouncer’ after a comic novel, was present during this debate; he had always opposed Wilde’s flirting with Roman Catholicism and persistently argued for the reasonableness of Protestantism. When he asked Hunter Blair’s opinion about his own salvation, he was met with the reply ‘You will be saved by your invincible ignorance.’


Oscar Wilde, Hunter-Blair and others, Oxford 1876. Photographed by Jules Guggenheim

The trio appears in a photograph taken the following year by Hungarian emigré photographer Jules Guggenheim (1820-89). The picture shows a group of students and friends gathered in Magdalen Cloister on the evening of 21st June: Hunter-Blair, Wilde and Reginald Harding are alongside William Ward and his younger sister Florence. Ward left Oxford that summer to become a lawyer and Wilde moved into his old rooms in December.

The following year saw the religious discussion continue without any further development. Hunter-Blair was joined in many of these conversations by another convert, Archie Dunlop, and in the spring they succeeded in bringing Wilde to Rome. Hunter-Blair and Ward travelled to Italy in March and made arrangements for Wilde to follow them, although Hunter-Blair had to send £60 after a series of delays and difficulties arose. Travelling through France and Genoa – where the Holy Week services inspired more poetry – Wilde caught up with his friends at the Hotel d’Inghilterra in Rome. Here they were joined for supper each evening by two papal chamberlains, J. Ogilvie Fairlie and Hartwell de la Garde Grissell (1839-1907). The latter was a close friend of Hunter-Blair who had come up to Oxford from Harrow in 1859, studied at Brasenose and became a Catholic in 1868. When Hunter-Blair made his first return visit to Oxford since graduation in the summer of 1890 he stayed at Grissell’s house in Long Wall Street, overlooking the deer-park and aged elm trees of Magdalen. There was even a private chapel where Hunter-Blair – by then a priest – was able to say Mass. Fairlie was another Oxford friend, a graduate of Christ Church, and had acted as Hunter-Blair’s godfather when he was received into the Church. A papal audience for Wilde was secured through Hunter-Blair’s acquaintance with Mgr Edmund Stonor, Rector of the English College. Hopes for Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism were high and he could be forgiven for frustration and disappointment at his friend’s prevarications.  Two incidents – small in themselves – revealed a sharp divergence in opinion between the two students. After the audience with Pope Pius IX they visited the English Cemetery where Wilde prostrated himself on Keats’ grave – an act of devotion which displeased Hunter-Blair. The following June Wilde again incurred his friend’s displeasure with his long poem Ravenna which brought Magdalen its first award of the Newdigate Prize since 1825: Hunter-Blair objected to the description of Vittorio Emmanuel II’s triumphant entry into Rome in 1870.  Wilde’s fickleness was evident. After the audience he wrote the sonnet ‘Urbs Sacra Aeterna’ which Hunter-Blair sent to Fr Henry Coleridge SJ, editor of the Jesuit journal The Month; it was published in September but Wilde seemed merely to be playing with moods and Hunter-Blair’s patience had worn thin.

‘I don’t want to see them [sonnets]. It is useless to talk of your weakness and want of principle – truly a strange reason for turning your back on what alone will make you strong…and as for your want of faith and enthusiasm, you cannot pretend to believe that the God, who has given you grace to see His truth, will not also keep you firm when you choose to embrace it.’ Almost ten years later Wilde called on Hunter-Blair in Edinburgh; the meeting was brief and lacked the warmth of their student days. Wilde finally fell on his knees and said ‘Pray for me, Dunskie, pray for me.’ As Hunter-Blair walked out Wilde knelt on the floor and kissed his hand, and that was the last they saw of one another.

Hunter-Blair obtained his MA in 1876 and in the same year was appointed Captain in the Prince Regent’s Royal Ayrshire Militia. His convert’s zeal was not restricted to trying to draw Wilde into the Catholic Church and over the next two years Hunter-Blair poured a fair amount of his wealth into the Diocese of Galloway and other Catholic causes. A number of new churches were built with his financial support. Donations were made to the churches at Girvan, Stranraer – to which he would cycle from Dunskey for Sunday Mass – and it was he who paid for the new church at Newton Stewart, opened on the 7th December 1876 and dedicated St Ninian. His connections with the area remained, and when the church at Stranraer was refurbished in the early 1920s he returned to preach at the grand re-opening. Between 1877 and 1879 he donated a total of £72,677 to Fort Augustus and was largely responsible for the fine monastic library. On the 9th May 1877, along with Robert Monteith (whose relative Anne Monteith paid for a window at Newton Stewart) and his old friends J Ogilvie Fairlie and Rev Archibald Douglas, he was in Rome to present Pius IX with £2,000, a chalice and vestments, as a consolation for the loss of the papal states. A good many ladies had their eyes upon this wealthy young bachelor heir, and in the elegant whirl of high society a series of débutantes were introduced to him in the hope that a brilliant match would be made. To the disappointment of many mothers, if not to him, his vocation lay elsewhere.

St Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus 


The canal locks at Fort Augustus, with the abbey visible in the background

The monastery at Fort Augustus was housed in a former military garrison at the south end of Loch Ness and had been given to the Benedictines by the Catholic landowner Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. The foundation came about through the vision and enthusiasm of Dom Jerome Vaughan OSB in 1876 but was still finding its feet when Hunter-Blair first visited in February 1878. He was evidently impressed and returned in September for the inauguration of the boys’ school. The foundation stone of the monastery was laid by Lord Lovat on 15th September, that of the school by the Marquis of Ripon, and that of the guest-house jointly by Mr Maxwell-Scott of Abbotsford and Robert Monteith of Carstairs. After this, Prior Jerome Vaughan took the 25-year-old on a tour of English monasteries and cathedrals. Returning to Scotland to settle his affairs, he entered Fort Augustus at the end of October and began his postulancy on 11th November, donning for the first time the black tunic and belt of the postulant. When he was clothed as a novice he took the religious name of Oswald. By then the building work had advanced enough to justify a solemn opening ceremony on the 16th October, but the community remained small: in August 1879 there were still only six other monks besides the Prior. In those days the English Benedictines had a common novitiate at Belmont Priory in Herefordshire and he duly set off south at the end of the month. He made his simple profession on 3rd July 1880 and travelled up to Fort Augustus for its long-awaited solemn opening in August, planned to coincide with celebrations for the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St Benedict in 480.

Behind the jubilation, however, tensions were rising within the community with regard to monastic observance. The English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) has a unique history and character: although claiming continuity with the pre-Reformation monks of England, its traditions and structures grew out of the 16th and 17th century experience of monk-missionaries trained on the continent to minister to Catholics in England. This strong pastoral emphasis meant that EBC houses undertook to run parishes and schools outside their monasteries, and individual monks lived far more ‘in the world’ than their counterparts in other Benedictine congregations. Many remained outside their monasteries for years on end, returning only for the annual retreat. Even if few were baronets like Hunter-Blair, most came from privileged backgrounds, something reflected in the general ambience, culture and standard of living within the houses. One of the objections made in 1880 was that claret should no longer be served in the refectory, and more abstinence was demanded two years later, along with greater silence and the exclusion of schoolboys from the monastic cloister. In part, this reflected the influence of monastic reform movements then gathering momentum on the continent; it was also a manifestation of national tensions. The Third Marquess of Bute was pushing for the establishment of a Scottish Benedictine Congregation, and on the 30th September 1882 Lord Lovat wrote to the Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh that his land had been intended for ‘an entirely Scotch foundation’. There was also the problem that the Prior, Dom Jerome Vaughan, was not popular within the community.

Matters came to a head and a Papal Brief, formally separating Fort Augustus from the EBC, was read out at Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, 7th January 1883, by John Strain, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.  Members of the community currently elsewhere left their EBC houses and returned to the Fort. Vaughan invited Dom Leo Linse, Prior of St Thomas’ Abbey in Erdington, to give the annual retreat to the monks at Fort Augustus, and at the end of the retreat a unanimous petition was sent to the Holy See by all the professed monks asking that he be appointed their Superior. Dom Jerome was deposed by the EBC and left shortly afterwards, to be replaced as Prior by Fr Kentigern Milne. Although the community’s request was not granted at this time, Linse was installed as Prior on 4th April 1886 and finally blessed as the first Abbot of Fort Augustus on 15th July 1888.

Meanwhile Dom Oswald was ordained deacon on March 25th, the same day that his Rule of St Benedict was published. This edition was printed at Fort Augustus by the Abbey Press and contained the Latin text of the Rule accompanied by Fr Oswald’s English translation and notes. It proved popular: a second edition came out in 1906, reprinted the following year, with a third edition in 1914. His ordination to the priesthood took place a few months later, on the 11th July; he was ordained with Dom Adrian Weld-Blundell, a brother of Lady Lovat. It is intriguing to note that the name of another celebrated Magdalen graduate, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (1870-1945), was entered in the Abbey Visitor’s Book just a few weeks earlier. By this time Fr Oswald was engaged in translating Geschichte der Katholiken Kirche in Schottland (2vols, 1883) by Alfons Bellesheim, Canon of Cologne Cathedral.  The result was a History of the Catholic Church of Scotland, from the introduction of Christianity to the present day published by William Blackwood & Sons in four volumes between 1887 and 1890. It is much more than a straight translation. Fr Oswald added copious notes, expanding and explaining Bellesheim’s text. Few of these are mere glosses; many are highly instructive and extremely useful to historians. He showed himself a gifted translator, turning Bellesheim’s German into easy-flowing harmonious English prose. The book was well-received by critics and remains the most outstanding scholarly achievement of all his literary work.  It was an important step in establishing the abbey’s reputation for intellectual and spiritual vitality. Over the next decades this was consolidated by other publications and works of art produced by the community.

During that summer of 1886 he came into contact with the enigmatic Baron Corvo, about whom I have written in A Carnal Medium.  Hunter-Blair’s old friend Lord Bute was then engaged in setting up a cathedral choir on the west Highland coast at Oban, but finding it as difficult to locate suitable boy choristers as it was to employ a reliable choirmaster. Four youngsters were eventually chosen and sent to the abbey school at Fort Augustus to learn the rudiments of Gregorian plainchant from the monks. For a choirmaster Lord Bute obtained the services of Frederick Rolfe, ‘Baron Corvo’, who had just been dismissed from the Scots College in Rome – a fact unknown to His Lordship. Rolfe called at Fort Augustus to collect the boys on his way to Oban and met Fr Oswald, who subsequently came to stay in Oban on 13th September. The three months had not been happy ones and Rolfe poured out a litany of bitterness and complaints about his treatment from other Catholics and locals. He abandoned the post in October and left for Aberdeen where he set up as a photographer. Between then and 1898 Rolfe moved through a number of jobs and as many friends. That autumn the Daily Free Press published a series of three anonymous articles on Rolfe – 8th, 12th and 26th November – containing both intimate accurate details as well as stinging accusations. Who was the author? Hunter-Blair was one of those suspected, but it is doubtful if this will ever be confirmed. Another shady character who visited the abbey around this time was Ada Goodrich-Freer. She mentioned her intended visit to Fr Oswald in two letters written on 15th August 1894; one to Lord Bute, the other to Frederick Myers who had put her into contact with the monk.  He describes this month on page 203 of A Medley of Memories without reference to her.


Lord Bute, wearing the gown he had designed himself for his installation as Rector of St Andrews University in 1893; the resemblance to a monastic cowl was intentional.

He was headmaster of the school until 1888 when Abbot Leo appointed him master of scholastics i.e. newly professed monks studying for the priesthood. By the autumn of 1894 several of them were within a few months of ordination, emphasising the problem of providing studies. At one point it seemed that a hall might be opened at St Andrews University: the 3rd Marquess of Bute was then Lord Rector and was eager – for patriotic and romantic reasons – to open a Scottish seminary there. Fr Oswald met Lord Bute several times to discuss the plan, even reaching the stage of opening negotiations with the Dean of Faculty there, but it came to nothing. In the autumn of 1896 he returned to Oxford again as guest of Hartwell Grisell and found the university community full of interest over the new hall for Jesuit students about to be opened with Fr Richard Clarke SJ as its Master. An 1882 statute allowed any individual with an Oxford MA to open a Private Hall in his own name, and the Jesuit house of studies was opened as Clarke Hall. This development would turn out to be of direct relevance to Fr Oswald’s future career, but for the time being his eyes turned elsewhere, for in (April) 1896 he embarked on a steamer for South America.

The Beuronese congregation, to which Fort Augustus was affiliated from 1883 to 1911, had accepted a request for help from moribund Benedictine communities in Brazil by sending out a small party of monks in April 18957. Fr Oswald had been asked to assist in the restoration by Dom Gerard van Caloen who had been Rector of the school at Maredsous when he visited the Belgian monastery in 1883. Brazil had been a Belgian colony until the collapse of the Empire in 1889, by which time the entire Brazilian Congregation comprised barely a dozen monks. Fr Oswald was sent to the oldest Benedictine monastery in the country, St Benedict’s, Olinda. The Anglican chaplain here, curiously enough, had been a chorister at Magdalen while Hunter-Blair was an undergraduate. He married in 1895 and returned to Scotland for a three-month honeymoon on Loch Tay. His chapel at Pernambuco was a barn-like structure of corrugated iron. Macray died of yellow fever soon after Fr Oswald returned to England in time for Easter 1897.

That summer saw the purchase by his old friend Lord Bute of Pluscarden Priory, a partially-ruined monastery near Elgin. The Marquess acquired the property for his youngest son but hoped that the buildings could be restored and possibly returned to their original purpose. He invited Fr Oswald to celebrate Mass in the prior’s chapel at Pluscarden, and this took place on 5th May 1898. The scene was later painted by an artist, Horatio Walter Lonsdale, with whom Lord Bute was then working closely.

Return to Oxford Later in the year Fr Oswald returned to his old college to attend the Magdalen ‘gaudy’. In June he was back at Fort Augustus after an absence of almost eighteen months, but his sojourn there was to last barely a year, for in at the end of August he left the Highlands to return to Oxford.

The Benedictine hall in Oxford owed its origin to the Prior of Ampleforth, Fr Anselm Burge. The decision was made at a meeting of the Prior’s Council on 22nd July 1897 and twenty-six-year old Fr Edmund Matthews OSB was appointed superior. Along with three young postulants Fr Edmund arrived in Oxford early in October 1897, moving into premises at 103 Woodstock Road opposite St Philip and James Church. The foundation foundered however in that Fr Edmund was not a Master of Arts, and this degree was required by the university for anyone wishing to maintain a private lodging hall of undergraduates. As no-one at Ampleforth had an MA the future of the hall looked uncertain until Fr Oswald offered his services.  He was not just a Master of Arts but also a graduate of Oxford; furthermore, his social skills provided a means of gaining acceptance for the monks within the Oxford community. To satisfy the university rules he had to reside for a short period before he could be granted a license, and he moved in accordingly on 1st September 1898. License to open a Private Hall was obtained on the 29th May and Hunter-Blair Hall opened in October 1899 with himself as Master; Fr Edmund took care of general management until his recall to Ampleforth in 1903. In these early years the hall received much help from Hartwell Grissell.

Frederick Rolfe contacted him in 1901, hoping to enlist his help in finding a publisher for Chronicles of the House of Borgia. For some reason Rolfe turned on Hunter-Blair and directed a furious onslaught of invective against him. In 1904 Hunter-Blair moved the Benedictine house to new premises in Beaumont Street in the former Grindle’s Hall. Students included Justin McCann, who was the first monk from the Hall to obtain a First. Fr Oswald became a well-known and popular figure around Oxford, but by 1908 his health was causing concern and it was revealed that he would need a major operation. This effectively ended his term as Master. He returned to Oxford to spend a year as assistant Catholic chaplain and then embarked for Brazil to help at the monastery of San Bento in Sao Paolo.

Back at Fort Augustus Abbot Leo’s health had also deteriorated, so much so that he returned to Germany to be treated for diabetes: he did not return until the autumn of 1909. In his absence Prior Kentigern Milne had been in charge of the monastery, but the Abbot’s condition was so poor that it was evident he could not resume responsibility. He moved to the monastery’s “holiday home” St James’, at Letterfourie near Buckie, where he died on the Feast of St Benedict, 21st March 1910. The monastery ceased to be an independent abbey affiliated to the Beuronese Congregation and instead rejoined the EBC. Prior Hilary Wilson of Ampleforth was appointed claustral Prior during the inter-regnum which ended with the election of Fr Oswald as the second Abbot of Fort Augustus.


The abbatial blessing
His abbatial blessing took place on 9th April 1913. A photograph in the Benedictine Almanac and Yearbook for 1914 (above) shows him seated alongside Bishop George Smith of Argyll & the Isles, with Abbot-President Aidan Gasquet and Abbot Oswald Smith of Ampleforth. ​


The new abbot in 1913

He announced his determination to complete the abbey church, which still lacked a choir, and made this one of the priorities as abbot. The community then numbered about forty with some of the monks serving parishes outside the monastery. The school had been closed in Christmas 1894 as part of the Beuronese reform, continuing in a much-reduced scale as a junior seminary for around twenty boys considering a vocation to the priesthood or monastic life. He had been abbot for just over a year when the First World War erupted. Although it was not yet apparent,  the society that he had known had ceased to exist.  The college buildings were handed over for use as a military hospital and occupied by wounded Belgian soldiers. Several monks left to serve as chaplains in the army or navy; some, like Frs Odo Blundell and John Lane-Fox, distinguished themselves. It was a challenging time to be abbot. Many local families lost fathers, husbands and sons in the war. Resources were scant and his own health poor. The horrors of modern warfare ended the confident carefree Edwardian era, confronting mankind with proof of its own inhumanity. The introduction of airplanes and tanks was frightening enough, but submarine warfare was the most sinister development in the eyes of many – including Pope Benedict XV who considered their attacks on shipping as beyond even the laws of war. In 1911 Abbot Oswald had noted the arrival of two naval submarines – ‘weird, wicked-looking brown things’ – in Loch Ness. The modern world was breaking in. After the war even the grandest celebrations were more sober. The vast social balls at country mansions that he had known in his youth, with processions of carriages and footmen in livery, were not to be repeated. His memoirs contain much that seems redolent of the 18th and early 19th century, belonging to an era that ended with the coming of the railway rather than the submarines.

He resigned as abbot in November 1917 just after the solemn blessing of the Blessed Sacrament chapel by Bishop Aeneas Chisholm of Aberdeen. The choir had just been finished, although the entire church was not to be complete for another half-century. The retired Abbot followed the usual practice of moving away from his abbey for a while in order to give breathing space to his successor. As it happened there was another two-year interregnum during which Fr Hilary Wilson was again claustral prior. The EBC have a tradition of granting retired abbots the titular abbacy of an old pre-Reformation monastery and Abbot Oswald became – for the time being – titular Abbot of Abingdon. The suggestion of spending his retirement at the Benedictine House of Studies in Oxford was quashed by his former pupil Dom Justin McCann, appointed Master in 1920. He therefore moved at the age of 66 to Caldey Island off the coast of South Wales, the home of a Benedictine community of former Anglicans who had joined the Catholic Church in 1913. Their journal PAX carried his Rome Forty Years Ago: some rambling recollections in their autumn 1917 issue, with the second part of the article appearing in the winter number.

The community was in fact struggling with financial and personal difficulties, and the Superior – Dom Aelred Carlyle – left in December for a fund-raising tour in America. As he had still not returned by Easter 1918 Abbot Oswald officiated at the Holy Week services and preached on Easter Sunday. His presence was a welcome one. His gifts as a raconteur were appreciated by most (but not all!) of the community, which he also served as acting librarian. Much of the time was spent on literary work, a biography of Lord Bute as well as his forthcoming memoirs. Chapters from the latter were read to Br Richard Anson who provided the illustrations. Extracts were published in PAX. Abbot Oswald remained on Caldey Island for two and a half years, albeit with occasional journeys for important functions. He returned to the Highlands for the blessing of his successor, Abbot Joseph McDonald on 27th August 1919. While at Harrogate on the way home he heard that his titular abbacy was to be moved from Abingdon to Dunfermline – the only old Scottish abbey associated with the English Benedictines.

A Medley of Memories, the first of three entertaining volumes of memoirs, was published in 1919. (The other two came out in 1922 and 1936). Amongst all the thousands of books and articles written by Benedictine monks over the last 1,500 years there is nothing quite like Hunter-Blair’s trilogy. His gifts as a raconteur were obvious, but the never-ending litany of country houses, famous names and exotic locations presented an extraordinary picture of monastic life. Publication coincided with Abbot Cuthbert Butler’s Christian Monachism, an erudite, convincing and influential work that quickly became a classic. Comparing the two, one critic commented that Butler wrote about monastic life as it should be, while Hunter-Blair’s book showed it as it is. His trilogy of Medleys says little about mysticism but a great deal about high society. The abbot’s human failings may have included excessive concern with worldly affairs, yet this should neither obscure his achievements as a monk nor be presumed to imply lack of religious devotion or disregard for prayer. Most of a monk’s life is hidden, known only to God. While some monks may have worn silk-lined hair shirts Abbot Oswald could not be accused of hypocrisy, for he was extremely candid about his extra-mural activities; so much so, in fact, that it appears almost as a smokescreen. He was an intelligent man. Few abbots are fools.

He left Caldey on March 23rd 1920, having accepted another invitation to assist in Brazil. On his way to Southampton he stopped over at Bristol with Dr Tetley, the Archdeacon of Bristol and an old Magdalen man whose daughter had become a Catholic. At a Magdalen gaudy Hunter-Blair had met a previous Archdeacon of Bristol (and chaplain to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce) Alfred Pott. From Southampton he sailed for Brazil, arriving back at San Bento on April 19th 1920. He left in August and by the autumn was back in Fort Augustus where he completed the final pages of Life of the Third Marquess of Bute. Early in 1921 he sailed back to Brazil and reached San Bento on February 10th 1921. He left in November and reached England mid-December. The Beuronese encouraged artistic work and the abbey had its own Arts & Crafts school which made a rosewood screen for the Blessed Sacrament chapel at Fort Augustus.

From then on he was never able to settle. He travelled about, acting as chaplain to noble families, writing prolifically for books and magazines, and residing for some years at the New Club in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. He was constantly in demand as a speaker for church events, jubilees, weddings, radio broadcasts, dinners, and social functions, at which he was always the life and soul of the gathering.

Hunter-Blair took part in the abbatial blessing of Dom Edmund Matthews, his former Oxford colleague, on 12th March 1925. In 1927 he was on the BBC broadcasting on the subject of ‘Scottish Monasticism’ before leaving for Brazil again in the winter months. On December 8th 1928 he kept his Golden Jubilee, marking fifty years since he began his novitiate.


Abbot Oswald in 1929

In noting the occasion the Benedictine Almanac and Guide for 1930 acknowledged that ‘English Benedictines are especially indebted to him as the first Master of the Benedictine Oxford House of Studies, for whose help in an acute emergency, and in many years of service, we can never be sufficiently grateful.’ (p.15. Photograph above.)

On 7th January 1935 he took part in the inaugural meeting of the Fort Augustus Old Boys’ Association at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, presiding over their London dinner at the Rembrandt Hotel in London the following month. He told the gathering that he was shortly travelling to Rome to see Pope Pius XI and would ask the Pope for a special blessing for them all, at which point the audience burst into singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’  A few weeks later he was back in Oxford, for the Scottish Catholic Observer reported on 9th March 1935: ‘The Lord Abbot of Dunfermline, Abbot Hunter Blair, gave a lecture last week in the Society’s rooms at the Old Palace (now the residence of Fr Ronald Knox) on the famous Monster of Loch Ness. Many distinguished members of the University attended.’ He was off to Rome next where he stayed with the Abbot Primate on the Aventine and had a private audience with Pius XI on March 27th. The two men seemed to have got on well together. Eschewing the formality of his predecessors, the Pope asked Abbot Oswald to sit next to him. The monk showed him a picture of the monastery’s setting by Loch Ness and Pius XI cried out in delight ‘Enfin, nous l’avons – l’habitat du Monstre! It turned out that the Pope had long been fascinated by the Loch Ness monster and had been unsuccessfully quizzing Scottish bishops and priests for details. Once Hunter-Blair admitted that he had in fact seen the creature, it proved impossible to steer the conversation onto any other subject.


Hardly an ascetic figure: Abbot Oswald in 1932

By his early eighties his health – never strong – had begun to deteriorate and he suffered much from rheumatism, gout and failing sight. Despite this he remained active, with neither his brain nor his pen lying idle for long. Even if his “unwillingness to let the monastic life interfere with his social engagements”11 had led him to spend most of his time outwith the cloister, his heart remained in the monastery where he made profession. Lying ill in St Mary’s Hospital, London, he knew that death was drawing near and asked to return to St Benedict’s Abbey. He was taken on train back to Fort Augustus where he died on September 12th 1939, and buried in the abbey cemetery.

To monks today he cuts a rather comical figure, seeming to belong more to the pages of a novel by Trollope or Dickens than to the Vitae Patrum. Since the beginnings of Christianity monks have made their dwelling in deserts, mountain caves, on remote islands and even atop pillars, none of which seems as incongruous as Edinburgh’s New Club – but this image he himself presented, and it is easy to be fooled by the impression.  His aristocratic connections and evident enjoyment of them may seem out of keeping with the renunciation of his monastic vows, but these were deliberately employed for higher ends. In an era when the establishment tended to identify Catholicism with Irish navvies and foreign Jesuits, the charms of this literary baronet were a revelation. The fact that he was a monk – and a highly capable one – added to his effectiveness in making Catholic religious life acceptable. There were still violent attacks being made on the presence of a Roman Catholic monastery in Scotland in newspapers in 1888. The ease with which he glided through the upper classes enabled him to advance Catholic causes that might otherwise have been obstructed: his success in gaining a foothold for the Benedictines in Oxford is just one instance. Abbot Oswald may sometimes have acted the clown, but his mind was more shrewd than he let on.  Despite the huge amount this colourful and flamboyant figure wrote about himself, one suspects that it was always less than the full story. This monk of Magdalen continues to fascinate, to entertain and to confound; in being a sign of contradiction, even to himself, he stands firmly in the monastic tradition. ​​​

Sisters on the screen: 20 films about convent life

The Convent Gate – from an old promotional postcard

To mark today’s screening of Black Narcissus as part of the series of Exeter Screen Talks, I wanted to celebrate twenty films about convent life. The emphasis is on movies that make some serious attempt at portraying religious life, and I have therefore ignored those with fake nuns (A Mule for Sister Sarah (1970) and Più forte sorelle (Renzo Spaziani, 1973) as well as the more lurid examples of the nunsploitation genre (Behind Convent Walls (1978), Sacred Flesh (1999) etc) but at the end of the day the selection is a personal one and is as arbitrary and subjective as can be.

The Convent Gate (Wilfrid Noy, 1913)

Straightaway I’m cheating by writing about a film that I haven’t seen. It’s been estimated that between 75-90% of silent films were destroyed or disappeared, and sadly The Convent Gate was one of them. My interest was piqued when I came across this postcard at a flea market some years ago, and I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post.

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

Ten years later Lilian Gish starred in this adaptation of F. Marion Crawford’s 1909 novel The White Sister. It had been filmed already in 1915 with Viola Allen in the title role, as star-crossed Italian lover Angela Chiaromonte who enters religious life after a series of tragic events, plotting and misunderstandings. Ronald Colman played her lover, Captain Giovanni Severini.


Lilian Gish in ‘The White Sister’ (1923)


Helen Hayes as Angela Chiaromonte in ‘The White Sister’ (Victor Fleming, 1933)

The story is set in Italy and ends with the climactic eruption of Vesuvius. While in Sorrento five years ago I came across a street named after Crawford – he moved here in the 1880s and knew the area well.

The White Sister (Victor Fleming, 1933)

In the third screen adaptation of Crawford’s novel Angela was played by Helen Hayes, who was about to make her name playing Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria on Broadway. Colman’s role was taken here by Clark Gable.

I’ll skip quickly over The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) as it was the subject of a recent post which you can read here.

Les Anges du Péché (Robert Bresson, 1943)Comparisons are often drawn between the work of Bresson and Bill Douglas, both of whom excelled in the use of poetic imagery with minimal dialogue. Bresson was still finding his style with Les Anges du Péché, his first feature film, made in wartime France in collaboration with Dominican friar Fr. Raymond Bruckberger O.P. and playwright Jean Giraudoux. ‘Angels of Sin’ follows events in a religious community dedicated to rehabilitating women prisoners, but it is easy to see the German occupation of France as influencing the themes of incarceration and vengeance killing.


Les Anges du Péché
This may be early Bresson, but it is well worth a watch: as Oliver Assayas has said of Bresson, ‘He is what keeps me faithful to what cinema can achieve. In moments of discouragement, he reminds me how great films can be.’

Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby star in this drama as Sister Mary Benedict and Father Charles O’ Malley, fighting to save their city school from closure. Both of them get to sing in the movie of course, Bergman singing the traditional Swedish folksong Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes) and Crosby crooning the title song (along with a choir of nuns) and others. The movie is used in the film The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) with bitter irony – the sweet nuns of the 1945 film contrasting harshly with the cruel, somewhat cartoonish villains of Mullan’s tale.


Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict in Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945) with Bing Crosby
Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947)

One of my favourite films of all time, and my strongest recommendation of all those listed here, Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel and tells the story of a community of nuns opening a convent in the Indian Himalayas. As with so much of Powell and Pressburger’s work, the film is imbued with a strong sense of place and an awareness of the effect of location on human behaviour: the lush sensuality of the landscape (filmed in vibrant Technicolor by Jack Cardiff) and the erotic history of the convent building (a former seraglio) seem to draw out the emotional tensions and desires of the nuns – in particular Sister Ruth (below.)


Those eyes, that mouth…. Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’


The Himalayan landscape was suggested through the use of magnificent matte paintings, as the above pictures reveal

The magnificent cast also includes Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, Esmond Knight and a surly, swaggering David Farrar.

Come to the Stable (Henry Koster, 1949)

Another tale of nuns moving into an unfamiliar location, but very different in tone, Come to the Stable starred Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns trying to establish a foundation in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Unlike the plot of The Bells of St Mary’s the nuns don’t resort to trickery to achieve their goals…


Sister Scholastica (left, Celeste Holm) and Sister Margaret (right, Loretta Young) in a scene from ‘Come to the Stable’


Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist) and Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert)

Thunder on the Hill (Douglas Sirk, 1951)

This who-dunnit is set in a storm-lashed Norfolk convent, where convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe) gets marooned by the weather while en route to the gallows. (Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, died four years later, in 1955.) Claudette Colbert plays Sister Mary, a young nun who begins to have doubts about Valerie’s guilt – setting her on course to clash with the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper.)


Corporal Allison (MItchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr)

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (John Huston, 1957)

Having played the Sister Superior in Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr was demoted to the status of a novice in this film, in which she is stranded together with US marine Robert Mitchum on a Pacific island during WWII. They have to deal with lack of food, fever, Japanese soldiers and – of course – each other, while waiting to be rescued. Both stars give tremendous performances, while the exotic location (much of it was filmed in Tobago) provides a lush backdrop to the poignancy and drama of their situation.

The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)

Based on Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel, The Nun’s Story follows Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) as she struggles to deal with inner conflict as a medical nun working in Africa. As with The White Sister and Black Narcissus, there are hints of an unresolved romance haunting her decision to enter the convent, but Sister Luke also has to deal with issues regarding obedience and her duties towards her family and homeland after the Nazis invade Belgium while she is working in Africa. It’s one of the best films for a serious exploration of the real issues involved in taking the veil.


Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) and friend
Le Dialogue des Carmelites
(Philippe Agostini, 1960) This was another wartime project of Fr Bruckberger O.P., based on Gertrud le Fort’s novel about a community of Carmelite nuns who were martyred at Compiegne in 1789 during the French Revolution. George Bernanos wrote additional dialogue – much of which was later dropped – and stage and opera versions were produced before the screenplay finally made it to the screen. Jeanne Moreau played Mère Marie de l’Incarnation.
Mother Joan of the Angels
(Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961) Based on the same story about the possessed nuns of Loudun that inspired Ken Russell’s film ten years later, Mother Joan of the Angels is much less well known: this is a shame, as it’s an absolute masterpiece, subtle in all the places where Russell is extravagant, yet containing a wealth of stark, stunning imagery and poetic visuals.


Le Dialogue des Carmelites (1960)


A scene from Matka Joanna od Aniolow (Mother Joan of the Angels)

Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, 1963)

This film provided Sidney Poitier with his first Oscar, playing wandering handyman Homer Smith who finds work (but no wages) helping out a struggling community of nuns from German and Eastern Europe. The title of the film is taken from Matthew 6:28-30, which Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) quotes in response to Homer’s request to be paid.


The nuns get excited about a phonograph in ‘Lilies of the Field.’
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers provided the basis for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which was in turn adapted for the screen by 20th Century Fox. Julie Andrews played Maria, a novice nun who leaves the convent for a while to work as a governess to an Austrian family of seven children, and ends up leaving religious life and marrying their widowed father. Some of the exterior scenes were shot at the convent of Nonnberg in Salzburg.


Maria…not ‘an asset to the abbey’? A scene from ‘The Sound of Music’

The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, published in 1796, offers a profound critique not only of religious life and Catholicism but also of the constraints placed upon women in 18th century society. Diderot’s simple tale recounts the sufferings of a young girl, Suzanne Simonin, who is forced into the convent by her family. French New Wave director Jacques Rivette adapted the novel for the stage before revising it for the screen, in both versions casting Jean Luc Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina as Suzanne. It remains quite stagey, with its slow pace and unadorned style, but it’s deeply moving and heartbreaking in its depiction of Suzanne’s ordeals as she experiences religious life under three Mother Superiors – the kindly Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), cruel Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge) and the ardent Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver.) The film was remade by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013 with Isabelle Huppert playing Suzanne.


Sister Suzanne (Anna Karina, on left) falls foul of the new regime in ‘La Religieuse’ (1966)

The Trouble with Angels (Ida Lupino, 1966)

Returning to the present day and a lighter vein, The Trouble with Angels was set in an American convent school where rebellious pupils Hayley Mills and June Harding try to outwit the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell), only to find that they underestimate the nun’s wisdom and wiles. The success of the film inspired a rather lacklustre sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (James Neilson, 1968.)


Mary (Mills) and Rachel (Harding) meet their match
The Singing Nun (Henry Koster, 1966)


Debbie Reynolds as Sister Ann in ‘The Singing Nun’


Lobby card of a scene from ‘The Singing Nun’

‘The Singing Nun’ was the popular name given to Sister Luc-Gabrielle O.P., also known as Jeanne Deckers (1933-85), a Dominican nun from Belgium who released several records including the No.1 single ‘Dominique’ (1963.) The movie is a sweetly fictionalised portrait of Deckers, whose life subsequently took a tragic dive downwards into depression, drug abuse and suicide.

Change of Habit (William Graham, 1969)


Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) and Doctor John Carpenter (Elvis Presley) in ‘Change of Habit’

Elvis Presley’s final fictional movie role saw him play a doctor in a run-down area who is unaware that three co-workers – Michelle Gallagher (Mary Tyler Moore), Irene (Barbara McNair) and Barbara (Jane Elliott) are in fact nuns who have shed their habits in order to gain the trust of the parishioners they are trying to help. The movie, as one would expect, contains romantic entanglements and lots of Elvis songs.

As a by-the-by, it is perhaps worth mentioning that another of Elvis Presley’s co-stars, Dolores Hart – who played opposite ‘The King’ in Lovin’ You (1957) and King Creole (1958) – entered a real-life convent in 1963 and later became the Prioress of Regina Laudis Priory in Connecticut.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

It’s been over forty years since the release of The Devils but Ken Russell’s extraordinary and disturbing work has retained its reputation as one of the most shocking movies ever made in Britain. The scenes of orgiastic violence are graphic and unrelenting, but shot with the high command of visual aesthetics that one would expect from production designer Derek Jarman. Although Vanessa Redgrave played Mother Jeanne of the Angels, the role had been originally offered to Glenda Jackson. However, after playing the female leads in Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970), a third erotically-charged performance might have been excessive (even for them.) As a representation of convent life The Devils cannot evade the charge of sensationalism – it’s a orgy of Grand Guignol grotesquerie and Gothic horror – but it explores aspects of religious psychology and the interior life that are barely touched by the other films listed here. Go there if you dare.

Nasty Habits (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977)

It wasn’t long Jackson got another chance at playing a nun, and this time she accepted the offer: Nasty Habits is based on Muriel Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale (1974), which took the then highly-topical story of the Watergate scandal (1972-74) and transposed its component parts into a Benedictine convent where a power-hungry nun is plotting to fix her election as abbess. The film version shifts the setting from Crewe to Philadelphia and assembled a star-studded cast that included Edith Evans as the old Abbess Hildegard whose death leaves a power-vacuum, Glenda Jackson as the ambitious Sister Alexandra (i.e. Nixon) and Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson as her accomplices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, who break into the sewing basket of her rival Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon) in order to steal a cache of love letters. Allegations of bugging and bribery lead to Vatican involvement, and those familiar with the Watergate story will enjoy identifying the characters and events being parodied.


Pre-election skulduggery in ‘Nasty Habits’ (1977) – a topical note on which to end this week’s blog!

The Song of Bernadette

Jennifer Jones in ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943)

Today is the feast day of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, whose name is inseparable from Lourdes, the French town in which she claimed to have seen a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Almost immediately, crowds of the devout and the curious began assembling at the spot in the hope of seeing something themselves, and after Bernadette unearthed a hidden spring, it was not long before the healing waters of Lourdes became an international site of pilgrimage. She herself left Lourdes and became a nun, joining the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers hundreds of miles to the north. As Sister Marie-Bernarde, she died at the convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers on this day in 1879, aged only 35.

Bernadette’s story has inspired countless books and works of art but today I wanted to write a short post about the film The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943), starring Jennifer Jones as the young visionary.

The film was based on a book, Das Lied von Bernadette, by Franz Werfel (1890-1945), an Austrian Jew who had taken refuge in Lourdes for several weeks while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940. During his time there he heard firsthand tales of the apparitions from older inhabitants of the town, and determined to write about Bernadette if he escaped. True to his word, he completed the novel not long after he and his wife found safety in America. The book was published in German in 1941 (the title page of the first edition is dated Los Angeles, May 1941), followed by an English edition – translated by Ludwig Lewisohn – the following year. It was enormously popular, topping the New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end, and Hollywood producers were not slow to see the potential. The rights were snapped up by 20th Century Fox and workmen began constructing a mock French village on the back lot of the studio. Filming began in March 1943.

Given the popularity of the book, there was intense anticipation as to who would play the part of Bernadette. Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were among those who did screen tests, but the coveted role was given to newcomer Jennifer Jones, whose only screen performances to date had been minor parts in the John Wayne western New Frontier (George Sherman, 1939) and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men (John English & William Whitney.1939), both under her real name of Phyllis Isley. At the age of 24 and possessing a youthful fresh-faced beauty, she gave a convincing performance in portraying the fourteen year old Bernadette.
The Virgin Mary was played by Linda Darnell, soon to appear in the racy Forever Amber, and at that time engaged in a scandalous affair with 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F Zanuck.


Linda Darnell as the Virgin Mary
Sadly, Jones’s married life was far from happy at this time. While still in her teens in 1939 she had married actor Robert Walker, with whom she had two young sons. Both actors were struggling until they came to the attention of MGM producer David Selznick, who gave Walker a contract, changed his wife’s name to Jennifer Jones and set her on a course for movie stardom. His plans for her were not disinterested, however, and their affair led to her separation from Walker in November 1943, a few weeks before Song of Bernadette was released in time for Christmas.

Jones and Selznick


Srs. Marie-Bernarde (Jones) and Marie-Therese (Gladys Cooper) in a poignant scene
On 2 March 1944, her 25th birthday, Jones was awarded an Oscar for her performance, winning out against Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Swedish actress was gracious in defeat, and the following year Jones was able to hand Bergman the Oscar for Best Actress in honour of her role in Gaslight (1944), MGM’s remake of the Anton Walbrook masterpiece of 1940.


Jennifer with her 1944 Oscar – her only one, despite being nominated on four subsequent occasions
Jennifer’s Oscar should not eclipse excellent performances given by other members of the cast, such as Gladys Cooper as Sister Marie-Therese Vazous and Vincent Price (below) as Prosecutor Vital Dutour, whose hostility towards Bernadette’s piety drives him to interrogate her without mercy in the hope of revealing her to be a fraud – although he is nowhere near as cruel an Inquisitor as Matthew Hopkins, whom Price would play in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968.)


Vincent Price as Vital Dutour

In reality, Dutour was as much a Catholic as Bernadette, and the portrayal of Dutour as irreligious is just on example of the way that the film follows Werfel’s fictional embellishments. The novel is a thick tome of almost 600 pages, and the author used the story to explore related themes about religious experience, attitudes to the supernatural and the nature of miracles, weaving these into a multi-layered narratives of events that took place at the shrine long after the apparitions. One of the film’s flaws is the inclusion of too much of this material, which slows the pace and drags its length out to almost two and a half hours.

Other characters include the parish priest of Lourdes, Abbé Dominique Peyramale, played by Christopher Bickson who would reprise the role in a 1954 radio version. Bickson’s untimely death in 1967 so distressed Jennifer Jones that she attempted suicide. Selznick, whom she had married in 1949, had died in 1965 and their daughter Mary committed suicide in 1976. The third act of The Song of Bernadette depicts the saint’s suffering under humiliation and terminal illness, exploring the possibility that her trials may have been redemptive in nature; one can only wonder if the actress found any such meaning in the troubled years of her later life. Lee J. Cobb (Doctor Dozous) is perhaps better known now for his role as Lieutenant Kinderman in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1971), which is one of the very few other Hollywood movies to take the supernatural aspects of religion seriously.

The subtle, almost understated handling of religion in The Song of Bernadette works in the film’s favour, keeping the human drama to the fore; it would have been so easy to sink on the one hand into saccharine sentimentality and on the other into strident piety repellent to a large part of the potential audience. Jennifer Jones’s performance brought out the elements of innocent dignity and strong-willed simplicity Bernadette’s contemporaries saw in the girl, although it is another weakness of the film that the more complex and ambiguous elements of her story are omitted. Those who wish to learn more about the discordant notes in ‘the song of Bernadette’ might like to read Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in a Secular Age (Allen Lane, 1999) or Therese Taylor, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her life, death and visions (Burnes & Oates, 2006.)