franciscan - May 2002
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
by Petà Dunstan
What makes a place become sacred? There are many possible reasons, and among them is the mystery of a place of origin, where something began, the location of an initial energy. Where is that place for the Society of Saint Francis?
The obvious answer would be Hilfield in Dorset, for that is where brothers first began to live the Religious Life and where the first professions were made. Yet there is another place which has at least some claim to rival Hilfield Friary – and that place is Oxford. For it is in that great university city that Brother Giles, whilst ministering to wayfarers, found his first followers. It is also where he received Lord Sandwich’s offer of Flowers Farm in 1921, and where he met Brother Douglas, who was later persuaded (despite his reluctance) to take over the Dorset friary when Giles left the community in 1922.
And in Oxford, there is a place which could be seen as spiritually significant in the development of Giles’s vocation and the vision he had for a brotherhood. It is a little remote, a hidden place, easily missed, yet a place significant to Brother Giles: the medieval chapel of St Bartholomew. Had the offer of Flowers Farm in Dorset not been made, this chapel and its surrounding cottages would have probably been the site of the first friary.
But where is it in Oxford? To visit it, walk out of the city over Magdalen Bridge and along the Cowley Road for a mile and a half. Having passed rows of houses and shops, you will eventually see on your left some allotments. Beyond them, as if in the midst of fields, you will see cottages and a small chapel. Rectangular in shape, the chapel resembles a barn with a steep roof, but its ecclesiastical use is suggested by the Gothic windows. You can walk up the lane and visit it. For those who wish to go inside, the key may be requested from a cottage halfway up the lane. Evensong is said there on some Sundays, for the chapel falls within the parish of St Mary and St John.
The chapel was constructed in the early fourteenth century, whilst the surrounding range of buildings, now converted into one house, dates from the sixteenth century. The buildings originated as a leper hospital, founded and endowed by King Henry I, on a site then well outside the city. The fellows of Oriel College, Oxford, were granted this hospital in 1327 and St Bartholomew’s (as it was called) became an almshouse for up to eight men who had fallen on hard times. Under the rules, the residents were known as brethren, living and eating and praying together, and they were given nine pence a week to live on, with an extra five shillings each year to buy clothes. Astonishingly this level of stipend was almost unchanged for several centuries.
The foundation also provided a chaplain to take the services in the chapel, the name of which became abbreviated to Bartlemas. Although the Reformation period brought changes, documentary evidence tells us that a weekly service was still being held in 1617; but by the eighteenth century, this was no longer the case. One hundred years later, not only was the chapel disused, but no almsmen had been in residence in the cottages during living memory, as the unchanged stipends required they took cheaper lodgings in the city itself. In 1900, the municipal charity trustees took over the charity – and consequently the responsibility for the support of the almsmen – whilst leaving the chapel and the adjacent land in the ownership of Oriel College.
The Vicar of St Mary and St John organized the restoration of Bartlemas at the end of the First World War, and it was then that Giles seems to have begun visiting it. The connection was through the chapel’s owners, Oriel College. The Provost of that College, Dr Lancelot Phelps, was one of the academics most moved by the plight of wayfarers. Like others, he found the conditions in the casual wards, where wayfarers would stay a night, deplorable. In Brother Giles, he saw a man living out a Christian commitment to the poorest members of society, a man not only moved to help but prepared to live alongside those whom he served. Giles regularly tramped the same roads and slept at the same places as the wayfarers. He was one of them, living an itinerant life, but also a life of prayer. For Dr Phelps, this was a witness worth supporting.
The difficulty was how to expand Giles’s work. The friar himself was on his own, using the monastery of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Oxford as a base. But if he was to be able to build a community for this work with wayfarers, then he would need a house for the brotherhood, and a place where wayfarers could be given shelter. Dr Phelps approached Giles in the early months of 1920 and suggested that Bartlemas and its range of cottages could be the site of a Franciscan friary. It was a generous and serious offer.
By this time, Giles had his first ‘follower’, Roger Fox, a young man who was soon to finish his studies at the university. It is in his memoir that we have a description of a visit he made with Giles to Bartlemas in May 1920: ‘There was no furniture, and the two of us knelt down on the stone floor, remaining so for a good ten minutes or more.’
Today, the chapel is not so empty. The seventeenth-century oak screen dividing the interior into two halves, which would have been there in Giles’s day, still remains. But in addition now, there is an altar with a cross and candlesticks, a lectern, and plenty of wooden chairs. For Giles and Roger, however, the chapel must have seemed much more remote. Even today, when used more regularly, the Chapel of St Bartholomew has a stillness which makes it a natural place to pray. Rather than grandeur moving you to worship as in a cathedral, here is a space where smallness and intimacy inspire a quiet reverence. For Giles, seeing it empty and more ‘deserted’ than today, it must have seemed an appealing place to found his community, a true refuge from the hardship of the roads.
This was not just because of its atmosphere and location. This could be a sacred place for a Franciscan because, throughout its history, it had heard the prayers of the poor and outcast. Built for lepers, it epitomized their isolation. The threat of infection necessitated that they worshipped God as outcasts separated from the rest of Christian society. St Francis himself had embraced the leper, so it would have seemed to Giles that his Franciscan brotherhood could flourish in such a place.
In the event, he did not found the community there. The Earl of Sandwich offered the Dorset farm, a location with more space and possibilities for work with wayfarers. Yet the leper chapel on the Cowley Road has claim to be a Franciscan place for all who love SSF. For it was there that prayers were quietly offered for the building of a Franciscan Religious community, prayers that were to be answered. Of all the places one might try to catch a sense of Brother Giles, the first founder of Hilfield Friary, it is perhaps at Bartlemas that one most closely connects with his Franciscan identity. f
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