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The Norris family of Speke Hall

“The Catholics of Woolton owe the preservation of the Faith in great measure to the family of Norris, of Speke Hall, two miles distant from Woolton. For several generations the Norris family played a prominent part in the life of Catholic Lancashire; one of the most interesting proofs of this is a document, preserved in the Public Record Office, endorsed ‘A Note of Papists and Priests assembled at St Winefrid’s Well on St Winefrid’s Day, 1629,’ of which a portion is printed in Vol. III Mis. Cat. Rec. Soc. as follows:

On St Winefrid’s day, 1629…

‘The Lord Will. Howard (Belted Bill), the Lord Shrewsburie, Sir Tho. Gerard, Sir Will. Norris, Sir Cuthbert Clifton, Mr. Preston of ye Manner (Furness), Mr. Anderton of Clayton, Mr. Anderton of Foarste, Mr. Gerard of Ince, Mr. Bradshaw of Haigh Hall, Mr. Harrington of Button Hey, Mr. Blundell of Crosbie, Mr. Scarisbrick of Scarisbrick, Sir John Talbot of Bashall Hall, Mr. Latham of Mossborow and his five sons who are all priests; The Lady Falkland, and with her Mr. Everard, the priest; Mr. Price, Mr. Clayton, priest; Sir Thos. Gerrard hath two priests resident in his house, namely Pittinger (Dom Dunstan Pettinger, O.S.B.) and Umpton. At Sir William Norris’s house, Speke Hall, two, namely Richardson (Robert) and Holland. At Sir Cuthbert Clifton’s two priests, Anderton and Smith; also Mr. Arrowsmith’s clothes and the knife to cut him up are at Sir Cuthbert Clifton’s house. Mr. Preston of the Manner hath two priests at his house – viz. John Mitchell and John Sefton. Mr. Mayfield, the priest (Will. Maxfield), is archdeacon under the Bishop Chalcedony, of Speke near the seashore.’

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall lies seven miles south of Liverpool on the banks of the Mersey. It was restored in the reign of Elizabeth and is now probably the most perfect example of the ancient timbered house. It contained many hiding-places for the priests who resorted to it – one in particular was said to lead to a subterranean passage affording easy access to the shore. Father Gibson (Lydiate and its Associations) gives the following instance when this passage would probably be used: ‘1586, Richard Brittain, a priest receipted in the house of Will. Bennet, of Westby, about the beginning of June last, from whence young Mr. Norris, of Speke, conveyed the said Brittain to the Speke as the said Bennet hath reported. The said Brittain remayneth now at the house of Mr. Norrice, of the Speke, as appeareth by the deposition of John Osbaldston.’

The young ‘Mr. Norrice’ mentioned above became, on the death of his father, Sir William Norris of Speke. He adhered to the ancient Faith, and had a strange altercation in 1631 with Mr. More, complaining that this latter ‘had been too precise in examining the church-wardens touching his, Sir William, not coming to church and that it was ungentlemanly dealing.’ Unfortunately the ‘altercation’ was not limited to words, for Sir William Norris later ‘drew his sword and struck the Plaintiff therewith, he being then a Justice of the Peace,’ for which assault he was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay the plaintiff £50 damages.

His wife was a ‘notorious recusant’

Regarding this family, Mr. Gillow says: ‘Edward Norreys of Speke Hall, against whose name Lord Bourghley in his map (1590) has placed a + , was the son and heir of Sir William Norreys. This latter was in so much trouble on account of his adherence to the ancient Faith in 1568. Edward Norreys, who built the greater portion of the Hall, was returned in 1590 as a suspected person – in religious matters – conforming in some degree, but of ‘evil note’; his wife was a notorious recusant, and in 1598 he had to pay £15 to the Queen’s service in Ireland. His children mostly adhered to the Catholic Faith, and at least one of his children suffered for it. Edward died in 1606. His son, Sir William Norreys, is described as ‘not conformable to the laws ecclesiastical, now established,’ and two years later he was a ‘convicted recusant,’ paying double taxes. He died in 1630.’

Thomas Norris, son of Sir William, who compounded for his estate during the Civil Wars for £508, was probably the last Catholic owner of Speke. The property was sold in 1797 to Mr. Richard Watt, but in accordance with the will of the late Miss Watt, who died in 1921, Speke Hall will again return to the Norris family.

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Rev. John Almond

It was while Speke Hall was still in Catholic hands that Rev. John Almond died for the Catholic Faith. He was born about the year 1577 at Speke, so one account says, or on the borders of Alperton, as he himself states in his examination. He went to school at Much Woolton, and passed thence to the English College at Rheims and then to that at Rome. Little is known of his life on the Mission, but the following account of him is given in Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests: 

…came to suffer at Tyburn for the Catholic religion…

‘On Saturday, being 5th December, 1612, between 7 and 8 in the morning, came to suffer at Tyburn for the Catholic religion John Almond, a man of the age of 45, by his own relation; yet in his countenance more grave and staid, beginning to be besprinkled with hairs that were white – who having tarried beyond the seas about ten years to enable himself by his studies returned into his native country, where he exercised a holy life with all sincerity, and a singular good content to those that knew him, and worthily deserved both a good opinion of his learning and sanctity of life… full of courage and ready to suffer for Christ, that suffered for him.’

‘Ready to suffer for Christ, that suffered for him’

Mr. Almond, Challoner says, was apprehended on March 22, 1612, and brought before Mr. John King, lately advanced to the bishopric in London. At his examination he showed wonderful courage and most extraordinary acuteness, as the following will show. [A – Rev. John Almond; B – Anglican Bishop John King]

B. What is your name? A. My name is Francis. B. What else? A. Lathome. B. Is not your name Molyneux? A. No. B. I think I shall prove it to be so. A. You will have more to do than you ever had to do in your life. B. What countryman are you? A. A Lancashire man. B. In what place were you born? A. About Allerton. B. About Allerton! Mark the equivocation. Then not in Allerton? A. No equivocation. I was not born in Allerton, but in the edge or side of Allerton. B. You were born under a hedge then, were you? A. Many a better man than I, or you either, has been born under a hedge. B. What! you cannot remember that you were born in a house? A. Can you? B. My mother told me so. A. Then you remember not that you were born in a house, but only that your mother told you so; so much I remember, too. B. Were you ever beyond the seas? A. I have been in Ireland. B. How long since you came thence? A. I remember not how long since, neither is it material. B. Here is plain speaking, is it not? A. More plain than you would give, if you were examined yourself before some of ours in another place. A. I ask, are you a priest? A. I am not Christ; and unless I were Christ in your own grounds, I cannot be a priest. B. Are you a priest, yes or no? A. No man accuseth me. B. Then this is all the answer I shall have? A. All I can give unless proof come in. B. Where have you lived, and in what have you spent your time? A. Here is an orderly course of justice sure! What is it material where I have lived, or how I have spent my time, all the while I am accused of no evil?

He flung some three or four pounds in silver amongst the poor that crowded about the scaffold

He thus continued to parry the questions put to him through a long and tedious examination, after which he was committed to Newgate Prison, from whence after some months he was brought to trial, upon an indictment of high treason, for having taken orders beyond the sea by authority of the See of Rome, and for remaining in this country contrary to the laws. At his trial he showed the same vivacity of wit and resolution as he had done in his examination, but was brought in guilty by the jury, though he neither denied nor confessed his being a priest; and what proofs were brought of his being such do not appear.

At his execution he prayed earnestly for the king and all the royal family, and that his posterity might inherit the crown of England for ever. He flung some three or four pounds in silver amongst the poor that crowded about the scaffold, saying: ‘I have not much to bestow or give, for the keeper of Newgate hath been somewhat hard unto me and others that way, whom God forgive, for I do. For, I having been prisoner there since March, we have been ill-treated continually, for we were all put down into the hole or dungeon, or place called Little Ease, whence was removed since we came thither two or three cart-loads of filth or dirt; we were kept twenty-four hours without bread, meat or drink, loaded with irons, lodging on the damp ground, and so continued for ten days or thereabouts.’

‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul’

He gave the executioner a piece of gold, and desired him to give him a sign when the cart was to be drawn away, so that he might die with the name of Jesus in his mouth. He often repeated the words, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul,’ and at the sign being given, he cried, ‘Jesu, Jesu, Jesu,’ and than hanging for the space of three Paters [‘Our Father’, i.e. The Lord’s Prayer], some of the bystanders pulling him by the legs to dispatch his life, he was cut down and quartered, his soul flying quickly to Him who redeemed us all. So far the manuscript written by an eyewitness, says Bishop Challoner, who adds: ‘Mr. Almond suffered at Tyburn, December 5, 1612, in the forty-fifth year of his age, the eleventh of his Mission.’

The Molyneux family came to assist the Catholics of Woolton

It was not long after the Norris family had ceased to be Catholics, that the Molyneux family came to assist the Catholics at Woolton. About the year 1700 Hon. Richard Molyneux purchased the Woolton Hall estate, comprising the Hall and about 400 acres of land. He was then, says Mr. C. R. Hand, contemplating marriage, and like other young men in similar circumstances he became anxious about the house, and like some young men he paid for the house out of the money which his wife brought him. Although Richard’s father died in 1717, and he then succeeded to the title as Viscount Molyneux, he continued to live at the Hall until his death in 1738. Religious, political, and financial difficulties prevented him from moving to Croxteth Park, the family seat. On May 8, 1728, he made an important agreement with his lawyer, Isaac Greene, who charged in his bill for attending his Lordship at Woolton, and thus the view that Lord Molyneux lived on at Woolton is confirmed. It has recently transpired that in consequence of fines for recusancy and other disabilities the family was at this period in such straits that Isaac Greene, shrewd lawyer as he undoubtedly was, proposed to take over all the Molyneux estates and allow his Lordship a small annual income. Fortunately the kind offer was not accepted!

The family was in dire straits in consequence of government fines for recusancy etc.

During the Jacobite troubles of 1715, Lady Molyneux invited Dom Richard Holme, or Helme, of Goosnargh, to officiate at Woolton as the first priest. He had previously been chaplain to the Molyneux family at Sefton and Croxteth Halls, but he remained at Woolton until his death on December 18, 1717. Father Holme was succeeded by Dom Lawrence Kirby, who resided at Woolton till 1731, when he was removed to Childwall, dying there on July 18, 1743. He was followed by Dom William Lawrence Chapney, who died at Woolton, April 21, 1732. Dom Placid Thomas Hutton was the appointed chaplain, officiating at the Hall until his death on May 17, 1755, and after him came Dom Edward Bernard Catterall.

The founding of St Bennet’s Priory

Lady Molyneux continued to reside at Woolton Hall until her decease, and she was buried at Sefton, March 20, 1766. During the year before her death, in order to provide for the continuance of the Mission at Woolton, she gave twelve acres of land to the Order of St Benedict, and a chapel and presbytery, to which the name of St Bennet’s Priory was given, were erected, under the direction of Father Catterall, in Watergate Lane. On its completion Father Catterall took up his abode there permanently. This was probably occasioned by the proposed sale of the Hall to Nicholas Ashton. Father Catterall died at the Priory on September 9, 1781.

His house and chapel had been burned down by the ‘No Popery Association’

The noted Dom John Bede Brewer, D.D., was the next priest, coming from Bath, where his house and chapel had been burned down and demolished by the members of Lord George Gordon’s ‘No Popery Association.’ Dr. Brewer was famous as an erudite and brilliant theologian, and became later President of the English Congregation of the Order of St Benedict. It was on his invitation that the “black nuns” of the Benedictine Order came to Woolton, where they opened a seminary for young ladies in 1795, and in 1808 they removed to Abbot’s Salford, Stratford-upon-Avon. They are now settled at Stanbrook Abbey, near Worcester.

A Protestant minister, who came across the distressed nuns at an inn, amid uncongenial surroundings, kindly helped them 

Another account gives further details. On one occasion, when a party of Carmelite nuns had been beheaded, their clothes were taken and given to their English sisters in the prison. When the dresses of the murdered nuns were brought to them, the recipients received the gift on their knees, kissed them, and wet them with their tears. Thanks to the nuns being English, they did not suffer death, and when food became scarce they were liberated. They made their way across the Channel to Dover, thence to London. A Mr. Holt, a Lancashire Protestant minister, came across the distressed ladies at an inn, amid uncongenial surroundings, and he kindly undertook to find a better lodging for them. Dr. Brewer, of Woolton, hearing of them, invited the party to come to Southwest Lancashire; so, in 1795, they travelled down from London in three parties by stage coach to Woolton. Here they found employment as teachers of the seminary in connection with the Benedictine Mission in that ancient village.

In 1818 Dr. Brewer left for Ampleford College, but he returned to Woolton, where he died on April 18, 1822, and was buried at St Peter’s, Seel Street, Liverpool. His office of President of the Benedictine Order occasioning frequent duties elsewhere, he was assisted by Dom James Maurus Chaplin, Dom Stephen Hodgson (died April 9, 1822), and Dom James Calderbank (died April 9, 1821).

A man of great ability

Dr. Brewer was followed by Dom John Jerome Jenkins, who only remained here five years, being succeeded in 1824 by Dom Samuel Maurus Phillips. The latter was a man of great ability, ‘and drew large congregations’; in 1828 he enlarged the chapel, soon, however, to be in its turn too small for the Catholic worshippers of the district. Father Phillips died in 1855, and was buried in the little cemetery. Among others buried there have been a number of Catholic Irish, who, in 1847 (the fever year), had fled there, seeking in vain to escape the pestilence, Mr. Lomas, of Allerton Hall, and Mr. H. Bullen. The latter in his day was a public man; his name appears frequently in the Road Surveyor’s book, he having signed these records of the old township of Woolton. When the vault of the Bullen family, which is now overgrown with ivy, was opened to receive the body of a child, a corpse was exposed, which was found to be petrified. It was taken to a pond, washed, and replaced in the grave. In the wall of the garden nearest to Woolton Hall are two pillars. These indicate the site of the gate through which Lady Molyneux, the original foundress of the Mission, came to the church. The path through the graveyard garden is decorated with patterns formed of stones, mostly small cobbles, of a Maltese Cross, a Heart, a Monstrance, and other religious emblems.

The present church of St Mary

The Catholic population of Woolton becoming too great for the Priory chapel, it was deemed necessary to erect a larger place of worship, and the present church of St Mary was built by Dom R. P. Burchall, D.D., and opened on October 28, 1860. Dr. Burchall lived for some time at the Priory, and was the first to be buried in the grounds of the church, where his body now lies in the south-west corner. His funeral in March, 1885, was the occasion of a most imposing demonstration, as he was regarded by ‘Roman Catholics’ as by actual right the lawful Abbot of Westminster.

In 1870 Father J. P. O’Brien built St Mary’s presbytery and schools; Father J. P. Whittle, in 1878, enlarging the schools, and adding new vestries, confessionals, and a handsome cloister to the church.

The old chapel being no longer required, it was pulled down in 1872, and an addition made to the Priory on a portion of its site. There is thus nothing at all left of the former chapel. The year 1910 being the fiftieth anniversary of the building of St Mary’s, the Rector, Rev. Vincent Cornet, considered it a suitable opportunity for a complete renovation of the church, which was carried out at a cost of £1,000. The church is now considered by all who visit to be very beautiful.

A secret passage

It may further be mentioned in connection with the Priory and its chapel that the addiwere, on the left-hand side of the doorway, was mainly built of the materials of the old chapel, and erected on part of its site. The lawn immediately in front of that portion of the house is the old burial-ground. The grave-stones were levelled, and are a few inches under the surface. The right-hand side of the house is the original presbytery. Local tradition asserts that a subterranean passage under the meadow once afforded communication between the Hall and the Priory chapel.

In times of persecution the priests were so poor and danger of robbery so great, that chalices of pewter seem to have been in common use

There is preserved in the presbytery a chalice of pewter. It measures 5 3/4 inches in height, is 3 1/8 inches across the foot, and 3 inches across the bowl. It has been in the possession of the priests at Woolton for many years, and was in all probability unearthed in the old Priory burial-ground. It is now so corroded as to give it the appearance of having been at one time embossed. Mr. Charles Hand, whose ‘Notes on Woolton’ we have been following, seems to suggest that being of pewter it could not have been used in the Mass, but was merely a ‘coffin chalice,’ used at the internment of some priest. These pewter chalices are, however, so common in Lancashire, and so often occur in company with sets of vestments and other things, uncountably forming a part of the priest’s baggage, that the prevalent opinion now is that in times of persecution the priests were so poor and the danger of robbery so great, that chalices of pewter were in common use. When nicely polished, the pewter chalice could with difficulty be distinguished from that of silver.

The Woolton cross

In October, 1913, the old village cross of Catholic days was restored, the following account being contemporary. The cross now restored must have stood in the heart of the old village from the fourteenth century. The stump of the cross was removed for a time when the new Speke road was made, but was returned to its place in the year 1901 by the kindness of Colonel Reynolds, into whose garden it had been taken. It is now restored to something like its original form. The Woolton cross is Maltese in form, treated florally, and stands on a pedestal 6 feet high. On the north and south sides the Cross of the Knights Hospitallers is incised to record the association of that body with Woolton in the twelfth century, they having owned the greater portion of the land, and having a house of their Order there, the situation of which has never been ascertained. On the bronze band which serves to bind the new part with the old is this inscription:

Woolton Village Cross: Crux Potestas Dei (The Cross is the Power of God).

Colonel Reynolds, in a letter of apology for non-attendance at the opening, wrote that they had indeed come to better times in Woolton. He remembered his father begging to be allowed to be the custodian of the cross years ago, when it was demolished to allow for the widening of the Speke road. He had respected those ancient monuments of religious feeling in days gone by. The chairman of the meeting, Mr. Arthur S. Mather, through whose generosity the restoration had been made, said that the last act of the Urban Council was to arrange to have the old village cross restored, so that when the district was handed over to Liverpool they might hand over the cross renovated and restored as a momento of the good old times.

How does the silver chalice dated 1697 fit into the picture?

An interesting link between Woolton and the Molyneux family is the silver chalice, now at St. Alexander’s, Bootle. Dean Powell stated that in 1875 he bought this chalice from a dealer in old silver, who had thought of melting it down. It stands 7 inches high and weighs 13 ounces. On the underside of the foot is engraved in Roman capitals of the time: EX DONO D. C. MOLINEUX DNO RICHARDO HOLME ANGLO-BENED 1697. The giver of the chalice was Caryll, third Viscount Molyneux, who with his brother Richard raised two regiments for the King in the great Civil War, and was outlawed by Parliament. He died at Croxteth February 2, 1699. The recipient of the gift was Rev. Richard Holme, mentioned above as Chaplain to the Molyneux family at Sefton and Croxteth Halls, and latterly at Woolton.

Granting that Dean Powell is correct in his history of the Molyneux chalice, whence does the chalice now at Woolton come from? It is quite the equal of the Molyneux chalice, bears the hall mark H.L. and a lion passant, while on the foot is the lettering, ‘M.H., obiit Sepr. 2°, 1694.’ I had hoped to identify this with one of the Molyneux, so that the lettering would read, ‘Molyneux gave this chalice to Holmes.’ On the other hand, Dom Gilbert Dolan, O.S.B., in his paper to this Society (Hist. of Lancs. and Ches.) statestates that in 1717 Richard Hitchmough, the noted informer, deposed before the Commissioners for Forfeited Estates that ‘at Mrs. Harrington’s, at Aigburth, Co. Lancs., was one silver chalice and paten, which he had seen and used when officiating at the Altar there.’ But if M. H. refers to one of the Harringtons we have still to find out which Harrington died September 2, 1694; so far my enquiries have failed to do so.

How the government tried to break people’s spirits and succeeded in some cases

With reference to the statement that the Molyneux family had been greatly impoverished by fines, other examples, selected out of thousands are here given. The Norris family had an estate in West Derby, now marked by Norris Green. William Norris, of West Derby, had two sons, Henry and John, both living in 1566. Andrew, grandson of Henry, as a convicted recusant paid double to the subsidy of 1628. His children petitioned for annuities from the estate, which had evidently been sequestered for papacy. It was found that the sons were recusants, and a third of their annuities was allowed; the daughters were also recusants; the estates of Henry, the eldest brother, were under sequestration for recusancy. John Norris, brother of Henry, had three sons – Charles, Richard and Andrew – all Jesuits. But their cousin, Richard, son of Henry Norris, yielded to the persecution. Thomas Marsden, Vicar of Walton, wrote in 1681, asking a favour of him, as he ‘was not yet cleared in the Exchequer for his recusancy, and had heard his name was in the list of such as should have £20 a month levied upon their heads.’ Under these circumstances, the threat of fresh persecution, as the result of the infamous Oates plot, appears to have broken the resolution of ‘Mr. Norris, of Derby,’ who conformed to the legally established religion. It is a sad reflection that his apostasy did not save his estates; the family disappeared from notice, and all the property was later in the hands of a banker, of Liverpool (Vict. Hist., p. 37).

Instances of the fines inflicted on the poorer Catholics of those days may not be without interest. William Ballard, a leaseholder in Speke, had two-thirds of his estate sequestered for recusancy. Margaret Harrison, a widow, of Hale, had two-thirds of her estate sequestered for recusancy, and on her death her grandson, Thomas Harrison, applied for the removal of the sequestration. Thomas Lathom, of Allerton, suffered the like penalty (Vict. Hist., p. 103).

Again, in 1593 Edward Tarleton was considered ‘an obstinate recusant,’ but ‘could not be found by the Sheriff’; five years later he was, as a recusant, assessed at £10 for the Queen’s service in Ireland. His son and successor, also Edward Tarleton, in 1628, as a ‘convicted recusant,’ paid double to the subsidy. He died in 1653, leaving two sons. On account of their religion their estates had been sequestered (Vict. Hist., p. 127).”

– Dom F. O. Blundell, O.S.B., Old Catholic Lancashire, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1925





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‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me… Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God. And these things they will do because they have not known the Father nor me. But these things I have spoken to you, that when the time for them has come you may remember that I told you.” (John 15:18-19, 20-21; 16:2-4).


One of the most convincing signs that free will – the free wills of God, men and the devils – is the basic significant factor in the course of human history is to be seen in the fact that the world has not accepted Jesus and His kingdom without opposition, without violence.

Since God is all powerful it is easy to imagine that He might, if He had so willed, have compelled all men to accept Him and to accept membership in His kingdom. Whether or not this is really possible, the fact is that He has not done so. By a sovereign decision of His own free will God has chosen to respect the free wills of men and of the demonic spirits who have rejected Him and hate men.


When God became man as Jesus of Nazareth, He subjected Himself to the free wills of men and the devils. He did not overwhelm the devils with His almighty power and prevent them completely from interfering in the affairs of men. Nor did He subjugate the free wills of men and compel them by force to enter His kingdom. Instead He allowed the devils to influence men as they would, and to men He appealed only with the weapons of truth, divine signs and His grace. He left it to the free wills of men to make the choice between sin and redemption, between hating Him and loving Him, between working with Him and working against Him.


His kingdom on earth, so He said, the continuation of Himself in human history, would be in the same position as He Himself had been. In it, as in Himself, men could find redemption. But they would be free to enter it, to leave it or to reject it; to work with it for the redemption of the world or to work against it to their own condemnation. And thus, through the ignorance, the weakness and the malice of men and devils the kingdom would, like Jesus Himself, be hated and persecuted.


The Church of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth, has been hated and persecuted always. In its infancy it was persecuted by the Jews. The Sanhedrin arrested the Apostles, had them beaten and cast into prison for preaching the message of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. In the year 42 A.D., Herod Agrippa instituted a systematic persecution of the Christians in his land. St James the Greater perished during this persecution and the other Apostles left Jerusalem.


As the Christian Church grew throughout the Roman Empire it became subject to persecution by the government, both local and imperial. The first known persecution of the Christians by the imperial government took place during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Nero had ordered the burning of part of the city of Rome. To divert the anger of the populace from himself he blamed the atrocity on the Christians. In the year 64 there was a mass execution of some Christians, who were coated with pitch and burned like torches in the gardens on the Vatican Hill. In the year 67 St Peter was crucified, head downwards, and St Paul was beheaded.


Whether or not Nero passed a law against the profession and practice of Christianity is still a matter of dispute among historians. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 230) , who became a Christian in the year 197, seems to say that Nero had done so. Later historians think that Christians may have been persecuted under already existing laws.


At any rate, persecution of Christians broke out again during the reign of Domitian (81-96). Flavius Clemens (a relative of Domitian) and his wife and niece suffered during this persecution. Flavius was put to death and his wife and niece were banished.


At the beginning of the third century during the reign of Trajan there is evidence that Christians were persecuted simply because they belonged to the Catholic Church. Pliny the Younger had been sent by the emperor to administer the province of Bithynia. There he found that so many of the people had become Christians that a large number of the old pagan temples were no longer functioning. The farmers and merchants who had previously provided animals, birds, grains and wine for the pagan sacrifices were angry at the loss of their business. They complained about it to Pliny. Christians were denounced.


Pliny was not quite sure what to do about the situation. Writing to the Emperor Trajan for advice, he said, ‘I do not know what means and limits are to be observed in examining or punishing them… This is the way I have dealt with those who have been denounced to me as Christians: I asked them if they were Christians. If they admitted that they were, I asked them again a second and a third time, threatening them with capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For I felt certain that whatever it was that they professed, their contumacy and inflexible obstinacy obviously demanded punishment.’


Trajan in his reply set down some norms for handling the situation. The authorities were not to institute a search for Christians on their own initiative. But if anyone was denounced to the magistrates as a Christian, and he admitted it, he was to be punished, ‘but with this restriction: if anyone says that he is not a Christian, and shall actually prove it by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned as being repentant, even though he may have been suspect in the past.’

This letter of Trajan makes it clear that Christians were persecuted for no other reason than that they were members of the Christian Church and, as such, refused to adore the gods of the state. It is clear also that a Christian might escape punishment simply by performing a ritual act of adoration to the pagan gods of Rome. The simplicity with which Christians might escape punishment makes it all the more remarkable that many remained faithful to their belief in Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The fact that magistrates must punish Christians when they are denounced meant, too, that Christians were at the mercy of the whims or the hate of their non-Christian neighbours.


That the people generally were opposed to Christians is shown by the fact that during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138) a governor in Asia asked the emperor how he should deal with anti-Christian riots. Hadrian and Antonius Pius (138-161) forbade mob action against Christians but reaffirmed the position of Trajan. Marcus Aurelius (161-180), moved by the popular outcry that Christians were responsible for the calamities which afflicted his reign, persecuted Christians more actively and rewarded those who denounced them to the authorities.


In the year 202 A.D. the. Emperor Septimius Severus. Forbade anyone to become a Christian. Maximin the Thracian (235-238) published a general edict for the whole empire aimed against the leaders of the Christian people. His persecution was of short duration, but it established the dangerous precedent of general edicts against Christians.


This precedent was taken up vigorously by the Emperor Decius. Decius, in an attempt to reinvigorate within the empire the old Roman ideals and virtues, decided to strengthen the hold of the old Roman gods on the people. Christianity therefore had to be destroyed. By imperial edict it was decreed that on a certain day throughout the empire those suspected of being unwilling to worship the old gods were to appear before the magistrates and show their loyalty by sacrificing to the old gods. Certificates would be issued to all those who showed themselves to be good pagans. For those who refused the ultimate penalty was death.


The simultaneous carrying out of this edict throughout the empire took the Christians by surprise. Many of them fell victim to panic and performed the pagan ritual act prescribed and were given certificates which saved them from imprisonment and death. But many, even in these trying circumstances, remained faithful to Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some of these such as Pope Fabian and Bishop Alexander at Jerusalem were executed. Other less important figures were thrown into prison and tortured in the attempt to make them give up their membership in the Church.


Under the Emperor Valerian another general persecution was undertaken by the imperial government. In 257 it was decreed that all the bishops and priests of the Church were to be summoned and made to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The faithful were not to take part in any of the liturgical reunions of the Church. The priests who refused were to be exiled. Cemeteries belonging to Christians and other places of worship were seized by the state. In 258 Valerian decreed that priests who refused to sacrifice to the gods were to be executed. Members of the aristocracy who refused to renounce their membership in the Church were to be exiled and their estates confiscated. When Valerian was taken captive by the Persians, the persecution died down.”


It was renewed during the reign of Diocletian in the year 303. Urged on by Galerius, whom he had associated with himself in the government of the empire, Diocletian took measures to stamp out the Christian religion. In his first edict of February 24, 303, Diocletian ordered that Christians were not to assemble for worship, Christian Churches were to be closed, the sacred writings of the Church were to be destroyed. Nobles who refused to renounce Christianity were to lose their rank, free men who refused were to be enslaved, and slaves were to remain forever slaves. A little later Diocletian decreed that those who refused to give up their profession of Christianity were to be put to death. This was the most severe of all the Roman persecutions of the Church. Christians were arrested wholesale throughout the empire and submitted to the most terrible tortures in the attempt to destroy the Church.


In the Eastern empire the persecutions lasted until 311. In the Western empire it ceased when Constantine the Great became emperor in 306. In 313 the edict of Milan made Christianity one of the recognised religions of the empire, and the persecution of the Church within the empire ceased.

We have no certain knowledge of the number of Christians who were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, deprived of rank or property, or executed during these persecutions. It is quite probable, however, that the number of those afflicted during the troubled times of the third and fourth centuries far exceeded the number of those who suffered in the first two centuries. In the persecutions under Decius, Valerian and Diocletian it is probable that many thousands suffered. What is more important than the number of those who actually suffered for their faith is the fact that all during the first three centuries of its existence the members of the Kingdom of God on earth had to live constantly in fear of having to suffer for their adherence to Jesus Christ. As Jesus had suffered for them, so they had to be ready to suffer for Him.

Though the Church gained the right to a peaceful existence within the empire by the edict of Milan [under Emperor Constantine], this did not mean that the world which hated Christ ceased to hate His Church. In fact the Church has encountered this hatred in every age.

During the Roman persecutions many Christians had fled from the empire to Persia. There, because of the hostility of the Persians to the empire, they had been welcomed. But when peace was established between the Church and the empire, the attitude of the Persians changed. From 410 on, the Persians began to persecute the Church.

From the end of the seventh century and on, the Moslems, followers of Mohammed, made it difficult for Christians to practise their faith in all the lands which they conquered, chiefly the lands on the southern side of the Mediterranean basin.

We must remember also that many of the missionaries who carried the Gospel to the pagan lands and many of their first converts had to suffer at the hands of their non-Christian countrymen.

Violent opposition to the Kingdom of God, such as was manifested by imperial Rome, has occurred every so often during the centuries from Jesus to the present time. Sometimes it was due to a hatred of Jesus and His followers. For this reason the Persians harassed Christians in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the seventh century twenty thousand Christians were put to death by Dhu Nuwas in Yemen. In the ninth century the Muslims attacked Christians in Egypt. In the twelfth century the Albigensians in Languedoc attacked the Catholics there. In the twentieth century communist foes in Russia, Mexico, Spain, China, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Jugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania have imprisoned or killed bishops and priests and laymen.


At other times the Kingdom of God has been subject to persecution even by those who profess to follow Jesus and be members of His kingdom. Thus in the eighth century the emperors at Constantinople, rejecting the use of images in public worship, deposed, arrested and in some cases put to death bishops and priests who refused to accept the imperial iconoclasm. In the sixteenth century, when the so-called Protestant Reform of the Church took place, Catholics, members of the true Kingdom of God, were subjected to harassment in the kingdoms or principalities where Protestantism triumphed. The true faith was outlawed, priests were expelled or killed for administering the sacraments of the Church. Active opposition to the true Church on the part of Protestant states has continued down to the present, though with lessening severity.

Frequently, too (one is tempted to say, almost constantly), relations between earthly governments and the Church of God have been strained, so severely strained as to prevent the Church from acting freely in its mission to save mankind. Thus, in the fourth century some of the emperors favoured the Arian heresy against the true faith. In the eighth, as we have already mentioned, the emperors sought to promote iconoclasm. From the Middle Ages down to recent times many Christian rulers attempted to gain control of the Church by claiming for themselves the right to nominate bishops in the Church. Popes Gregory VII, Innocent III and Boniface VIII had to struggle to prevent the sovereigns of Europe from seizing control of the Church. The energy displayed by the Papacy in repulsing these attempts led to opposition to the Papacy. This, in part, accounts for the eagerness with which the Germanic princes of northern Europe gave up their allegiance to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. By joining the Protestant revolt they were enabled to gain control of religion in their own territories. Opposition to the Papacy also accounts in part for the rise of Gallicanism in France and Josephism in Austria and the Netherlands.


Opposition to the Church has been found also in the world of thought and intellect. In the time of imperial Rome the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote against the Church. In modern times the philosophers of subjectivism, idealism, positivism, materialism, and their intellectual children, the socialists and the communists, have attacked the Church. By denying the existence of God or the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, they have attempted to destroy those fundamental beliefs of mankind which provide a rational basis for religion.


It should be mentioned also that the Kingdom of God in its growing life in the world has experienced a constant succession of growing pains in the form of heresies, deviations from the true content of the divine revelation which Jesus gave to mankind. From the beginning until now the minds of some men, confronted with the profound mysteries which God has revealed, have gone astray. Refusing to listen to the voice of God’s appointed heralds, the Apostles and their successors (the Pope and Bishops of the Church), they have invented doctrines of their own and presented them to the world as God’s message to men.

In this world, then, the Kingdom of God is as Jesus had said it would be, a kingdom persecuted by men, its members hailed before kings and princes and put to death for their faith in Christ, sometimes even put to death in His Name.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959 (Headings in capital letters added afterwards)


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The Stations of the Cross (or the Way of the Cross) is a devotion to the Sacred Passion, in which we accompany, in spirit, our Blessed Lord in His sorrowful journey from the house of Pilate to Calvary, and meditate on His sufferings and death. Before each Station genuflect and say: “We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You; because by Your holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.” Then meditate upon the scene before you for a few moments. The short prayers for each Station may be helpful.


O Jesus, You desired to die for me that I may receive supernatural life, sanctifying grace, and become a child of God. How precious must be that life. Teach me to appreciate it more and help me never to lose it by sin.

O Jesus, You have chosen to die the disgraceful death on the Cross. You have paid a high price for my redemption and the life of grace that was bestowed upon me. May I love You always and bear my crosses for Your sake.


O Jesus, Your painful fall under the Cross and Your quick rise teach me to repent and rise instantly should I ever be forgetful of Your love and commit a mortal sin. Make me strong enough to conquer my wicked passions.

O Jesus, Your afflicted Mother was resigned to Your Passion because she is my Mother also, and wants to see me live and die as a child of God. Grant me a tender love for You and Your holy Mother.


O Jesus, Simon first reluctantly helped You to carry the Cross. Make me better understand the value of my sufferings which should lead me closer to You, as Simon was united with You through the Cross.


O Jesus, how graciously did You reward that courageous woman. When I side with You against sin and temptation, You surely will increase the beauty of my soul and fill me with joy and peace. Jesus, give me courage.


O Jesus, despite my good resolutions I have sinned repeatedly. But Your sufferings assure me of forgiveness if only I return to You with a contrite heart. I repent for having offended You. Help me to avoid sin in the future.


O Jesus, You told the women of Jerusalem to weep for their sins rather than for You. Make me weep for my sins which caused Your terrible sufferings and the loss of my friendship with You.


O Jesus, I see You bowed to the earth, enduring the pains of extreme exhaustion. Grant that I may never yield to despair in time of hardship and spiritual distress. Let me come to You for help and comfort.


O Jesus, You permitted Yourself to be stripped of Your garments. Strip me of sin and clothe me with Your holiness. Grant that I may sacrifice all my unlawful attachments rather than imperil the divine life of my soul.


O Jesus, how could I complain if nailed to God’s commandments which are given for my salvation, when I see You nailed to the Cross! Strengthen my faith and increase my love for You. Help me to keep the commandments.


O Jesus, dying on the Cross, You preached love and forgiveness. May I be thankful that You have made me child of God. Help me to forgive all who have injured me, so that I myself may obtain forgiveness.


O Jesus, a sword of grief pierced Your Mother’s heart when You were lying lifeless in her arms. Grant me through her intercession to lead the life of a loyal child of Mary, so that I may received by her at my death.


O Jesus, Your enemies triumphed when they sealed Your tomb. But Your eternal triumph began on Easter morning. Strengthen my good will to live for You until the divine life of my soul will be manifested in heaven.


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Clive Stafford Smith intercedes for prisoners on death row, including the Catholic British grandmother Linda Carty, whose campaign Faith Today supports. Joanna Moorhead went to meet him to talk about Linda’s case, and the wider issues around capital punishment.

The question everyone always asks him, says Clive Stafford Smith, is what his arguments are against the death penalty. But, he says, he bats the question right back to them. “To me, the biggest question is what’s in favour of it?” he says. “It makes me think of Wilfrid Owen’s poem “Futility”. Its just all so futile. Because what I see is this healthy person I’ve come to know, and the government that wants to take them out and kill them in a ritualistic way. It makes me wonder how they differentiate themselves from people who burned witches at the stake.” …

One of the prisoners he’s currently working to save is the Catholic British grandmother Linda Carty, whom I visited on death row in Texas for Faith Today last year. Linda was convicted of murder in 2002 – a murder she has always maintained she didn’t commit. And when you sift through the story, and weigh claim against counter claim, it’s hard not to conclude that Linda’s explanation about what happened is a lot more believable than the prosecution case. Linda was a single parent working as a drugs informant to raise extra money for her child; she says she was stitched up after some drugs dealers she was marking killed a young mother.

Unsurprisingly, Stafford Smith entirely agrees: the whole of Linda’s case, he says, was mismanaged by her original defence team. As a British citizen by virtue of having been born and raised in St Kitts, then a UK colony, she was entitled to help from the British consulate, who would have found her a good lawyer – but that never happened.

She is now supported by the UK consulate in Houston, but as the appeals process has been exhausted, she can only be saved by a reprieve from the Texan governor. “Unfortunately he’s not known for his merciful attitude,” says Stafford Smith. “And the courts there are fairly hostile to justice – and this is certainly a case of phenomenal injustice.”

Linda is now awaiting an execution date and Clive, who has visited her many times over the years, says her situation is “dire”. The campaign to save her, she says, must be stepped up – it’s possible that intervention at a high level, in Britain and in the Vatican, could save her life.

The Catholic Church, he says, has “an increasingly sensible” attitude to capital punishment at an institutional level – its latest position is that execution is rarely, if ever, defensible, and prelates have often stepped up to the plate at the crucial moment to intervene in individual cases. “In the case of Edward Earl Johnson the state governor was a Catholic, and I wanted the Catholic church to be clear about the fact that execution is wrong. So I phoned the Papal legate and I was really impressed – he called me back right away, and within 48 hours the Vatican had called the governor.”

Despite the fact that he’s still battling to save prisoners on death row across the world, and despite the fact that countries like China and Iran regularly execute prisoners, Stafford Smith says he’s convinced that the war against the death penalty will be a successful one, and that big strides forward will be made in his lifetime (he’s in his early 50s).

The landscape is changing, he says, especially in the US. “Governments need people to hate, and ten or 15 years ago the people who were hated in the US were black people on death row. But that’s not the case now – there are other people to hate now, extremists and people in other countries. So in a bizarre way that’s helping to change attitudes to the death penalty.”

Meanwhile China, he says, has said it expects to abolish the death penalty at some point. “And more than half of the countries in the world don’t have it, so we’re obviously moving in the right direction. But that’s a small solace to someone like Linda Carty. Because the point is, how many of these human sacrifices must there be before the human race
comes to its senses, and realises that we can’t go on acting this way?”

[There are over 10,000 names on the petition, but more are needed. Please visit the online petition: (external link) or text “LINDA” to 80011 at your standard network rate to register your support (if you live in the United Kingdom).]


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On Pentecost Day, May 29, 1887, Therese decided to confide her great desire to her father: to enter Carmel as soon as possible. She wanted to be there by Christmas. Admirably generous, Monsieur Martin expressed no opposition to the plan. He could easily see that she was serious. Picking a blossom of saxifrage from a wall nearby, he gave it to his youngest daughter, explaining to her that she herself was a little flower that God had always eagerly cared for.


One Sunday in July 1887, Therese received a great eucharistic grace at Saint Pierre Cathedral. At the end of Mass, a picture of the Crucified Christ slipped out of her Missal and she was struck by the thought that His blood was falling to the ground without anyone thinking of collecting it. She decided to remain at the foot of the cross for the rest of her life to receive this precious divine dew, for the sake of sinners. In her heart she heard Jesus’ cry “I thirst”, and for Therese this thirst was a thirst for love.


A few days later, Therese was presented with a privileged opportunity to put her resolution into practice. On July 13, 1887 Henri Pranzini, a convicted murderer, was condemned to death. The newspapers of the time insisted on the criminal’s particularly rebellious character. Despite the overwhelming charges that weighed against him, he manifested no sign of repentance. In fact, he boldly proclaimed his innocence.

It is unlikely that Therese had read many articles about Pranzini in the papers although she did not refrain from doing so. However, everyone was talking about the criminal. “Everything led to the belief that he would die unrepentant,” Therese recalled, “I wanted at any cost to prevent him from falling into hell.” Her concern was to save a great sinner from the mortal danger he was in. By persevering in his dishonesty and impenitence, he might be deprived forever of the joy of living with God.

A picture in the chapel in Saint Pierre’s Cathedral where Therese attended Mass every morning reminded her that, in a flash, the Good Thief had become a model of repentance. She had no right then to despair of Pranzini’s salvation. He too could receive the grace of conversion “in an instant”.

She multiplied prayers and sacrifices to obtain his conversion and had a Mass celebrated for him. Although she was certain that Jesus would answer her, she asked Him to give her a sign of Pranzini’s genuine conversion. “Simply for my consolation,” she said to the Lord, “because he is my first child!”

Thus she was jubilant to read the account of what happened at his execution in the September 1 edition of ‘La Croix’. At the last minute, Pranzini had asked for the chaplain’s crucifix and had kissed it twice. In writing her memoirs eight years later, Therese recalled that he made this gesture “three times”. This sign of repentance had a special significance for Therese because it was before the wounds of the Crucified Christ that her heart began to burn with the desire to save many souls.


‘Souvenirs de La Roquette’ [Memories of La Roquette], a book written by Father Faure, the outstanding chaplain who exercised his ministry at La Roquette prison for six years, and who accompanied twenty condemned prisoners to their execution, tells the story: Pranzini, who spoke eight languages fluently – he spent the hours of his imprisonment translating pages of Alexandre Dumas. Into various languages – always received the chaplain with great courtesy and frequently attended Mass. Pranzini told him feelingly about the piety of his mother, who lived in Alexandria.

The day before the execution, the chaplain stayed with him in his cell for a long time. Always very discreet, Father Faure wrote: “Our interview was more cordial and more intimate than ever. We conversed for more than two hours and, when I left him, he told me he was sorry to see our conversation end so soon.”

This helps us to understand better the condemned man’s response to Monsieur Beauquesne, the director of La Roquette, when he was asked, early in the morning of August 31, if he wanted to stay with Father Faure for a few moments. “The chaplain has fulfilled his duty,” he replied, “and I know mine.” He was no doubt alluding “to our long conversation of the previous day,” commented Father Faure. Here is how he described Pranzini’s last moments: “When, after saying a last farewell, I took a step back, he cried out in a voice choked with anguish, in a cry full of repentance and faith: “Father, bring me the crucifix!” I quickly went to him and pressed the crucifix to his lips – he kissed it fervently. We exchanged a couple of words… He was pushed against the platform, a noise sounded, the blade fell… it was all over.”


Pranzini’s so greatly desired conversion encouraged Therese to put everything in place to enter Carmel as soon as possible. Since the Lord gave her Pranzini as her first child, she would surely have many more if she consecrated her life to self-sacrifice and prayer for the salvation of sinners.

Canon Delatroette, the priest responsible for watching over the admission of postulants, was definitely opposed to Therese’s candidacy. “She is much too young… Let her wait until she is twenty-one! Unless, of course, His Excellency gives permission.”

Therese seized the opportunity. “Let’s go to see the bishop! … And if he is opposed,” she added, “I will go and ask the Pope.” As it happened, her father had signed up himself and his two youngest daughters for a pilgrimage to Rome, organised by the diocese of Coutances in honour of Leo XIII’s jubilee.

For the trip to Bayeux, Therese wore her prettiest white dress and put her hair up in a bun in order to appear older. Before the audience, she and her father entered the cathedral, where there was a funeral going on. Therese was quite a sensation with her white dress and hat!

A prudent man, Bishop Hugonin avoided making a final decision on the spur of the moment. He merely assured her that he would soon discuss her request with Canon Delatroette. Therese had no illusions about this. The bishop would not change Canon Delatroette’s mind. Her request would be shelved. She did not wait to be out of the room before the tears flowed. Bishop Hugonin, in his paternal manner, tried to console her. He pressed Therese’s head against his shoulder and promised to give her his response during the pilgrimage to Italy.

The falling rain on that October 31st 1887 was indeed the reflection of her sadness. “I have noticed,” Therese later wrote, “that in all the serious situations of my life, nature has been the image of my soul. On days of tears, the heavens cried with me, on days of joy, the sun shone brilliantly and not a cloud could be found in the blue sky.”


On her return from Rome, Therese waited as patiently and peacefully as possible for Bishop Hugonin’s response to her appeal. Every day, after Mass at the cathedral, she checked the mailbox for a response. Nothing came! To encourage her sister to “abandon” herself totally to Providence, Celine gave her a little model boat on whose sail she had engraved the name “abandon”.

Christmas 1887 arrived! Still nothing! Therese cried at Midnight Mass… But she discovered that the trial must increase her confidence… At last, on January 1, the eve of her fifteenth birthday, Mother Marie de Gonzague transmitted the bishop’s response: It was yes!

One final difficulty then surfaced: her sister, Pauline, thought it prudent to postpone Therese’s entrance until spring. Thus the very young postulant would be spared beginning her religious life in the midst of the Lenten austerities.

Her entrance was set for April 9, the Monday of the second week of Easter. Therese had reason to remember that on Celine’s little boat, whose name was “abandon”, there was inscribed on the sails a quotation from the Song of Solomon: “I sleep but my heart keeps watch”. If Jesus had seemed to be asleep and doing nothing to facilitate her entrance into Carmel, His Heart nonetheless continued to watch over her lovingly.
– This article was published in “Helping the Missions side by side with St Therese, Issue No 79, To Commemorate the visit of St Therese’s Relics”, published by “The Little Way Association”; contact for donations / to join the mailing list: The Little Way Association, Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 0PR


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On 10 December [1912] a boy of 19, named William Beal, was executed at Chelmsford for the murder of his sweetheart at West Ham. The case was one which, on the evidence, admitted of considerable doubt. The boy was strongly recommended to mercy by the jury who tried him, but in spite of strenuous efforts on the part of those interested in his fate, the Home Secretary declined to advise a reprieve.

In asking the prayers of your readers for the repose of the soul of this poor boy, it may interest them to know the circumstances of his conversion, which were as consoling and remarkable as the letter I received from him on the morning of his execution… On entering Brixton Prison after his committal for trial, Beal gave his religion as Catholic.
On visiting him in pursuance of his duties as Catholic chaplain to the prison, Father Turner discovered that Beal was not in fact a Catholic, but had entered himself as one because he had frequently attended a Catholic church. Finding that the boy earnestly desired to be received into the Church, Father Turner gave him what instruction was possible in the short time, and conditionally baptised him on All Saints’ Day. His First Communion was made the following Sunday, and his last on the morning of his execution. His letter to me shows what his conversion did for him, and explains the respect and, I may say, the regard he won from the prison officials and all with whom he came in contact during the last few weeks of his short life.
– Originally published in ‘The Tablet’, 21 December 1912; re-published 22/29 December 2012; contact for subscriptions etc.: ‘The Tablet’, 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0GY, email:


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