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Born: 18 Jun 1882 –  died: 19 Feb 1959
Clothed - 3 Sep 1900
Solemn Vows- 5 Oct 1904
Priest - 9 May 1909

Philip Justin McCann was born in 1882, the second son of Philip McCann of Manchester and Katherine his wife, formerly Katherine Doherty of Breslanstown House, Ardee, Co. Louth. He and his three brothers were educated at Ampleforth; one of his sisters married another Amplefordian and was to send sons to school here in a later generation. Abbot Justin's family was Irish on both sides, but his grandfather, John McCann of Granard, Co. Longford, had come to Manchester in 1858 and established the family business of John McCann and Sons, produce importers and distributers. The six grandchildren were brought up at 'The Lymes' on Cheetham Hill Road in the parish of St Chad. There were holidays at their mother's former home in Co. Louth, a beautiful country house with 500 acres of elbow-room and opportunities for sport not available in Manchester. Although he was not the eldest of the children, Justin was regarded as the most responsible: he was in charge on the journeys and mediated when there was friction with authority.

He was sent to Ampleforth in 1895 and there his ability found recognition and encouragement; we find him winning high honours in public examinations in his last two years, commended by the examining don ('McCann is quite the best scholar') and elected Captain of the School by the boys in January 1900.

Meanwhile he had for some time wished to become a monk but his father did not at once approve of the proposal; there was a prolonged attempt to interest him in farming in Ireland and he was taken abroad to Switzerland, Italy and France, where this Mabillonius redivivus spent most of his time in monasteries and ancient churches en débrouillant 1'antiquité.

Finally his purpose prevailed and he was clothed at Belmont in September 1900. There he formed those habits of prayer, study and orderly industry which were the main pattern of his life; his published work on Fr Baker did not begin to appear for another twenty years, but surely Sancta Sophia had already made its impression: life was already mapped out in terms of Mortification, Prayer and Custodia Cordis. Perhaps he was provoked at times by the romantic mode in which the truths or traditions of religion were then sometimes presented; 'The Roadmender' read aloud was too much for his sensitive sobriety and he could suffer already in the tension between History and Hagiography.

In 1903 he went to Hunter Blair's Hall to read Mods and Greats, and there he lived in community with two future Headmasters, a future Abbot of Ampleforth and Fr Bede Jarrett who was to be for so long the Provincial of the Dominicans: a stimulating community of which he was a very acceptable but perhaps rather reserved member. His First in Greats was both the measure and the mould of his ability: Self-discipline which appeared a year or two later suggests that Sancta Sophia had given ground to the Republic and the Ethics; and with him one never forgot for long that here was a powerful and well-trained mind moving with assured competence, though reluctant to range beyond a well-defined orbit.

From Oxford he returned to Ampleforth to spend the next twelve years teaching Classics in the school; for seven of these years he was Librarian, for nine junior master and for the last three he was Prior in the monastery. The Library is deeply in his debt; no official fund yet existed but with the help of gifts from his father and from members of the community (the last 'peculiar' father did not die until 1917) he filled wide gaps, and throughout his life he took a generous and energetic interest in its fortunes. As a schoolmaster he was less successful; perhaps he was too intelligent to understand the difficulties of his pupils and too much of an 'internal liver' to share their interests or communicate to them his own keen interest in the Classics. In the community too this was not his happiest time: to be Prior in those days and with those ideals, supported only by the vague and serene benignity of Abbot Smith, cannot have been in itself an easy assignment at the age of thirty-four, and who knows what additional stresses may have been imposed by Bakerism and Butlerism, by a certain shyness and tactlessness, by Gladstonian Liberalism and Irish Nationalism? When he died an intimate friend wrote that his 'Pietas Laurentiana was one of his most lovable qualities'; that is profoundly true, and perhaps it was all the more lovable because it was not a gift of nature but was born in a travail of humility and charity. Alma mater or injusta noverca? - he was not yet sure, as he was later to become in the confident affection of his middle age; but already he was deeply attached to the traditions and craggy personalities of the E.B.C.: Anselm Beech (born in Manchester and professed in Padua in 1591), Augustine Baker, Clement Reyner, Peter Salvin, and so many others down to such nineteenth-century names as Wilfrid Cooper and Athanasius Allanson, and others whom we ourselves knew and remembered: this was a tradition into which he was glad to let himself be built by other hands than his;

Tunsionibus pressuris
Expoliti lapides
Suis coaptantur locis
Per manus artificis.

It was a sense of this tradition and of the honour done him by his brethren that made his appointment as Cathedral Prior of Chester and as Abbot of the Ancient Abbey of Westminster acceptable to him in later life.

After a few months on the mission at St Anne's, Liverpool, he was sent in 1920 to preside over St Benet's Hall, which had achieved its new home and status but was still in its old home in Beaumont Street. This 'temporary appointment' was to last as is so often the way for twenty-seven years; but Fr Justin was not to know that this would be so and his vacations were spent at first in 'carpet-bagging' on the parishes, so that he never devoted himself to any large field of study which he could have made his own, which would have given scope for lectures before the University or considerable works of learning; he fell into the way of work suggested by his own interests, by an interrupted timetable and by the need to give conferences to the juniors living under his care. There was much translating and transcribing, sometimes valued more as a remedy for melancholy than for its own sake, and innumerable investigations undertaken to oblige his friends; there was the life of St Benedict, the translation and edition of the Rule; there were the Annals and Biographies of the E.B.C.; there was the great work on the life, works and teaching of Fr Augustine Baker, and editions or translation of the Cloud, the Golden Epistle, the Imitation and other mystical works. All of this was very well done and very well worth doing; Fr Justin would never have recorded, as Allanson did, a 'deep and heartfelt regret that it has ever been my misfortune to attempt to compile the dull and uninteresting Biography of the English Benedictines'; but others may regret that two score years of such ability and opportunity have left no major monument behind.

However the years in Oxford were perhaps his happiest. When he had established the Hall in St Giles and found his small circle of friends in the University, he took much pleasure in the efficient administration of his household, in certain mechanical ingenuities, and in the daily rhythm of prayer, work, recreation and community life; the walk to Binsey, a bathe at Parson's Pleasure, the entertainment of André Wilmart or some other distinguished visitor with courageous conversation in French, the occasional adventure of a subterranean navigation of Trill Mill stream in a canoe or a drive to Cambridge with half-a-dozen juniors in a hired car (less surely in the Master's control than the recitation of the Litany of Loretto which he would lead by heart from the wheel), these are things that leave memories of great happiness and generosity, of a humanity that must win affection and admiration. There were other and rarer times of melancholy, insomnia or ill health when the Binsey round would be trodden in silence and sympathy would be accorded almost no admission; times which testified to heroism rather than happiness, which tried him more hardly than they could try anyone else.

To the Oxford period especially belong the warm friendships with two great Dominicans, Bede Jarrett and Bernard Delany, and the holidays spent with Fr Laurence Buggins either in monasteries abroad or with a hired car near the sea. But he was a familiar figure to many in those days with his spare form and light-footed gait; a noble head and austere but unusually fine features, a rather harsh voice and a shy but always gracious and distinguished manner marked him out in a crowd; indeed even as a boy he must have been a person whom few would venture to treat lightly and no one could overlook.

The last twelve years of his life were spent as curate at St Mary's Priory, Warrington. He had never held any rigid theory of geographical stability and could be at home in the dining-room there under the portraits of Molyneux and Bury, or at St Alban's (where he dined with a dozen of his brethren last Christmas Day) in the room where Dom Richard O'Hare accidentally came upon the Reformers celebrating with champagne after the Chapter of '89. As he grew older his part in parish work diminished, but he could still take a large party of altar servants to the circus in Manchester last Christmas. His learned interests were sustained by frequent visits to the Rylands Library, followed by lunch with one of his kinsmen where he would hear news of the family circle with which he shared a strong affection not confined to his own generation.

He will be remembered as St Laurence's greatest scholar; as an affectionate, generous and occasionally exigent friend who meant much in the lives of those who loved him; a very good monk and priest, wishing to give himself wholly to Almighty God; not finding a fullness of joy in this life or the 'grand impetuosities of the saints' of which he read with longing in St Teresa, for perhaps he had been too deeply wounded by the conflict between the ideal as he saw it and the actual as it forced itself upon him; perhaps that is why he did not wish to spend his later years at Ampleforth. Peter Salvin wrote of Fr Baker:

He was a man of deep judgment, wise, of a sound head, without any crotchets, of a transcending will and interior propension towards God only, which he exercised seriously, living continually within himself with God alone; of a nature affable, courteous and faithfully constant to his friends - he had none but in God - and every way grateful and acceptable to all people that knew him'.

Surely we may take these words to indicate the kind of man that we knew and revered in Abbot Justin.

At Conventual Chapter in September 1958 his pallor had startled his brethren though he still seemed full of energy and interest. But by Christmas definite maladies had declared themselves and in January he was taken into the Warrington General Hospital to prepare for a major operation; however his strength diminished instead of increasing and it became clear that no remedy was possible. Death had long been a subject of his reflection as is shown by an old note-book which he inscribed hora novissima sanctorum exitu illustrate and in which he collected accounts of holy deaths from St Stephen to St Teresa of Lisieux. He could therefore set about this final task serenely, fortified by the rites of holy Church, supported by the constant attendance of his brethren, perhaps remembering the words of Newman which he had pasted in at the end of his note-book:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!

J.B.S.[Fr Barnebas Sandeman]


Details from the Abbey Necrology

PHILIP JUSTIN MCCANN        19 February 1959
1882   18 Jun       Born Manchester
1895-               to 1900 Educ Ampleforth
1900    3 Sep       Habit
1901    4 Sep       Simple Vows
1904    5 Oct       Solemn Vows
1909    9 May       Priest
1903-07             Studied Classics (1st) & Lit Hum (1st) at Oxford
1910-19             Served Helmsley
1910      Sep       to Jul 1919 Junior master
1913      Apr       to Aug 1916 Subprior
1916      Aug       to Jul 1919 Prior
1919      Sep       St Anne's Liverpool
1920      Feb       Master at St Benet's Hall Oxford
1922      Oct$$     Moved from 38,9 Beaumont St to former Ursuline Convent in St Giles
1929           Appointed Magister Scholarum but did not enter office
1935      Dec       Cath Prior of Chester
1937-57             Annalist of the Congregation
1947      Sep       Left Oxford & appointed to assist at St Mary's Warrington
1949           In Gen Chap appointed Abbot of Ancient Abbey of Westminster
1959   19 Feb       Died in Warrington Infirmary
               Buried in Warrington

               His writings include
               The Resurrection of the Body, St Benedict, Ampleforth &                its Origins with Fr C Cary Elwes.  Self Discipline                     (CTS).
               Translation of Ab Delatte's Commentary on the Rule of St
               Benedict, of Karl Adam's The Spirit of Catholicism & St
               Augustine the Odyssey of a Soul, of EA Roulin's                        Vestments & Vesture, of The Rule of St Benedict.
               Also (with intro & notes) in Orchard Series The                        Imitation of Christ, of St Gregory's Dialogues Bk II 'St                Benedict',
               St Benedict & The Master, Anselm of Manchester
               Edited: Augustine Baker, The Confession
                       Barbanson, The Secret Paths of Divine Love
                       William of St Thierry, The Golden Epistle to the
                       Carthusians of Mont Dieu tr W Shewring
                       P Salvin & S Cressy, Life of Fr Augustine Baker
                       Memorials of Fr Augustine Baker
                       The Cloud of Unknowing
               For Gen Chapter of the EBC he wrote
               Annals 1850-1900
               A Survey, English Benedictine Missions
               & with Dom H Connolly
               The Abbots of the Ancient Monasteries
               & the Cathedral Priors

Sources: AJ 64:2 (1959) 129
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