The death of Fr Columba, founding prior of St Louis and titular Abbot of Westminster, came as a profound shock to all those who knew and so admired him. Just two months earlier he had celebrated his ninetieth birthday and the diamond jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood both at Ampleforth and in London, attended by the oblates and his many friends, and a few months before that he had published his second commentary on the Rule. His death came suddenly and peacefully, as befitted him; he remained faithful to the daily prayer of the community in choir until his last two days.
Fr Columba, as he was known to his friends on five continents, was born on 6 November 1903 into a family of strong Catholic identity and his upbringing was one firmly grounded in the faith. At the age of 11 he came to school at Ampleforth, where he became a noted sportsman and was appointed Head Monitor in 1922. After two years in the family wine trade he returned to Ampleforth, being given the name Columba by Abbot Smith, who in 1900 had become the first Abbot of the community. The novitiate had only been recently established in the house, replacing the previous system of a common novitiate for the whole congregation at Belmont, and it had an exacting nature that was the setting for that first experience of the call to holiness that he pursued for the rest of his life. In 1927, a year before his solemn vows, he began his studies at St Benet's Hall, also newly founded, where he studied French and later Spanish, which he learned out of his desire to enter into the mystical world of St John of the Cross in the original language. In 1930 he turned to the pursuit of theological studies, and was ordained at Ampleforth in 1933, after which he combined the monastic timetable with the duties of a teacher, of monastic librarian, and of a parish priest, visiting the small chapel at Helmsley on a motorbike famed for its eccentricity, a pastoral duty he maintained until 1937, when he was appointed to succeed Fr Clement Hesketh as housemaster of St Wilfrid's.
It was in his 14 years as a housemaster that Fr Columba made the first of a lifetime of indelible marks on those with whom he came into contact. An Ampleforth housemaster is a daily presence to his boys, and Fr Columba was able to impart to them something of his enthusiasm for the wider world and its philosophies, and above all something of his faith, a faith that was to sustain many of them in the dark hours of the Second World War. It was out of this deeply personal experience of the young that he wrote the first of his many books, and The Beginning of Goodness became his final gift to every boy leaving his house. There was no sense of self-advertisement in this: he wanted, quite simply to share with them something of the way of faith that was so close to him.
Fr Columba's time as a housemaster was also marked by the beginning of two great spiritual journeys, one very public and the other very private. In 1949, in a letter to The Times, he appealed, with a frankness that was shocking in its day, for a new understanding and a new love between the Christian churches that foreshadowed much of the insight of the ecumenical movement engendered by the Second Vatican Council. It was a quest that Fr Columba never tired of pursuing at home and overseas, and it brought him into contact with a world of faith that remained a delight to him into his old age. It was in this spirit that he undertook a historical portrait of Christianity in China, China and the Cross, and he was the guiding spirit behind a series of ecumenical congresses in the United States and Great Britain. In the last year of his life the news of an Anglican guest in the calefactory would still see him moving, almost quickly, to further the cause of union.
A second and more private journey also began in his years as a housemaster. Out of a correspondence initiated through a gift to the abbey library, Fr Columba came into contact with the historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee, and from that beginning came a friendship, expressed in 30 years of letters, that was of profound significance to them both. In 1986 this correspondence was published under the title An Historian's Conscience, sharing with the world precious insights into the progress of a unique friendship.
In 1951 Fr Columba was appointed Prior of Ampleforth, and there began a new period in his life in which he was called repeatedly to offer inspiration to monastic commnunities throughout the world. In 1955 Abbot Herbert Byrne appointed him as founding Prior of the Ampleforth foundation at Saint Louis, Missouri, and for 12 years he led that commnunity with vision and insight. Perhaps characteristic of Fr Columba in those years is a simple story of a guest at St Louis expressing his surprise at hearing the grace sung in English, only to be told that just as the Benedictines had kept the lamp of learning alight in the Dark Ages of early medieval Europe. so now they should lead the way in change. There was in him no sense of doom or despondency at the huge impact of the Council: just as he had been its standard-bearer in the field of ecumenism so now he welcomed its insights and sought to express them within the monastic tradition, aware always of the over-riding loyalty to faith and the Church that could overcome any passing storms.
Fr Columba's return from St Louis in 1967 at the age of 64 might perhaps have ushered in a quieter period in his life, but it was not to be. In 1968 he travelled to Africa to explore the possibilities of making a Benedictine foundation there, and for more than a year he acted as spiritual father to the major seminary of Nairobi. In 1974 he founded, and later led as Prior, the community at Eke in Nigeria under the auspices of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland, and brought to that work his depth of experience in the monastic way.
In 1979 he returned to Ampleforth, and was appointed Master of the Oblates of the community, a body of lay people sharing in the prayer of the abbey that under his careful guidance expanded beyond all expectations, and once again allowed him to share his wisdom within a wide world. It was also a period of travel, notably to India, the Philippines and Australia, to preach the gospel and to pass on the vision of the monastic life that he had gained so clearly. He also pursued further his literary work, producing among many other works a dictionary of spirituality that brought together a lifetime's reading, thought and prayer, two commentaries on the Rule and a collection of his poems, written in private moments throughout his life. But in his last years it was his influence on his community, and especially the young, that was most marked; his constant presence in choir and indefatigable cheerfulness in the Calefactory were testament to all who knew him of the peace he had found in God. He remained such until his last days, when he was taken to hospital for an operation, where he died on 21 January at the age of 90. Just two years earlier he had been granted the titular abbacy of Westminster as a sign of his immeasurable contribution to the Benedictine world.
With the death on 21 January of Dom Columba Cary-Elwes OSB, titular Abbot of Westminster, Ampleforth and the English Benedictines have lost one of their oldest, most illustrious and most widely loved sons. Only two months earlier he had celebrated his ninetieth birthday and the diamond jubilee of his priesthood.
Fr Columba was born in 1903 into the junior branch of an old landed family which became Catholic in the nineteenth century, a background from which he inherited a mildly patrician appearance, an innate courtesy and a distaste for snobbery or self-importance. In 1914 he came to school at Ampleforth, then just emerging from its heroic age of small numbers, cold baths, earth closets and general remoteness. On leaving he went into the wine trade and spent two years enjoying himself, first in Bordeaux and then as a young man about town in London. But the seed of his vocation had been sown, and in 1924 he applied to join the Ampleforth community, receiving from Abbot Oswald Smith the laconic reply (on a postcard) 'You can come if you like'.
In the novitiate he experienced a call to holiness to which the rest of his life was a struggle to respond. At Oxford, reading French at St Benet's Hall, he learned Spanish in order to read St John of the Cross in the original: and the contemplative cast of his mind was strengthened by a visit in 1932 to the Charterhouse of Miraflores. There he fell in love with Spain (to which he made an adventurous return during the Civil War) and had an experience of the nearness of God which he never forgot. Ordained at Ampleforth in 1933, he combined teaching in the school with a demanding monastic round and the life of a rural parish priest, serving the mission at Helmsley on an ancient and unreliable motorbike.
A Housemaster for 14 years from 1937, he imprinted on several generations of boys (including many who were killed in the war) an indelible example of faith informed by a critical understanding and supported by a resolute will.
During this period there developed his lifelong friendship with Arnold Toynbee, which generated the fascinating 30 years correspondence published in 1986 as An Historian's Conscience. Not by temperament a scholar (patient attention to detail not being among his many virtues), Fr Columba began with Toynbee's encouragement to write, publishing what is still the fullest history of Catholic missionary activity in China, China and the Cross, and a reflection on the role of obedience in the shaping of Western civilisation, Law, Liberty and Love. An ecumenist before his time, he wrote to The Times in 1949 an eirenic letter calling for reconciliation between Catholics and Anglicans which brought him, along with the gratitude of prominent Anglican churchmen, some sharp criticism from fellow-Catholics including the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Godfrey.
In 1951 he became Prior of Ampleforth and then in 1955 he was sent to the United States as founding prior of the monastery and school which Ampleforth was invited to establish at St Louis, Missouri, now a flourishing and independent abbey. He spent the next twelve years in America, where this archetypally English Benedictine made lasting friendships among warmhearted people there. Leaving St Louis in 1967 was a painful wrench, but he returned to Ampleforth mellower, wiser and more relaxed than he had left it. Although saddened by some of the fall-out from Vatican II, he welcomed the new directions set by the Council, especially on ecunienism and liturgical reform; and neither the serenity of his faith nor his loyalty to the Church was shaken by the ensuing turbulence.
Almost at once he was sent off on another enterprise, this time to explore the possibilities for making a Benedictine foundation in Africa. He travelled extensively in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (covering enormous distances by bus), acting as French interpreter for the Pope's visit to Uganda in 1970 and, for more than a year, as spiritual father to the major seminary outside Nairobi. He then moved west, first to Cameroun and finally to Nigeria, where he helped to form the community now established at Ewu under the auspices of the Benedictines of Glenstal.
Although he continued to travel widely, visiting and encouraging monastic and religious communities in India, Australia, the Philippines, and the United States, for the last twenty years of his life he was based firmly at Ampleforth, praying, writing and counselling. It was during this last chapter of his life that he found his truest vocation, as inspirer amid spiritual father to an ever widening circle of friends from many countries and all walks of life, not least the members of his own community. Although memories of the Carthusians at Miraflores gave him a hankering for the eremitical life, his special gift was for friendship and empathy with people, to whom he was able to impart some of the fruits of his own long search for God with an unforgettable simplicity and gentleness.
He loved the Church and saw her with all her faults not as a repressive institution, but 'spread across the world as a gentle cloak of mercy'; while a monastery was 'a place of intercession, a place of community, a showing of the meaning of the Church to the world'. He leaves behind friends on every continent to echo the words which Arnold Toynbee wrote to him on 3 September 1939: 'Besides feeling you one of my closest and dearest friends, I also feel that you are my most direct door to God'. /
Fr COLUMBA: an appreciation
Br Anthony writes more informally:
When I think back to my years in the school or to more recent years as a novice and young monk, the figure of Fr Columba occupies a special, indeed a unique place. I never knew him in his days of responsibility or in his years as a monastic founder, but rather in the last years of his life, when he had, in the words of secular society 'retired'. But monks do not retire; the work of prayer and seeking God goes on; and from this Fr Columba found a spirit of peace and tranquillity that enveloped him and spread to all with whom he came in contact. This was the source of the admiration, respect and affection which he inspired in so many, and it is this which is my strongest memory of him, fleshed out in three simple pictures.
The first, and in some ways the most powerful, comes from a school retreat of 1985 or 1986, when St Oswald's were considering the life of St Aelred. On the last afternoon we walked to Rievaulx, where on a side altar he celebrated the final mass of that retreat. In such a setting, a Mass conducted by the light of torches could hardly fail to be a powerful experience. What Fr Columba may have said I cannot now remember but in that place of abiding holiness he seemed to me a living sign of what the monastic journey is about. To my eyes as old and venerable as the great church around us, he clearly shared with it and its builders the certainty of the peace that comes from God.
A second impression, very similar to the first, comes from our own Abbey Church at Ampleforth, the day after five of us had made our first Profession to the monastic life. It was, I think, the last time that Fr Columba felt equal to presiding at Sunday Mass, but through the frailty one could clearly perceive his sense of dignity and awe in his priesthood and in the mass. Indeed, to the end of his life, the way he said the mass spoke far more eloquently than any homily could have done. But then it was his faith that seemed to speak to me, a faith in the mystery of God in which he was immersed. I remeniber on a later occasion he talked about faith when talking of his understanding of liturgy and the Eucharist, a faith which was deeply personal but which he wished, and longed, to share with all whom he knew.
A final image does not have him in the picture at all, but centres on an action, repeated many times over the months during which I had a room near him in the monastery infirmary. I would hear him shuffle past my door many times on his way to the Church, calefactory or refectory. As he went past each time, as though to steady himself, he would run his hand along my door, creating just the quietest of sounds that he knew I would hear and recognise - his way of saying that he was with me and praying for me in the discomfort I was undergoing at that time. Such is but one example of the way his self-deprecating (even ironic) thoughtfulness could speak more than a thousand words. These three pictures of Fr Columba are, of course, mine alone. But all his brethren, amid all who met him could contribute those of their own. In his funeral homily Cardinal Hume spoke of the mixed feelings of pain and pleasure with which we remember those whom we love. We might also add a third aspect, the certainty that derives from so strong a monastic witness, and the conviction that he has set us all on a path to follow.
Charles Columba CARY-ELWES 1903 Nov 6 born London 1914 - 1922 ed Ampleforth 1924 Sept 22 Habit Ampleforth Prior Bede Turner 1925 Sept 23 Simple Vows Abbot Matthews 1928 Sept 23 Solemn Vows 1930 Dec 29,30 Tonsure “ 1931 Jan Minor Orders Jly 19 Subdeacon Bishop F Vaughan 1932 Jly 24 Deacon Bishop Shine 1933 Jly 23 Priest 1927 - 1980 St Benet’s Hall Oxford French 3 1930 - 1933 Oxford Theology at Blackfriars 1935 Sept Ampleforth Monastic Librarian & teaching in School. 1934 - 1937 Priest in charge of Helmsley Chapel 1937 Sept Housemaster St Wilfrid’s 1951 Sept Prior 1955 Oct Appointed Founding Prior of St Louis Priory Missouri 1967 June Retired as Prior of St Louis Aug Returned to Ampleforth 1968 Oct Went to E.Africa for Retreats & Inquiry on foundation. 1969 Teaching in major seminary Nairobi 1970 Sept returned from E.Africa 1972 ‘Loaned’ to Glenstal to help foundation of Eke in Nigeria. On the way helped found major seminary in Cameroons. 1974 Nigeria - foundation of Eke 1975 Jly-Sept Ampleforth 1975 Sept returned to Nigeria to Eke as Prior 1979 May-Oct Australia - with Bishop Heather Oct returned to Ampleforth Master of Oblates 1980 Manila for election of Abbot and to E. Australia to help Good Samaritan Sisters to Renew 1981 Apr went to S India Asirvarnam - a talk at inter-religions symposium. 1983 April Asirvanam - daily talks to community 1988 Lent Parramatta (Sydney) Australia 10 New Delhi 1989 April - visit to Santiago - Manquehue Movement 1994 Jan 22 Died Books: Beginning of Goodness; Law Liberty & Love; China & the Cross; co-editor Ampleforth & Origins; Monastic renewal; Stirrings; Sheepfold & Shepherd; The Toynbee Correspondence; Experiences with God. Articles in various Journals; 1992 Work & Prayer. ============================================= Additional notes, made for the funeral homily Born (Eltham (?) 6 Nov 1903 - eldest of 3 brothers & 2 sisters - originally 6?) (Fr Anselm's mother (1890-1984) remembered him wearing a sailor-suit) To school at Ampleforth 1914, hurried out of Belgium ahead of German Army, where father was a wine-merchant: just too old to be included in the first Jumior House group when it started in 1916. Headmonitor 1921 1927 St Benet's Hall, Oxford: Modern Languages (French & Spanish; 3 months in Spain. Began love of Spanish mystics 1933 1934-7 Priest in charge of Helmsley Monastery Librarian 1935-37 Housemaster St Wilfrid's 1937-51 Claustral Prior 1951-55 Played organ to accompany choir (sometimes: once intoned antiphon from console) Friend of Arnold Toynbee: correspondence later published Taught Dogmatic Taught theology in Monastery ca 1951-55 Oblate Master 1980 (started Ampleforth Oblates) 1989 Santiago, visit to Manquehue movement Titular Abbot of Westminster 1992 31 Oct 1993 Celebrated ninetieth birthday & sixtieth anniversary of ordination with Mass at St Mary's, Chelsea, with 200 family, old boys and Oblates. Died (22 Jan 1994) in York District Hospital, during Vespers