The Evolution of Our Ministry
Since its foundation, the Community has been known by three names. In 1888-1893, it was called the Society of Saint Paul; the founder of Alton Abbey was the only member in the Indian subcontinent of a parish brotherhood that was based in London. During the period 1893-1982, the Community was known as the Order of Saint Paul and had an active work among merchant seamen. In 1982, the members of the Order of Saint Paul renewed their vows in the Benedictine formula and the monks are now styled with the letters OSB after their name to reflect their membership of the Benedictine family. The Abbey Church is dedicated to Mary the mother of our Lord, and to John the beloved disciple; as a result of that patronage, the Abbey and the Community are sometimes referred to as being ‘of Our Lady and Saint John’.
Our Founder, Fr Hopkins
The Community dates its foundation from the ordination of the Revd Charles Plomer Hopkins, who was appointed as River Port Chaplain of Rangoon in Burma in 1884. In order to make possible the extension of his work, he sought to recruit others to work alongside him. In 1888-9, he served a novitiate with the Society of Saint Paul, based at the parish church of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch. Following his profession in that Society, he returned to the Indian subcontinent as Port Chaplain to Calcutta in February 1889.
The parish brotherhood in Shoreditch was wound up in the early 1890s. Father Hopkins still wished to have a religious community involved in the work among merchant seamen, so he reopened the novitiate of the Society in which he alone remained. He made Life Profession of his vows in 1893, taking Michael as his name in religion. At that point, the Community became known as the Order of Saint Paul, and regulated its life using an adaptation of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
It became apparent to Father Michael that a British base was needed to provide a base for recruitment, training and rest for those involved in the active work. In 1894, a house was opened at Barry Dock in South Wales. In India, the work had been primarily that of moral and recreational welfare; at Barry, it was found that there was a great deal of work to be done among those seamen who were out of work, or too old to go to sea.
Foundation of the Abbey
In order to fulfil the need for a house in which the active work was not pursued, a plot of land, called Kingswood Copse, was purchased at Beech, outside Alton in 1895. Other men who were out of work presented themselves for charitable support at Alton Abbey when they were travelling to and from London and the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth; the able-bodied among them assisted in the erection of the first permanent buildings at the Abbey. The first monastic inhabitants of Kingswood Copse lived in tents and wattle huts, until a corrugated iron monastery could be built. The last of the wattle and iron buildings were not demolished until the beginning of the 1980s.
The Gatehouse, designed as the Abbot’s Lodge, was built in 1901, while the Abbey Church was built during the period 1901-07. Designed by John Cyril Hawes, the Abbey Church was planned to extend as far to the east of the central tower as it now does to the west. A diminution in numbers in community, lack of money and need for the liturgical space, precluded the building of the monastic choir and ambulatory.
The Community of monks continued to live in the corrugated iron monastery until 1956, when the southern side of the eastern cloister was built as their home. A short-lived influx of novices in the mid 1970s necessitated the erection of an extension to this range, in red brick contrasting with the open flint-work of the older buildings. The eastern side of this cloister, also in red brick, was built in 1984 to house a shop, meeting room and the monastic library, connecting the 1956 building to the south transept of the Abbey Church.
By 1900, the Community had gathered around them a group of elderly men who could no longer go to sea, providing a charitable home for them alongside the monastery. Following the death of Father Michael in 1922, the Pensionary for retired seamen was built as his memorial, reaching completion in 1928. Following the closure of the Pensionary in 1989, that portion of the building was used for a time as the Retreat House. During the mid 1990s the need for a more cohesive enclosure for the monastic Community was perceived, and so the monks have moved into what was the Pensionary, now the western cloister, and the Retreat House now occupies the eastern cloister.
The Messenger of the Seamen’s Friendly Society
From the time of its inception, the monastic Community of Alton Abbey undertook work among seamen of the mercantile marine, under the auspices of the Society. For many years a retirement home for such men was run at Alton Abbey. From 1989, the work among seafarers was exercised principally through charitable grants.Since the Society had no personnel, its affairs were administered by members of the Order of Saint Benedict at Alton Abbey. A member of the Community participated in the business of the Merchant Navy Welfare Board, acting as liaison with that body to ensure that the maximum benefit from available funds was derived by the intended beneficiaries of the Trust. The Community advertised the availability of temporary accommodation and financial aid for destitute or distressed merchant seafarers and their chaplains.
Quarterly masses for merchant seafarers are offered in the Abbey Church; the fourth quarter is a requiem mass for all deceased seafarers. The graves of over 200 deceased seamen in the Abbey Cemetery are tended and maintained by the Community.
During 2003, the almonising activities of the Society were undertaken by another seafarers’ charity with the necessary expertise and staff to undertake it. The Community offers an educational bursary at a Merchant Navy training establishment, as a memorial to Father Hopkins, the founder of Alton Abbey.
The Order of Saint Benedict
Partly in order to achieve wider recognition as a member of the wider Benedictine family, the Order of Saint Paul revised its Constitution in 1982, since which time the Community has been known as the Order of Saint Benedict at Alton Abbey. At the same time, the Community was authorised by its Episcopal Visitor to elect an Abbot to be the Superior of the monastery.