A Christmas Fraud

The long-range forecast was for a white Christmas – there had been heavy frosts and snow on 13th December – but the weather people changed their minds on Christmas Eve and instead forecast blizzards sweeping the country, as the year ended. They were not wrong! That Christmas was the coldest on record and the snow that started to descend on the day the seminarians went home, 28th December, stayed on the ground until March.

By long tradition the students for the Priesthood at St John’s seminary at Wonersh, near Guildford, never went home for Christmas. The belief was that the community was your family, with whom you celebrated the festival. Then, on 27th December, came the feast day of the patron of the Seminary; students set off for home the next day.

St John's Seminary, Wonersh

St John’s Seminary, Wonersh

The last few months of 1962 had been momentous. In October the Second Vatican Council had met for the first session; while nothing positive had yet come from it, there had been two changes influenced by the work of the Council. First, the Dialogue Mass was introduced into parishes. This meant that the congregation were encouraged to make the Latin responses previously made by the altar servers alone. (There was a seminarist who even boldly suggested that parts of the Mass might be allowed in English. Fellow students openly laughed at him and at such a daring idea!) The second change was the abolishing of the Westminster Theatre Law. This Law, enacted in 1873, made it a mortal sin, also incurring excommunication, for a priest to attend a stage show of any kind. This included opera, ballet and plays (including Shakespeare).  There was great rejoicing, particularly among the theatre lovers, when the news came in November that the English Bishops had rescinded the Law. The Law had applied to public performances in theatres, not private productions.

Just as well because there was a well-established tradition at Wonersh that on Boxing Day a play was put on for the whole community. (The Religious Sisters, who looked after the domestic affairs, attended the dress rehearsal). This production was usually a comedy or a farce. That Christmas the production, involving a cast of ten, was the farce, ‘Simple Spymen’. It proved to be  hilarious and the visiting bishops; the Archbishop of Southwark, Cyril Cowderoy and his guest, an American missionary bishop, who had a diocese in Africa, both appeared to enjoy it. The American Bishop, Dominic Taylor, had been driven down from Archbishop’s House, Southwark, where he was staying, on Christmas Eve, by the Archbishop’s chauffeur. Archbishop Cowderoy followed on Boxing Day morning.

On Christmas Eve (it was still a day of fasting and abstinence in 1962) the decorations went up. This was never permitted before, as the penitential season of Advent was fully observed. A small team of students had prepared two very large letters – an alpha and an omega – in gold lettering with an abundance of holly and ivy. These were mounted on the reredos behind the chapel’s high altar and looked splendid. Another volunteer team was responsible for decorating the refectory. They had put together an ingenious display, extending the whole length of the large room, suggesting roof-tops with snow and owls. While this being put up Bishop Taylor came to watch. After awhile he went off to the convent chapel to hear the nuns’ confessions.

At the splendid Midnight Mass with white choir (that is the whole community of nearly 100 men vested in cassocks and surplices ) the Bishop assisted the Rector at the altar. Later the Bishop commented on the high quality of the Gregorian chant sung by the community and the Palestrina settings sung by the Schola choir. Christmas dinner consisted of  four courses, with all the traditional trimmings ; there were crackers and the wearing of funny hats was encouraged! The seminarians were amused and approving of Bishop Taylor joining in; as they had been the previous day when he had gone down to the Dive (the lower common room) and played snooker with a few of the students. More than one commented that if this is what a future post-Vatican II bishop was going to be like, there was great hope for the Church!

The more austere Archbishop arrived the next morning! On St John’s Day, 27th December, the early Mass at 8am was said for the students by the missionary Bishop; at this Mass every one went to Holy Communion. At 11am there was the traditional solemn Pontifical High Mass with Bishop Taylor assisting the Archbishop. This was followed by another sumptuous dinner.

There was a light flurry of snow the next morning, but as students headed for home, and the bishops set out for Archbishop’s House, Southwark, there was a severe weather warning of strong blizzards across the north of the country.

On Friday, 18th January, the student body returned from their holiday, in the snow, which lay thick in the drive and around the building. The following Friday a priest arrived from Archbishop’s House and, almost immediately, Monsignor Iggleden, the Rector, summoned the whole student body, and the teaching staff, to the lecture hall. The priest, who introduced himself as the Chancellor of the Diocese, then told the assembly that on no account was anything said in the next few minutes to be spoken of outside those four walls. ‘Is that quite clear’? he asked.  ‘You are not to discuss it or report it to anyone,’ he continued. ‘Is that clear?’ There was an awed silence. No one had ever experienced anything like this before!

Then the priest told everyone that the Bishop who had accompanied Archbishop Cowderoy over the Christmas was a fraud! He was not a bishop, nor even a priest! He was, originally, a failed student from the American College in Rome. He had studied there for four years and then he was deemed to be unsuitable for the priesthood and asked to leave. He had acquired the dress and regalia of a bishop and had acted the part in several places before arriving in Southwark. There was now a general warning out to all Catholic dioceses and institutions. The stunned silence continued as the Chancellor again repeated his warning and left. The Rector returned from escorting the priest out and said, ‘There’s to be not another word about this. Do you understand?’ The students were then dismissed. But, ban or no ban, word got around that the Religious Sisters were totally mortified that they had been to confession to the fake bishop; that he had said Mass for them and given them Holy Communion and his ‘blessing’.

With the passing of time it became known how Dominic Taylor – although that was not his real name – had received an invitation to stop at Archbishop’s House and duped the Diocesan officials. A week before Christmas a ‘bishop’, who had been recognised by his attire, was seen praying quietly in Southwark cathedral.  Noticed by a member of the Archbishop’s staff he was courteously invited to morning coffee with Archbishop Cowderoy. On meeting the Archbishop the American had pretended that they had already met, after one of the Vatican Council’s group meetings. Cyril Cowderoy, who really did not remember such a meeting but thought that, there being so many bishops in Rome, he must have forgotten, confirmed that they had met! The American ‘bishop’ was invited to leave his London hotel and stop at Archbishop’s House. However, after the Christmas festivities, one of the cathedral staff became suspicious and, on his own initiative,  rang the diocese in Africa that the American said he came from. This enterprising priest asked to speak to the bishop of the diocese, and did so! Two of the cathedral staff then challenged the American, who at first indignantly denied the charge; but he changed his tune when it was suggested that the police be involved. He admitted that he was neither a bishop nor a priest. (The writer does not know what happened to him after that.)

So the 1962 Christmas at Wonersh proved to be very memorable; after 50 years it would now seem safe to tell the story.


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