21 June 2019

A house in Rathgar holds
the story of a sporting
missionary bishop in China

Clarendon at 46 Terenure Road East was once the home of the Curtis family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many fine Victorian homes between Terenure and Rathgar is Clarendon, a gracious detached Victorian family home dating from the 1840s or 1850s and now on the market at an asking price in the region of €3 million, having been restored by its owners in recent years.

Clarendon was the childhood home of John Curtis (1880-1962), the last Irish Anglican bishop to work in China, and a cousin of the renowned historian Edmund Curtis (1881-1943).

His career was the stuff of schoolboy adventure stories and comic strips: he was a well-known soccer and rugby player; when the Japanese invaded China at the start of World War II, he became a prisoner of war in Shanghai; and he stayed on in China as a missionary bishop after the revolution, living in Hangzhou until he was forced to leave in 1950.

Thomas Henry Curtis, merchant, of Clarendon House, Rathgar, Co Dublin, died on 26 November 1895 at the age of 40. His wife, Edith Elizabeth, had died five years earlier on 29 November 1890 at the age of 35. Both are buried in Mount Jerome, alongside Thomas Curtis JP (1825-1899), and other members of the family.

John Curtis was born in 1880, and spent part of his childhood at Montpellier Hill, near the North Circular Road gate of the Phoenix Park, and then in Blackhall Street, next to the King’s Hospital School. The family moved to Hollybrook Road, Clontarf, and also lived at Clarendon on Terenure Road East.

John was sent to Rathmines School, founded by the Revd Charles William Benson on Lower Rathmines Road, and then studied at Trinity College Dublin.

In his late teens, he played at inside-left for Bohemians, and on the first team in the 1897-1898 season, when Oliver St John Gogarty played at outside-left. They were on the Bohemians team that won the 1897-1898 Leinster Senior Cup final, defeating Shelbourne 3-1 and progressing to the semi-finals of the Irish Cup.

He played again for Bohemians in the following season, one again the winning team in the Leinster Senior Cup final and reaching the Irish Cup semi-final. In the 18 games he played that season, he scored 21 goals.

In 1899-1900, Bohemians got to the Irish Cup final against Cliftonville after John Curtis scored a vital goal in the semi-final against Belfast Celtic in the Jones Road sports ground, now better known as Croke Park. Bohemians lost that final 2-1 in Grosvenor Park in Belfast.

The closest John Curtis came to an international cap was representing Leinster in an inter-provincial game against Ulster. At TCD, he also played both soccer and rugby for Trinity College Dublin.

He was ordained deacon by Archbishop Peacocke in 1903 and priest in 1904, serving first as a curate in Christ Church, Leeson Park. By then, his two younger brothers, Edward (Ned) and Harry, were both playing for Bohemians.

After three years as a curate in Leeson Park, John Curtis volunteered for missionary work with what is now the Dublin University Far East Mission (DUFEM) in China. He arrived in Fujian in south-west China 1906 and worked first in Fujian (1906-1928), and later as Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang) until 1950.

He married a fellow missionary, Dr Eda Stanely Bryan-Brown, in Funing 1914. World War I broke out a few weeks later, and in 1916 John returned to Europe and became an army chaplain in Egypt, East Africa and Macedonia in northern Greece, where he was chaplain in Thessaloniki with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Coincidentally, his brother Harry was an officer in Thessaloniki at the same time.

John and Eda returned to China in 1919. At one stage, he wrote with insight from Funing: ‘The situation out here politically is more and more perplexing. It seems as if we are drifting nearer and nearer to some sort of a “Red China”.’

Undaunted, he stayed on in the region until 1926. The Diocese of Zhejiang (Chekiang) became vacant with the retirement of the Dublin-born Bishop Herbert James Molony (1865-1939), and John Curtis was elected the new Bishop of Zhejiang.

When he was consecrated in 1929, he was the first foreign-born bishop of the Anglican Church in China (CHSKH, Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, literally the Holy Catholic Church of China) to be consecrated in China. His consecrating bishops included his predecessor, Bishop Molony, and the Chinese-born Assistant Bishop of Zhejiang (Chekiang), TS Sing. The other consecrating bishops included the Bishop in North China, FL Norris, an SPG missionary, and the Bishop in Shantung, Thomas Arnold Scott.

As Bishop of Zhejiang, John Curtis lived in Hangzhou, once described by Marco Polo as ‘the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world.’ The diocese covered 36,680 square miles, and by 1950 had a population of 23 million, of whom 11,574 were Anglicans.

The diocese was divided into three areas: Ningbo (Ningpo), Linhai (Taichow) and Hangzhou (Hangchow), where he lived. In addition, a special commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury extended Bishop Curtis’s jurisdiction to the 3,000 Anglicans in the so-called ‘English congregations in Shanghai, including Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai.’

In his first years in office, Curtis worked on bravely despite banditry, civil war and famine throughout his diocese. ‘In his long journeys about his diocese, mainly on foot, he was a hard man to follow,’ the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, later recalled. ‘In a New Year’s sermon in the cathedral, with an unconscious Irishness, he urged us to “advance in all directions”.’

During his time, there was real growth in Sunday schools and in the work of women missionaries. After 25 years of separate existence, the Chinese CMS was incorporated into the Zhejiang diocesan board of missions in 1930, making mission an integral part of the life and work of the diocese.

With the advance of the Japanese invading forces, large areas of the diocese came under Japanese control, schools were closed, and ordination candidates were sent out of the diocese to Nanjing. On Christmas Day 1937, 90,000 Japanese troops entered Hangzhou. As living conditions deteriorated, Curtis constantly visited the hospitals, medical camps and refugees, his overcoat pockets bulging with bottles of milk for the children. On what he called his ‘milk rounds,’ he also shepherded large numbers of frightened women and children to the safety of the refugee camps.

By June 1938, only three districts of diocese remained outside Japanese control. But Curtis spent six weeks touring the whole diocese that autumn. By 1940, the number of baptised Anglicans in the Diocese of Zhejiang was 12,000 – more than double the number in 1920. However, in September 1942 all the missionaries were called in for questioning. Curtis was arrested in November and taken to the Haipong Road Camp in Shanghai and then held in Stanley Camp, Hong Kong. On one occasion, the Japanese threatened to shoot him if he continued to criticise their treatment of his fellow prisoners, but it was said that in internment he was a great asset to the morale of the camp.

After World War II, some Irish Anglican missionaries began to return to China, but Curtis reported: ‘We are further away from self-help now than when I came here 17 years ago.’ At the end of his career, he appeared depressed about the prospects of the Chinese church surviving on its own. Yet he agreed it could be said ‘we are passing from mission relationships to Church relationships.’

Eventually, John and Eda were forced to leave China for the last time in 1950. They moved to England, and he became the vicar of Wilden in Worcestershire. They eventually retired to Leamington in 1957.

John died suddenly on 11 July 1962 at the age of 82, and Eda died 18 months later. In an obituary in the Church Times, a former Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, wrote of him: ‘He was a faithful father in God, a wise counsellor and a sympathetic friend … memories of him we shall treasure, and lives shaped by his influence and example will carry on God’s work which he loved and made so attractive by his own life and ministry.’

A CMS missionary in China at the time, WRO Taylor, recalled Curtis as a bishop with ‘distinctively Irish gifts’ that were valued in non-Anglican ecumenical circles which had little use for bishops.

John and Eda Curtis were the parents of two sons, John Guy Curtis (1919) and Arthur Bryan Curtis (1924), and a daughter Joan. The eldest son John died in a flying accident in January 1943. He was an RAF pilot and was only 23. Their daughter Joan married and moved to Sligo.

Their surviving son, Arthur Bryan Curtis, studied at Oxford and served in World War II. Arthur played rugby for Oxford University and London Irish, and in 1950 won three Irish international caps as a flanker. He later became a headmaster in Zimbabwe.

Arthur’s son, David Curtis played cricket for Oxford and also played Rugby for Ireland, winning 13 caps and appearing as a centre during the 1991 Rugby World Cup. Continuing a family tradition, David’s sons Angus and Graham are playing Rugby with Ulster and Angus has been capped for Ireland at under-20 level.

Many years after the Curtis family had left Clarendon, the house on Terenure Road East was the home of Colonel Charlie Russell, a combat pilot with the RAF in World War I who became the founder of Aer Lingus.

The year 1934 brought triumph and tragedy to the Russell family. In May that year, Colonel Russell outlined the plans for a new national airline. But four months later, Russell witnessed the death of his nephew, Captain Arthur Russell, in a plane crash in front of Clarendon.

Arthur Russell, who had followed in his uncle’s footsteps as a pilot, had taken an Irish Air Corps Fairey plane up from Baldonnell and was trying to impress his uncle by buzzing his house. But he flew too low, and collided with the top of a tree right opposite Clarendon. Colonel Russell stepped outside just in time to see his nephew’s plane explode in flames. Arthur was killed instantly.

Bishop John Curtis, an Irish missionary bishop in China

Dublin’s Unitarian Church,
a modern Gothic church on
a narrow street frontage

The Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, was designed by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon and opened in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I received a request earlier this week to use my photograph of the Wilson window in the Unitarian Church in Dublin on a local history site in Stillorgan.

So, on my way to the book launch for Marriage and the Irish in Dublin on Tuesday evening, I revisited the Unitarian Church on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green.

This is Dublin’s only Unitarian Church and first opened its doors 156 years ago, on Sunday 14 June 1863. The church was designed in the Decorative Gothic style – the style rejected by Newman for the nearby University Church, on the south side of the Green – by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast between 1861 and 1863.

The church traces its story to earlier Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, Dissenting and Unitarian congregations in Strand Street and Eustace Street, dating back to the 17th century Puritans.

Thomas Emlyn (1663-1741), the first English preacher to describe himself as a ‘Unitarian,’ spent some time in prison in Dublin in 1701-1702, and was visited there by Edward Wetenhall (1636-1713), Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, who was born in Lichfield.

John Abernethy became minister of the Wood Street congregation, in the Aungier Street area of Dublin, in 1730. His refusal in 1726 to subscribe to the Calvinist Westminster Confession led to the formation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Joseph Priestley, the scientist and ‘discoverer’ of oxygen, was the organiser of modern Unitarianism in England, although not before the Revd Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, Yorkshire, left the Church of England to found the first avowed Unitarian congregation in Essex Street, near the Strand in London in 1774.

Meanwhile, the Wood Street congregation was joined in 1762 by the Dissenters of Mary’s Abbey. Together they would move to Great Strand Street where a new meeting house was opened in 1764 and where they were joined by the Cook Street congregation in 1787.

The Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green owes its existence to the generosity of Thomas Wilson, a wealthy ship-owner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The present church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, owes its existence to Thomas Wilson, a wealthy ship-owner and member of the Strand Street congregation. His father, Joseph Wilson, was George Washington’s aide-de-camp and later the first US consul in Dublin.

Thomas Wilson of Temple Street, Dublin, built Westbury in Stillorgan on the site of an older house. He was the senior partner in Joseph Wilson, Son, and was appointed the US Consul in Dublin in 1827. Wilson was a member of the Ouzel Galley Society, a trustee of the Royal Exchange, a director of the National Assurance Company of Ireland, and a governor of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. He also served as a director and Governor of the Bank of Ireland.

Thomas Wilson died on 5 October 1857 at the age of 69 at Westbury. Although a member of the Strand Street congregation, he was buried at Saint Mary’s Church. His will is dated 15 April 1857 and he left a personal estate valued at £450,000. He left £2,300 to the Strand Street congregation towards building a new church in Dublin.

A site was bought on Saint Stephen’s Green and an architectural competition in 1861 to find a design for the new church was won by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon, whose other works in Dublin include Sanford Parish Church in Ranelagh (1860) and Saint Andrew’s Church (Church of Ireland), ‘an ambitious Gothic church’ also built on a cramped site (1861).

The Unitarian Church is one of the best examples of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Unitarian Church is a delightful building in the Decorated Gothic style, and one of the best examples of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.

A century before the church was built, the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was known as French Walk, because of the many Huguenots who owned property there. The church site was previously occupied by the Synges, a prominent church family who provided five bishops to the Church of Ireland.

The site for the church was 60 ft wide, and none of the internal corners of the building is at right angles to the other as the existing houses on either side were at an angle to the street. The top of the spire is 97 ft from the street, while the main body of the church is 58 ft long and 46 ft wide.

The external walls are of squared granite rubble, and the decorative portions, both external and internal, are of Bath stone from the Box quarries in England.

Gothic decoration on the façade of the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Initially, this looks almost like an Anglo-Catholic church of the period, and – surprisingly, for a non-conformist church – the emphasis in the interior is not on the pulpit, which is to one side of the reredos and table.

On entering, the eye immediately focuses on the reredos, which is on the geographical north side rather than the east side of the church. But there are no images on the reredos – instead it is inscribed with the Beatitudes as a memorial to Sir Andrew Marshall Porter (1837-1919) of Merrion Square, Attorney-General of Ireland.

There is no altar or holy table beneath it, merely a simple, low, long table that might have come from a large and drafty reception room.

‘Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ ... the pulpit in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The pulpit bears in raised, gilt letters the Johannine text: ‘Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’

The reredos and the Wilson Memorial Window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Above the table and reredos, the Wilson Memorial Window is the most impressive part of the interior decoration of the church. This window is one of the first pieces attributed to the revival of the Irish stained-glass industry in the early 20th century.

The window, dedicated on 23 June 1918, features the themes of Discovery, Truth, Inspiration, Love and Work. Christ is the main figure in the window, and the lower parts include images of Christopher Columbus (Discovery), Martin Luther (Truth), the young Christ in the Temple (Inspiration), Florence Nightingale (Love) and William Caxton (Work).

The window was designed by AE Child and is the work of Sarah Purser’s An Túr Gloine or The Tower of Glass studio.

William Caxton in the Wilson Memorial Window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church has a wealth of French, Flemish and English stained glass. The earliest windows were designed by the Lobin studio of Tours and date from 1865-1868.

Biblical themes in the windows include Palm Sunday (Lobin), ‘Suffer the Little Children to come unto me’ (Lobin), ‘Blessed are the Pure in Heart for they shall see God’ (1891, no signature) and the ‘Good Samaritan’ (by Ethel Rhind).

More recent stained glass windows are by Michael Healy and Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine.

Gospel scenes in the stained glass windows in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The decorative work on the capitals of the main pillars supporting the four internal arches represents different types of leaves. The decorative, carved angels below the corbelled bases of the main roof trusses and at the top of each pillar represent the ‘whole armour of God’:

‘Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6: 14-17).

An angel holding the ‘sword of the Spirit’ in one hand, and ‘the word of God,’ represented by the Bible, in the other (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The angel on the south-east corner is putting on a girdle, the ‘girdle of truth.’

The angel on the south-west corner is putting on a helmet representing the ‘helmet of salvation.’

The angel on the north-west corner is holding the ‘shield of faith’ on which ‘all the flaming arrows of the evil one’ can be seen breaking up in pieces.

Finally, the angel on the north-east corner holds the ‘sword of the Spirit’ in one hand, and ‘the word of God,’ represented by the Bible in the other.

The original organ was installed in the gallery, but after a fire in 1910 the Walker Organ was bought in 1911 and installed against the south wall where it is today.

Paddy McElroy’s sculpture in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the east wall of the church, beneath the gallery that once housed the original organ, is a sculpture by the sculptor, Paddy McElroy, a member of the congregation. It is a work in forged steel, cast bronze, copper and hot-fused glass, illustrating many aspects of Unitarian thinking, and with symbols representing the major world religions. A centre-piece by the glass artist Killian Schurman represents the embryo of life or all beginnings.

Paddy McElroy’s other commissions included work for the basilicas in Knock and on Lough Derg. He died in 2007.

The church basement housed the Damer School which provided education for the Unitarian population and also for many Jewish children. It closed in June 1954. The Damer Hall, as it became known, hosted a professional and amateur Irish-language theatre from 1955 until the late 1970s. The world premiere of Brendan Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage) was staged there in 1957.

In 2003, the church launched a multi-phase restoration project at an estimated total cost of €1.5 million to clean and restore the external stonework, re-slate the roof, clean and weather-proof the stained glass windows and rewire the building.

This project has since been extended to provide disabled access and renovate the pipe organ, built against the south wall by JW Walker and Sons in 1911.

At first, this looks almost like an Anglo-Catholic church of the period (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Unitarian Church on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was described in Lynn’s obituary as ‘the best example extant of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.’

I have been involved in memorial services in the Unitarian Church in Dublin for deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times, and was invited to preach there on in 2013.

Every time I have visited this church, I have admired the this delightful Decorated Gothic building. But, reflecting on the Christian and Biblical imagery in the windows, carvings, pulpit, pews, memorials and organ, it is hard to grasp how this congregation has moved so far from the Christian roots of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and the Puritans before them to whom they owe their origins.

The Dublin Unitarian Church has links with the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the UK and with the Unitarian Universalist Church in the US, as well as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The present minister is the Revd Bridget Spain.

The church notice board on Saint Stephen’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)