29 March 2023

Revd Cyril Howard Stenson,
a curate in Stony Stratford
and a Benedictine monk

No 12 Market Square, Stony Stratford … the Revd Cyril Howard Stenson lived here while he was a curate at Saint Giles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two graduates of Keble College, Oxford, were interesting and controversial priests in the two Church of England parishes in Stony Stratford over a century ago. One arrived in Stony Stratford as the other left, and both are remembered for their role in liturgical controversies that drove them into the Roman Catholic Church.

The Revd Cyril Howard Stenson (1885-1943) arrived in Stony Stratford in 1909 as the Revd Henry Long’s curate at Saint Giles. That same year, the Revd Oliver Partridge Henly (1861-1934) was forced out of office as the Vicar of Wolverton Saint Mary the Virgin, on London Road, after 12 years of controversial ministry in the parish. Stenson too would leave Stony Stratford within a few short years, and both Henly and Stenson ended their days as Roman Catholics.

Parish and church life were healthy and thriving in Wolverton, Stony Stratford and Calverton at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The arrival of the railway and the building of a new tram line brought prosperity to this part of north Buckinghamshire, and the foundations had been laid for a vibrant church life among the growing populations, with new churches and new schools, new rectories and the refurbishment and rebuilding of the older churches.

But when the appointment by the Radcliffe Trustees of the Revd Oliver Partridge Henly as the Vicar of Saint Mary Wolverton in 1897 opened a decade of church controversy in Stony Stratford.

Henly’s Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices eventually landed him, not once but twice, in the ecclesiastical courts, and he was eventually removed from office by the Bishop of Oxford, Francis Paget (1851-1911), in 1909.

When Bishop Paget came to Stony Stratford to take the Sunday services in Wolverton Saint Mary’s, Henly took his followers down the High Street in Stony Stratford to Saint Giles’ Church, where the new curate was the Revd Cyril Howard Stenson.

Henly eventually joined the Roman Catholic Church, and was followed some years many years later by Stenson, who joined the Benedictines at Prinknash Abbey and became Dom Columba OSB. I wrote about Henly yesterday. But who was Stenson?

Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, in Passion-tide array this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Revd Cyril Howard Stenson (1885-1943) was born in what was then the Orange Free State in South Africa on 9 December 1885, into a strongly clerical family, and was the sixth or seventh generation in the Stenson family to be ordained an Anglican priest.

The Stenson family had deep roots for many generations in Co Limerick, Co Clare and Co Kerry, and I was particularly interested to find that Cyril Stenson’s great-grandfather, the Revd John Ormsby Stenson (1810-1870), was one of my predecessors Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (1866-1867), where I was the priest-in-charge until I retired on 31 March 2022.

Cyril Stenson’s grandfather, the Revd Edmund William Stenson (1831-1900), was born in Limerick on 24 July 1833, and educated at Trinity College Dublin. He moved to South Africa in the 1850s, and married Adelaide Manley (1833-1888) in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in 1854. He was ordained priest in 1873, and became the first Rector of Saint Mary’s, Barkly West. He later moved to England and died in Stewkley, near Winslow in Buckinghamshire, on 3 November 1908.

Leslie and Crook, in their succession lists of clergy in the Diocese of Limerick, are mistaken when they suggest the Revd Edmund William Stenson and the Revd John William Stenson were one and the same person.

Cyril Stenson’s great-grandfather, the Revd John Ormsby Stenson (1810-1870), was brought up in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, and was admitted to Trinity College Dublin in his mid-30s in 1844, but was in his mid-40s when he graduated BA in 1855. He was a curate in Kilpeacon (1856), Athea (1860), Clonelty (1861-1870) and Askeaton (1866-1867).

Cyril Stenson’s father, the Revd John William Stenson (1855-1908), was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Bloemfontein in 1879 and priest in 1882. He was a missionary with the Anglican mission agency SPG (now USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel) in Southern Africa, working in the dioceses of Bloemfontein and Kimberley. He returned to England about the same time as his mother Adelaide died in 1888. He was living in Becon in 1888 and in Saint Giles, Oxford, in 1901, and was the SPG Deputy Secretary in 1888-1890 and 1902-1905. He died in Sussex in January 1908.

Dom Columba Stenson (centre back row), behind the Prior of Prinknash Abbey, Father Sharpe, and group of visitors (Photograph courtesy Peckhams of Stroud)

John William Stenson’s son, Cyril Howard Stenson, was educated Keble College, Oxford, which was built in 1870 as a memorial to the Revd John Keble, one of the founding figures in the Oxford Movement. Students at Keble College often came from church families and many of them were High Church students.

Stenson graduated BA in 1908, and was ordained by Francis Paget, Bishop of Oxford, in 1909, when he was appointed the Revd Henry Last’s curate at Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford.

At Stony Stratford, Stenson lived at 12 Market Square, across the square from Saint Giles Church. His sister, Sister Mary Adelaide Sarah (Maisie) Stenson (1888-1944) was an Anglican nun with the Sisters of Mercy in Oxford.

But four years after his colleague, the Revd Oliver Henly, left Stony Stratford and became a Roman Catholic, Stenson too joined the Roman Catholic Church and became then a Benedictine monk first at Caldey Abbey and then at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire.

Dom Columba Stenson died at Prinknash Abbey on 1 January 1943. When Saint Mary Magdalene Roman Catholic Church was built in Stony Stratford, the original altar and the Crucifix above it were given as a memorial to Father Oliver Henly and Dom Columba Stenson, two former Anglican priests in Stony Stratford.

The original altar and the Crucifix in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Stony Stratford, were given memorials to Father Oliver Henly and Dom Columba Stenson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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