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)

Praying at the Stations of the Cross in
Lent 2023: 29 March 2023 (Station 4)

‘Jesus meets his Mother’ … Station 4 in the Stations of the Cross in Saint Dunstan and All Saints’ Church, Stepney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

These final weeks in Lent are often known as Passiontide, beginning with last Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (26 March 2023), which is sometimes known as Passion Sunday.

I have a dental appointment later today. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I have been reflecting on words from Samuel Johnson, the Lichfield-born lexicographer and compiler of the first standard Dictionary of the English language. But, in these two weeks of Passiontide, Passion Week and Holy Week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the Stations of the Cross, illustrated by images in Saint Dunstan’s and All Saints’ Church, the Church of England parish church in Stepney, in the East End of London, and the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Francis de Sales in Wolverton, which I visited for the first time last month;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary adapted in the Church of England;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Station 4, Jesus meets his Mother:

The Fourth Station in the Stations of the Cross has a traditional description such as ‘Jesus meets his Mother Mary.’

In the Fourth Station in Stepney, Christ meets his mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple. She reaches out with both hands cautiously and tenderly, her finger tips barely touching the fingers of his left hand, while Saint John clasps his hand to his heart, a sign of his broken-heartedness. They are to remain with Christ throughout his Passion and Death. It is a silent moment of love and pathos.

Behind them, a Roman solider and two other men stop for this moment, the soldier staring at the encounter, the other two almost averting their gaze, although one man also seems to be reaching out to Christ.

The words beneath the scene read: ‘Jesus meets his Mother.’

Saint John is also in the scene in Station 4 in Wolverton, watching on as Christ faces back to see his Mother, Mother and Son gazing into each other’s eyes, as her hands reach out to touch his shoulder and his arms while seem to say nothing. A soldier, instead of looking on, looks ahead – the journey to Calvary continues.

The words beneath the scene read: ‘Mother and Son.’

‘Mother and Son’ … Station 4 in the Stations of the Cross in Saint Francis de Sales Church, Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 8: 31-42 (NRSVA):

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ 33 They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

34 Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38 I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’

39 They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, 40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ 42 Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.’

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Good Neighbours: A View from Sri Lanka.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday morning with an adaptation from Father Rasika Abeysinghe’s contribution to USPG’s Lent Course ‘Who is our neighbour,’ which I have edited for USPG. Father Rasika Abeysinghe is a priest in the Diocese of Kurunagala in the Church of Ceylon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Wednesday 29 March 2023) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for a greater understanding between faiths. May we learn to listen to one another with open hearts and find ways to work together for the common good.

The Collect:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us
that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters
we do also for you:
give us the will to be the servant of others
as you were the servant of all,
and gave up your life and died for us,
but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org