Birdsall, John Augustine (DNB00)

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BIRDSALL, JOHN AUGUSTINE (1775–1837), president-general of the Benedictines in England, was born at Liverpool 27 June 1775. His father, a well-to-do grocer, sent him at an early age to the Dominican College of Bornhem in Flanders. He entered himself among the Benedictines at Lamspringe in Hanover in October 1795. He was there admitted to his solemn profession 6 Nov. 1796. On 30 May 1801 he was ordained priest at Hildesheim in Westphalia. During September 1802 he was appointed prefect of the students at Lamspringe, where Peter Baines [q. v.], afterwards bishop was one of his pupil's. On the suppression of the abbey of Lamspringe by the Prussians, 3 Jan. 1803, Father Birdsall had to return hurriedly to England. After remaining for a while at St. Lawrence's College, Ampleforth, he was sent on the mission in the south, or, as it was still called, the Canterbury province of the Benedictine order in this country. On 30 May 1806 he arrived at Bath, whither he had been despatched to assist the incumbent of St. John the Evangelist, where the Benedictines had long been established. In October 1809 he left, in order to establish a new mission at Cheltenham, and on 3 June 1810 opened the first catholic chapel known there since the Reformation. A French refugee, the Abbé Alexandre Cæsar, who had been saying mass on Sundays and holy days in the back room of a low public house, died in his eightieth year on 24 Sept. 1811. Many obstacles to the foundation of the mission were overcome by the untiring zeal of Father Birdsall. He remained in active charge of the mission for twenty-five years altogether. Twenty years after his arrival in Cheltenham he established a new mission at Broadway, in Worcestershire. On 15 May 1828 he began there the new chapel of St. Saviour's Retreat. That mission in its completed form was publicly inaugurated in 1830, as an appendage to its founder's principal enterprise at Cheltenham. Four years afterwards, however, when he had at length succeeded in establishing at Broadway, in due collegiate organisation, something like his old community of Lamspringe, he withdrew altogether from Cheltenham in 1834, settling down thenceforth permanently in his new home, which he loved to call by its old Roman name of Vialta, in Worcestershire, and resided there till his death on 2 Aug. 1837, in the sixty-third year of his age.

Meanwhile he had been steadily advanced in his order as a Benedictine. In 1814 he was appointed one of the detinitors of the southem province in England, and in 1822 was elected the provincial of Canterbury. Re-elected provincial of Canterbury in 1826, Father Birgsall was promoted in the same year to the highest otlice of all within his reach in this country, that, namely, of president-general of the English congregation of the order of St. Benedict. It proved an anxious and painful pre-eminence. It brought him into direct conflict with Bishop Baines, the vicar apostolic of the western district in England, Whom he regarded from the outset as endeavouring to extend beyond due limits his episcopal jurisdiction to the prejudice of the exemptions enioyed by the religious orders. The holy see eventually decided the dispute in favour of the Benedictines. Father Birdsall also saved from extinction the thenceforth flourishing Benedictine college of Ampleforth in Yorkshire.

Father Birdsall was made cathedral prior of Winchester in 1926, and in 1830 abbot of Westminster. His multifarious employments prevented his giving much attention to literary pursuits. Besides an unpublished account of Lamspringe, found among his papers after his death, the only work he is known to have produced was ‘Christian Reflections for Every Day in the Year,' 1822, translated from the ‘Pensées Chrétiennes,' &c., published anonymously at Paris in 1718. and attributed to the Sieur de Sainte-Beuve. Father Birdsall’s mother wit rendered him a delightful as well as a powerful controversialist. He was one of the most valued correspondents of William Cobbett (between 29 Nov. 1824 and 9 July 1827) when the latter was writing his history of the Protestant Reformation. Father Birdsall occasionally in his catechetical instructions enforced his argument by humorous illustrations. 'We catholics are said to be idolaters of images,' he once remarked, adding, as he pointed to two carved angels that flanked the altar-steps of the chapel at Cheltenham: ‘Now I gave 4l. 16s. for those two statues, and if anybody will send me a, five-pound note for the pair I'll let him have them with pleasure. That's how I worship them!’

On 6 Nov. 1877 the homely old chapel built by Father Birdsall at Cheltenham was replaced by the handsome Gothic church of St. Gregory; while on 7 Oct. 1850 the last mission established by him at Broadway was given up by the outgoing Benedictines to the Passionists from Woodchester. The tablet erected in his honour at Cheltenham has been removed in the transformation of the chapel, and is no longer discoverable; while the inscription on his tomb at Broadway can only be here and there deciphered.

[Dr. Oliver's Collections illustrating the History of the Catholic Religion in the Counties of Cornwall, &c., 1857, 8vo, pp. 119, 120. and 242; Snow's Necrology of the English Congregation of the Order of St. Benedict from 1600 to 1883, 8vo p. 148.]

C. K.