Bishop of Debra, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, author of spiritual and controversial works (1691-1781)
Challoner, RICHARD, Bishop of Debra, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, author of spiritual and controversial works, b. September 29, 1691; d. January 12, 1781. This prelate, who, during the greater part of the eighteenth century, was to be the leading figure of English Catholicism, was not born of Catholic parents, but was the son of a Presbyterian wine-cooper of Lewes, Sussex, England. After his father’s death his mother became housekeeper to the Catholic family of Gage, at Firle in Sussex. It is not known whether she was already a Catholic, or whether she was converted as a consequence of her new surroundings, but her boy was not received into the Church till he was about thirteen years old. This was at Warkworth, in Northamptonshire, the seat of another well-known Catholic family, that of Holman. Lady Anastasia Holman, wife of George Holman, Esq., was a daughter of the martyred Viscount Stafford, and their chaplain, the well-known controversial writer, John Gother, instructed Richard Challoner in Catholic doctrine, and procured for him a nomination to a foundation at Douai College. The boy entered college on July 29, 1705 (Dicconson’s Diary), and spent the next twenty-five years there, first as student, then as professor, and as vice-president. His abilities enabled him to complete the usual twelve years’ course in eight years, and in 1708 he took the college oath, binding himself to return to England, when required, to labor on the mission. At the age of twenty-one he was chosen to teach the classes of rhetoric and poetry, which were the two senior classes in “humanities”; and a year later his success as a teacher justified his appointment as professor of philosophy, a post which he held for eight years. Ordained priest March 28, 1716, he graduated Bachelor in Divinity of the University of Douai in 1719, and in the following year was chosen by the president, Dr. Witham, to be his vice-president, an office which involved the supervision of both professors and students. At the same time he was appointed professor of theology and prefect of studies, so that he had the direction of the whole course of studies.
His success as a teacher was probably due rather to his untiring industry and devotion to his work than to any extraordinary mental power, for he was never an original thinker, but his gift lay in enforcing the spiritual reality of the doctrines he was expounding. His fervent piety was his chief characteristic, and this appears even in his controversial works. In 1727 he defended his public thesis and obtained the degree of Doctor in Divinity. In 1728 he published his first work, the little book of meditations so well known under the quaint title of “Think Well on’t”. He had long desired, however, to leave the college and to take up the harder work of the mission, and in 1730 he was at last allowed to return to London, where he threw himself with zeal into the laborious work of the ministry. Though the penal laws were no longer enforced with extreme severity, the life of the Catholic priest was still a hard one. Disguised as a layman, Dr. Challoner ministered to the small number of Catholics, celebrating Mass secretly in obscure ale-houses, cockpits, and wherever small gatherings could assemble without exciting remark. He was an untiring worker, and in the poorest quarters of the town, in the prisons and sponging-houses, he sought out souls to save. In his spare time he gave himself to study and writing, and was thus able to produce several works of instruction and controversy. One of these, “The Catholic Christian instructed in the Sacraments, Sacrifice and Ceremonies of the Church”, led to trouble, for in the preface he assailed a recent work of Dr. Conyers Middleton, an Anglican divine, who had attacked the Church. This gentleman so resented Dr. Challoner’s reply that he set the law in motion against him, and it was thought prudent for him to leave England for a time and retire again to Douai. This was in 1738, the year in which the able president of Douai, Dr. Witham, died, and strenuous efforts were made by the superiors of the college to have Dr. Challoner appointed president. But Dr. Petre, the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, opposed this on the ground that he desired to have him as his own coadjutor bishop. Propaganda had apparently already arranged Challoner’s appointment as president of Douai, but the representations of Dr. Petre were so strong that he prevailed, and Briefs were issued on September 12, 1739, appointing Challoner to the See of Debra in partibus.
These Briefs, however, were not carried into effect, for the bishop-elect, endeavoring to escape the responsibility of the episcopate, raised the point that he had been born and brought up a Protestant. The delay so caused lasted a whole year, and it was not till November 24, 1740, that the new Briefs were issued. The consecration took place on January 29, 1741, in the private chapel at Hammersmith. The new bishop’s first work was a visitation of the district, the first methodical visitation of which there is any record since the creation of the vicariate in 1688. The district included ten counties, besides the Channel Islands and the British possessions in America—chiefly Maryland and Pennsylvania and some West Indian islands. The missions beyond seas could not be visited at all, and even the home counties took nearly three years. In the intervals of his travels the bishop was engaged in writing. In 1740 he brought out a new prayer book for the laity, the “Garden of the Soul”, which has ever since remained the favorite work of devotion, though the many editions that have since appeared have been so altered that little of the original work remains. Next, finding that the sufferings of the English martyrs were in danger of being forgotten, he published in two volumes, “Memoirs of Missionary Priests”, in which he gives an account of the martyrs from 1577 to 1681. This work, laboriously compiled from original records, has been the chief means of perpetuating the tradition of the English martyrs and remains the standard work on the subject. In 1745 he produced his longest and most learned book, “Britannia Sancta”, containing the lives of the British, English, Scottish, and Irish saints. Another work to which he devoted much energy and time was the preparation of a revised edition of the Douay Bible and Reims New Testament. The chief points to note in his edition are the elimination of the obscure and literal translations from the Latin in which the original version abounds, the alteration of obsolete words, a closer approximation in some respects to the Anglican version, as, for instance, in the substitution of “The Lord” for “Our Lord”, and finally the printing of the verses separately. The first edition of the New Testament appeared in 1749, the second, together with the first edition of the Old Testament, in 1750. Between these two editions there are but few differences, but the third edition, published in 1752, had important changes both in text and notes, the variations numbering over two thousand. Dr. Challoner’s Bible has been the groundwork of nearly all subsequent English versions. An American edition was published in Philadelphia in 1805.
In 1753 Dr. Challoner brought out another of his best-known works, the popular “Meditations for every Day in the Year”, a book which has passed through numerous editions and been translated into French and Italian. In the same year Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the long disputes that had been carried on between the secular clergy and the regulars, in the last stages of which Dr. Challoner took a leading part. There were several points at issue, but the matter was brought to a head over the contention put forward by the regulars, that they did not need the approbation of the vicars Apostolic to hear confessions. The bishops opposed this and, after a struggle lasting for several years, obtained a final settlement of this and other questions, a settlement, in the main, satisfactory to the bishops. In 1758 Dr. Petre, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, died, and Dr. Challoner, as his coadjutor, succeeded him at once. He was, however, nearly seventy years old, and was so ill that he was forced immediately to apply for a coadjutor. The Holy See appointed the Hon. and Rev. James Talbot to this office, and with the help of the younger prelate, whose assistance considerably lessened his labor, his health somewhat recovered. But from this time he lived almost entirely in London, the visitations being carried out by Dr. Talbot. He continued to write, and almost every year published a new book, but they were more usually translations or abstracts, such as “The Historical Part of the Old and New Testament”. One more work of original value remained, and that was his little “British Martyrology” published in 1761.
As an administrator he was always unfailing in supplying deficiencies in the face of extraordinary difficulties. He had already provided for his people a suitable prayer book and meditation book, as well as convenient editions of the Holy Scriptures, the “Imitation of Christ”, and the catechism of Christian Doctrine. But, besides this literary work, he caused two schools for boys to be opened, one at Standen Lordship, now represented by St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, and the other at Sedgley Park, in Staffordshire. He also founded a school for poor girls at Brook Green, Hammersmith, besides assisting the already existing convent school there. He also instituted conferences among the London clergy, and he was instrumental in founding the still-existing “Benevolent Society for the Relief of the Aged and Infirm Poor”. His manifold activity is the more remarkable because his life was spent in hiding, owing to the state of the law, and often he had hurriedly to change his lodgings to escape the Protestant informers, who were anxious to earn the government reward of £100 for the conviction of a priest. One of these, John Payne, known as “The Protestant Carpenter”, indicted Dr. Challoner, but was compelled to drop the proceedings, owing to some documents, which he had forged, falling into the hands of the bishop’s lawyers. For some years he and the London priests were continually harassed in this way. Finally the evil was remedied by the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, by which priests were no longer liable to imprisonment for life. This concession, slight as it was, speedily kindled a fierce blaze of bigotry, and two years later the Gordon Riots broke out. The chapels and houses of Catholics were wrecked and plundered by frenzied mobs. From his hiding-place the bishop, now nearly ninety years of age, could hear the howls of the mob, who were searching for him with the intention of dragging him through the streets. They failed to find his refuge, and on the following day he escaped to Finchley, where he remained till the riots came to an end. But he never fully recovered from the shock. Six months later he was seized with paralysis, and died after two days’ illness. He was buried in the vault of his friend Bryan Barrett, at Milton in Berkshire.
His private life was marked by extraordinary mortification, while large charity passed through his hands. He had the gift of prayer in a marked degree, and on two occasions at least he spoke prophetic words, which later events verified. For these reasons, as much as for the office he held so long, his name has ever been held in singular veneration by English Catholics. The portrait which formerly hung in his own house is now preserved, with his cassock and other relics, at St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, England. Besides the works mentioned above, Dr. Challoner’s other writings were: “Grounds of Catholic Doctrine” (1732); “Unerring Authority of the Catholic Church” (1732); “Short History of the Protestant Religion” (1733); “A Roman Catholick’s Reasons why He cannot Conform” (1734); “The Touchstone of the New Religion” (1734); “The Young Gentleman Instructed in the Grounds of the Christian Religion” (1735); “A Specimen of the Spirit of the Dissenting Teachers” (1736); “The Catholic Christian Instructed” (1737); “Rheims Testament”, ed. with F. Blyth (1738); translation of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” (1740?); “The Grounds of the Old Religion” (1742); “A Letter to a Friend concerning the Infallibility of the Church” (1743); “A Papist Misrepresented and Represented”, abridged from Gother; “Remarks on Two Letters against Popery” (1751); “Instructions for the Jubilee” (1751); “The Wonders of God in the Wilderness: Lives of the Fathers of the Deserts” (1755); “The Life of St. Teresa”, abridged from Woodhead (1757); “Manual of Prayers” (1758); “A Caveat against the Methodists” (1760); “The City of God of the New Testament” (1760); “The Morality of the Bible” (1762); “Devotion of Catholics to the Blessed Virgin” (1764); “Rules of Life for a Christian” (1766). He also issued some minor works in the nature of tracts and pastoral letters. A complete life of Bishop Challoner is nearing completion (1907).