Thursday, 2 February 2017

Miracles on Elm Street?

The Curious History of Father Ignatius 1837 - 1908

By Nick Williams 
From Norwich Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust:

The plaque on the site of the short-lived Benedictine monastery

Joseph Leycester Lyne, later known as Father Ignatius, was one of the more colourful and controversial characters in the history of Norwich. A preacher and mystic he established a Benedictine monastery in Elm Hill in 1863. Within 3 years it had been closed amidst accusations of fraud and allegations of degenerate behaviour.

A fragile child

Born in London, one of seven children, Lyne was a fragile child who suffered ill health for most of his life, suffering repeated nervous breakdowns and bouts of what appears to have been nervous exhaustion. At school he was known by his fellows as 'saintly Lyne' but he appears to have had a mental strength and a precocious interest in spiritual matters. Whilst at St Pauls school he suffered a severe beating at the hands of 'an elderly clerical pedagoge' which resulted in a nervous breakdown with the perpetrator being dismissed from his teaching post by the school.

In 1856 he was accepted as a divinity student by Trinity College at Glenalmond in Scotland - the fees apparently paid by a female admirer after the refusal of his father to find the money. After leaving the college due to illness he subsequently held positions in churches in Scotland and Plymouth where he founded a monastic order known as 'the Society of the Love of Jesus' headed by himself with the title of Father Joseph. His behaviour brought him into conflict with the established church and with some of the parishioners. His stay at Plymouth ended following another bout of illness.

Following his recovery Lyne spent 9 months in 1862 at a church serving a poor area of east London. By now he had begun wearing a monk's habit and that along with his evangelical zeal, attracted opposition and support in equal measure. During his short stay in the east end there is a report of him confronting the customers of a rowdy public house declaring that 'We must all appear before the Judgement Seat of Christ'.

In 1862 he moved to Claydon, near Ipswich, where he established a Benedictine community in an unused wing of the rectory. The arrival of Lyne, now calling himself Father Ignatius, along with his preaching and proselytising provoked strong local reaction - including threats of violence. Within a few months of arriving at Claydon Father Ignatius was asked by the rector to leave.

The Elm Hill monastery

His next venture was the establishment of a Benedictine community as a monastery in Norwich later in 1862. They occupied a property on Elm Hill, described as being in poor condition and requiring much work to make it habitable; the building, number 14 Elm Hilll still stands. It was brought with the proceeds of a speaking tour throughout England and Wales undertaken by Ignatius. The house was purchased for £500, with a deposit of £50 being paid and the balance to be paid off in small instalments. The house became known as the Priory of St Mary and St Dunstan and opened in January 1863 when it accommodated Ignatius, one of his colleagues and a dog. Money being short, they apparently existed on a diet of bread and potatoes at first.

The preaching of Father Ignatius soon attracted support and donations to keep fed and clothe him and his colleagues. He also attracted opposition - particularly when he and his supporters processed to hold mass at the church of St Laurence on St Benedicts Street. Services at the monastery suffered from interruption from anti-Catholic elements. His stay in Norwich saw the attribution of miracles to him - reportedly including the curing of an epileptic, the ending of toothache and insomnia in a sufferer and the restoration of hair to a young boy. There was a less benevolent side to these 'miraculous events' as they also included the sudden and unexplained death of a woman who had blasphemed Father Ignatius as he passed by in the street.

The Benedictine community in Elm Hill continued to attract support - holding a parade through Norwich on Ascension Day in 1864 followed by a service on St Andrews Plain and a pilgrimage of some 400 people to Walstons Well outside Norwich. Work began on a new church building to hold these worshippers. This building became known as the Monastery Hall and exists today, standing between the Norwich School of Art & Design and the Monastery car park.

The Norwich Scandal

This progress was not to be maintained. In 1865 there were newspaper reports of a 'Norwich Scandal' featuring an inappropriate relationship between a novice monk and a young boy in the care of the monastery. There was further unfavourable publicity following an internal dispute about leadership of the monastery. Finally, in the spring of 1866, a disagreement over ownership of the monastery buildings saw the monastic community dispersed and the buildings sold, much to the chagrin of Father Ignatius who spent the next 12 years in a fruitless legal action to regain ownership. He also took more direct action, twice taking possession of the building, once gaining access by what he described as 'miraculous intervention'. But his actions proved fruitless as he was ejected on both occasions.

Door to the old monastery at 14 Elm Hill

He clearly retained some support in Norwich and returned to speak on several occasions - in March 1890 holding a mission service at the Agricultural Hall before preaching to 'a crowded congregation at the Church of St John de Sepulchre' in Ber Street. His last recorded public appearance in the city was in March of 1894 when he spoke to 'a crowded audience' at the Agricultural Hall.

Llanthony Abbey

Father Ignatius moved to London where, with the help of his female supporters, he established another Benedictine monastery in a house at Laleham, near Staines. Within 3 years, in 1869, he had bought land in south Wales where he built Llanthony Abbey - paid for by his supporters and the proceeds of his speaking tours.

He continued to attract controversy during his time at Llanthony until his death on October 1908. He was buried in the abbey grounds. The monastery remained open for only a short time after his death and subsequently fell into disrepair.

Only wondering why such a man and his strange ministry is commemorated in Norwich.  Perhaps as the shortest-lived monastery ever?  But I'm glad he is remembered, it's a good story.   

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