Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Recently Belmont Abbey held several open days, one of which we attended.  It was on a lovely autumn day that we wended our way to Hereford and the welcoming Benedictine Abbey. 

It was our good fortune to be guided around the Abbey by the inimitable Brother Bernard.  Brother Bernard’s grasp of the Benedictine history and of the history of Belmont is second to none and he imparted much of interest to his attentive hearers.

The Monastery of St Michael and All Angels at Belmont was begun in 1854 as a common novitiate to train young monks for the Abbeys of Downside, Douai and Ampleforth.  Until the foundation of the Cardiff Archdiocese Belmont Abbey served as the Cathedral for the Diocese of Newport and Menevia.  The professed monks were the Canons of the Chapter, making Belmont the only monastic Cathedral in post-Reformation England.  In pre-Reformation times, monastic cathedrals were a special feature of ecclesiastical life in the country.  Many of the great cathedrals, including Canterbury itself, were Benedictine Cathedrals.

 Although St David Lewis, the Last Welsh Martyr, was a Jesuit, he has a strong connection to the Benedictines.   The famous Benedictine writer and mystic, Dom Augustine Baker, was a great uncle of his.

David Baker was born in Abergavenny on 9th December 1575.  He was the nephew and godson of Dr David Lewis, the first principal of Jesus College, Oxford.  In 1596 David went to London’s Inner Temple to study law where he excelled in his studies.  Upon the death of his elder brother, Richard, David was called home to assist his father and David became the Recorder of Abergavenny.  David’s parents may have been Church papists but, by his mid-twenties, David had completely abandoned religion and was an atheist.  After his return to Abergavenny, David had a near death experience which profoundly changed his life and, in 1603, he was received into the Catholic Church.
At the age of thirty David Baker was clothed with the Benedictine Habit at the Abbey of St Justina in Padua.  He was given the name of Augustine.  In 1613 he was ordained priest by Dr Gifford, the Archbishop of Rheims.  Dom Augustine Baker returned to London and took up residence in the lawyers’ district, Grays Inn Lane, where he assisted Catholics in matters of law.  He also undertook research into the English Benedictines.  It had been claimed by some that an English Benedictine Congregation did not exist before the Reformation.  David’s research cost him two years and £200 of his own funds, but it proved the critics wrong.  About 1625 the results of his research were published in the book, “Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia”.   Augustine Baker is probably best remembered for his treatise on the prayer of contemplation, “Sancta Sophia” or “Holy Wisdom”.

Due to the anti-Catholic feelings in England at that time, many priests left for the continent.  Fr Baker went to Douai, in Flanders.  He was appointed Spiritual Director of the English Benedictine Nuns at the Abbey of Our Ladye of Consolation in Douai, (the Nuns of Stanbrook Abbey).  He remained in that post for nine years then returned to London.

Fr Baker maintained at Douai two young men.  One was Philip Morgan, alias Powell, who was martyred in 1646.  The other was his nephew, John Pritchard, who later became a Jesuit.  John Pritchard’s sister, Margaret, married Morgan Lewis, headmaster of Abergavenny Grammar School.  They were the parents of David Lewis, who also became a Jesuit.  During the furore stirred up by the fabricated Oates’ Plot, David Lewis was martyred at Usk in 1679.  In 1620, on his last visit to Abergavenny, Dom Augustine Baker stayed with his sister who was the grandmother of David Lewis.  It was inevitable that he would have met his four year old great nephew. We can only wonder at such a momentous meeting as the great Benedictine, whose motto was “I am nothing.  I have nothing.  I crave nothing, save Jesus” met the future martyr, Saint David Lewis!

David Augustine Baker O S B, whose health was never good, was stricken with the plague and died in London on 9th August 1641.  He was 65 years old.    
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