To the younger readers of the Ampleforth Journal Abbot Burge is probably little more than a name, and it is also possible that some among the older ones do not fully realise the very important place he holds in the history of his Alma Mater. But before describing his work a few preliminary dates may be given.
He was born in London in 1846, and after a short period at Dr Crookall’s School at Woolhampton, he came to Ampleforth in 1860. The church was finished and the ‘New’ College was nearing completion. In 1865 he entered the Novitiate at Belmont; returned to Ampleforth 1867 and made his Solemn Profession in 1869 under Prior Bede Prest, and was ordained priest in 1874. In the same year he became Prefect of Studies.
At this time changes were in the air in regard to secondary and higher schools; public examinations were being taken up, and the new Prefect at once determined to follow in this matter the lead of other Catholic colleges. In 1875 he introduced the Oxford Local Examination, and that of the London Matriculation in the next year. Fr Anselm was gifted with unbounded energy, and has been well called ‘a man of vision,’ and he realised the immense possibilities for a school possessed of a sound tradition seventy years old. At this juncture Providence sent him as chaplain to the Rev Lord Petre’s School at Woburn Park, Weybridge, where he gained much experience in the matter of bringing Catholic schools into line with the rapid development then in progress in the great Protestant public schools. After four years in this post he became Secretary to Bishop Hedley, and again his educational outlook was widened by intimate contact with one who a few years later was to play so prominent a part in the negotiation for the admission of Catholics to the Universities. On November 10th, 1885, he was elected Prior of Ampleforth and he filled this office for twelve years.
His Priorship forms a connecting link between the twentv-five years which began with the opening of the New College by Prior Cooper in 1861, and the twenty-five years, or thereabouts, of Abbot Smith’s rule, during which the school has developed into what may be called ‘modern’ Ampleforth, and has taken its rank among Catholic public schools. Naturally it was a period of transition from methods obtaining in Catholic colleges up to about 1870, and those adopted at the beginning of the present century. Prior Burge sowed seed and lived to see its fruit.
His new duties as Prior in no way lessened his zeal in matters scholastic; he engaged a special master for the little boys; arrange for a course of lectures on memory from the noted Professor Loisette; and presently adopted the Examination for the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate. Games, by no means the least important part of a good educational system, were made compulsory; Association Football was introduced and played by the whole school; Cricket, under professional training, was brought to a higher level, and more outside matches were played. Athletic sports became an annual institution, and later, swimming competitions began.
The Prior had seen at Woburn the value of a certain amount of self-government among boys, so he set up a School Parliament; debates were held and these were often listened to with keen interest by quite small boys. A Literary Society was formed; lectures on science, music, and art were given, some by the Prior himself, and they took place out of school hours and attendance was always voluntary. Lesser matters which may be called ‘social’ amenities were not neglected; Eton dress was required in the lower school; refectory arrangements were improved, and more contact with the outer world was gained by going to concerts given at times in the neighbourhood, and by visits on play-days to places of historical and archaeological interest. In 1890 the school numbers had risen to 120, and a Diary was begun. At first a mere record of school events written by the boys themselves it very soon took on a more literary and artistic character. This developed into the Journal, the first number of which appeared in July, 1895.
The development of the monastic property did not escape the Prior’s solicitude, and in March, 1887, Mr Perry, an expert in agricultural matters, was placed in charge of the farm with results well known throughout the country. We may here mention that in 1894, when a Parish Council was established, the Prior was its first chairman.
All this time the community was still crowded in the old house and in 1891 preliminary steps were taken, material and financial, to provide for the building of a new monastery. This entailed much work for the Prior, and in 1894 he had the satisfaction of seeing the first stone laid.
We must now look back to the year 1890 in which Pope Leo XIII, by the Bull, Religiosus Ordo, decreed the union of the Missions with the Monasteries. He required that a Commission should be set up to deal with the division of the Missions and their resources, and to prepare the way for revising the Constitutions. The assignment of the Missions took place in 1891, and this change entailed the visitation by each Prior of those subject to his own Monastery. In all the deliberations connected with these important matters, Prior Burge took an active part. Meanwhile developments which were taking place in several of the Missions made further calls on his time and co-operation. St Anne’s Priory was completed in 1893; St Alban’s Church in Warrington, and those of Dowlais and Brownedge were considerably enlarged, and, in 1894 a new church was opened in Merthyr Tydfil.
The Prior took his part in public, social, and religious functions. In 1892, with the Community and School Choir he joined in the first Ransom Pilgrimage to York and in the following year he went to Rome to attend the first meeting of Abbots at St Anselmo and the laying of the foundation stone of the international Benedictine College. He was a member of a committee formed in January, 1896, to arrange for a Conference of Catholic Head Masters, and at the first meeting of that body in May, he read a paper. This led to his being asked later to assist in the preparation of Scripture Manuals for the use of students in examination.
In 1897 came the crowning event of Prior Burge’s educational work. Permission had been given by the Holy See for Catholics to enter the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge under certain safeguards, and he determined at once to avail himself of its advantages. In July two in the Upper School gained Honours in the Senior Oxford Local Examination – a success which excused them from Responsions. In October a residence was opened in the Woodstock Road, Oxford, and thither went two members of the community and the two students who now became postulants. Shortly after it was regularized by the authorities as a Private Hall, to be succeeded later by a larger Hall in Beaumont Street and now by St Benet’s Hall in St Giles’.
Fr Prior’s health which had been failing under pressure of work, became worse in the autumn and a visit to France brought little improvement. At the end of the year he resigned, and was succeeded in January, 1898, by Fr Oswald Smith. He went for a year to the quiet Mission of Petersfield in Hampshire and then to Aigburth near Liverpool, where he spent the rest of his life. Before passing on to this period something must be said of his life-long interest in music, and the part it played in his work at Ampleforth.
He was withdrawn from Belmont to his Alma Mater in 1867, two years before the completion of his course, to take up the duties of organist and choir-master, and to these he devoted himself for the next ten years. At the Exhibition of 1869, Professor Von Tugginer, at that time music-master, put upon the stage an operetta, ‘The Miller of Sans Souci,’ and at that of 1870 what was more ambitiously called an opera, ‘King Robert of Sicily.’ After Tugginer’s departure Fr Anselm kept up the tradition, and produced in successive years, with the co-operation of Fr Placid McAuliffe as librettist, ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘The Silver Cross,’ or ‘The Conversion of King Lucius,’ ‘Saul and David,’ ‘Ina of Croyland,’ and ‘The Masque of King Time.’ No one would claim that they were works of great merit, but at the time they gave an interest and an impetus to music and singing, and upon Amplefordians of that generation they left an impression quite their own. Their haunting melodies, their picturesque setting, and the high quality of the singing of successive first trebles, combined to make them a marked attraction at the Exhibitions of those years.
In the period between his leaving Ampleforth in 1877 and his return in 1885, Fr Burge’s tastes took a more classical turn, and in the opening year of his Priorship he initiated and took part in evenings of chamber music, gave expositions of the sonatas and symphonies of classic masters to the boys and such of the community as were interested, and encouraged the attendance of both at a series of oratorios given at Hovingham Hall, where the principals and leading voices of the chorus were drawn from the Minster and other choirs of York and Leeds. He also enlivened the recreation hour of the community from time to time, not only by playing for us the masterpieces of Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and other composers, but by his singing of favourite airs. No one then in the community will forget the delicacy and pathos with which he rendered many of Park’s songs, or the passion he put into Schubert’s ‘Erl King.’ The facility with which he accompanied himself and the effect with which he used a voice, not of rich tone, but of unusual compass and flexibility, gave a charm to his singing which lasted to his latest years. As his cares and outside duties multiplied he was unable to take so active a part as he did at first in directing things, but by placing the musical interests of the College in the capable hands of Fr Clement Standish and Mr Oberhoffer he secured not only the maintenance of his high ideals, but an advance upon them. This was seen particularly in the development of a very efficient orchestra, and in the concerts, vocal and instrumental, which were given at the College and in the surrounding district.
In 1897, the last year of his Priorship, the attention of Fr Burge, already a lover of the liturgy and of the Gregorian Chant, was called to the studies and conclusions of the Solesmes School associated with the name of Dom Pothier. The nuns of Stanbrook Abbey were the first to bring these before the English Catholic public in a work entitled ‘Gregorian Music: An Outline of Musical Palaeography.’ In an article in the Ampleforth Journal in December, 1897, Prior Burge wrote with warm appreciation of Dom Pothier and his work. He had already begun to apply himself to the practical rendering of the Graduale according to Solesmes principles, though he had only the Mechlin edition of the chant to work upon. However, by discarding the time values traditionally given to the three classes of notes, by disregarding the division of bars, and by grouping the notes of a phrase in a rhythmical succession of twos and three, with duration and emphasis much as indicated in Dom Pothier’s rules, he succeeded in putting a new life and melody into the stereotyped Mechlin chant. Whatever the defects of his somewhat free-lance method, it may be claimed that he did not a little to prepare the way for a whole-hearted acceptance of the Solesmes principles and methods which followed under his successor, when the authentic edition of the chant was introduced, and acknowledged masters of the School were called in to teach it. Later, when he was settled in Liverpool and was able to avail himself of the approved text, he did valuable work at the request, first of Archbishop Whiteside and afterwards of Archbishop Keating, in teaching the students of the Seminary at Upholland and of the Training College at Mount Pleasant.
On resigning his Priorship Fr Burge, as has been said, took charge of the country Mission of Petersfield in Hampshire. The change in great measure restored his health and after a year he was able, early in 1899, to take up a more active life at Aigburth on the outskirts of Liverpool. During the thirty years of his incumbency he was seldom away from his post. Though always ready to entertain his brethren and to minister to their recreation he took little himself. Intellectual and scientific subjects maintained the attraction they had for him in earlier years and occupied his leisure hours. His gifts to the meteorological department and the science rooms of the College are a monument to his zeal in this respect. Spiritualism and psychoanalysis amongst others were topics upon which he spoke and wrote.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his pastoral work was the unfailing freshness of his sermons and discourses. Even in his last years he wrote, often very fully, before speaking. He commented on and expounded the Epistles of St. Paul and other parts of the New Testament, availing himself of the latest publications of French writers as well as of earlier authorities. It was only a little over a fortnight before his death that he gave his last discourse sitting before the altar as he was no longer able to stand.
In 1916, when he was already seventy years of age, he underwent a most grave operation, but his robust constitution and his indomitable will enabled him to survive it and to regain an amount of vigour surprising at his time of life. At the Conventual Chapter of this year an appreciation of his merits and of his work for his Alma Mater was shown him. He was nominated by general consent of his brethren for the vacant Abbacy of Westminster and at the General Chapter of the following year the dignity was conferred upon him. He attained the Golden jubilee of his Priesthood in 1924 and at the Chapter of that year he sang the Mass of thanksgiving and received the congratulations of his brethren.
He was now entering upon his eightieth year, and a recurrence of his old complaint necessitated another operation which taxed his strength severely. Again however he rallied and with some assistance, reluctantly accepted, he was able to serve his flock for another three years. His intellectual interests were still maintained and his pen was busy with reminiscences for the Journal almost to the end. The last few months of his life were a veritable martyrdom of pain borne with heroic patience and unfailing cheerfulness. At length early in July last he was forced to relinquish Holy Mass, the source of spiritual strength to which he had clung so faithfully. At three o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 17th, fortified with the rites of Holy Church he peacefully gave up his soul to God. His body lay in his own church at Aigburth throughout Sunday, the 21st, when Mass was said for him by Bishop Dobson in the presence of his congregation. On Monday evening it was taken to St Anne’s, Edge Hill, and a dirge was chanted. Fr Abbot pontificated at the Solemn Requiem sung the following day by his brethren and some of the priests he had trained at Upholland. Abbot Cummins, his class-mate, and fellow-novice, preached his panegyric. The same evening his remains were brought to the Abbey, and after the Community had paid the last tribute with Dirge and Requiem, were laid to rest in the hill-side cemetery of the Alma Mater he loved and served so well.
We add some passages from the panegyric preached at Abbot, Burge’s funeral by the Abbot of St. Mary’s, York: –
“Thomas Burge came to Ampleforth in 1860 from London, a clever, intelligent lad with some attractive gifts and talents above the average. Arriving a few days late he found himself last in a big class, but at the first examination he skipped to the top place, and never had any difficulty to retain it. In the novitiate at Belmont, which he entered five years later, he was full of fervour and of monastic ideals; one still recalls the youthful enthusiasm with which he would discuss ascetic points, religious questions, and even plans for the simple life of which he dreamt; he was to live on sixpence a day and had schemed out details of its expenditure. It was before the War of course, and we may smile at the premature gravity of the young idealist, – but we don’t expect discretion in the young, and I wonder whether youthful clerics in these days ever even dream of such indiscreet excesses. In his case the ideal never wholly faded in spite of the disappointments of years or the cynicism of age. Details might change but not the high ideal. He led mostly a solitary life, simple, and in some ways austere, and personal habits remained throughout life unworldly and priestly.”
After 13 years of strenuous rule his health gave way, and resigning the cares and the honours of prelacy he retired to private life and began pastoral duties at Grassendale that have lasted for some 30 years. His activities were wider than his parish, in particular he worked with enthusiasm for the restoration of Church music and liturgical chant. He had talents and attractive gifts and he used them in the Church’s service.
For many years past Abbot Burge endured very serious infirmities, and had more than once to undergo terrible operations that brought him to the brink of the grave. Most men, I suppose, with his sufferings and disabilities would have laid aside all public duties and lain down waiting for the end. That was not his way of meeting misfortunes. He took up his cross with fortitude. Ready enough 30 years ago to resign office and honours, he would not now shirk labour, but in spite of continual discomfort or pain he clung to work as he had never clung to prelacy. With indomitable spirit he conquered agony, ignored the gravest disabilities, and went on faithfully with his Sunday Masses and instructions and parochial duties, prolonging useful years far beyond the span of man’s life, and so died in full work to the last. Such a one is a faithful minister.
Source: Ampleforth Journal 35:1 (1930) 16