After spending three days in London as guests of Bishop Bramston, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, Father Gentili and his companions travelled to Prior Park, where a combination of holidays and new buildings caused Bishop Baines to send them on the following day to Trelawney Castle and to Anna Trelawney who had generously paid their travelling expenses to England. Here, on the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, Gentili sang Mass and preached his first sermon in England, taking as his text: “You are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church.” The congregation, the convert Misses Trelawney and Protestant members of the family, was mixed. Father Gentili set to work openly and without the slightest sense of causing embarrassment to proclaim the essential gospel, his mission in a foreign land.
At the end of July 1835, Gentili arrived at Prior Park, “this magnificent palace”, and renewed his acquaintance with the formidable Bishop Baines. In September, Gentili was still depressed by what he had found in England:
… the scandals, the softness, the immorality… The sky is always dark, people look sad, the countryside has nothing to cheer you or raise your spirits; all is melancholy; a heavy atmosphere hangs over a monotonous countryside; the poverty is frightening; the people shout about their freedom to you, but they are slaves to an aristocracy that wallows in opulence.
Nevertheless Dr. Gentili, as he was always called in England, remained at Prior Park for three years until the inevitable break with Baines.
The list of his duties there is enlightening: Spiritual Director, Professor of Italian, Sacred Eloquence, Philosophy and Liturgy, President of St. Paul’s Seminary, Vice-Rector of St Peter’s College, and Prefect of Studies for both Seminary and the College. But when Father Moses Furlong, then President of St Peter’s College which brought in the money, fulfilled his great desire and joined the Institute of Charity, Bishop Baines’ increasing vexation with Gentili’s foreign ways and over-developed piety (as the Bishop saw it), came to a head. In December 1838, he banished Gentili to the convent of the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine near Spetisbury, in Dorset, at a safe distance from Prior Park. There, in the extern chapel of the convent, Father Gentili preached the first regular mission ever conducted in England by the Institute of Charity or by any other religious Order. While at Spetisbury he received the joyful news that the Holy See had solemnly approved the Institute of Charity. His response was “to prostrate himself at the foot of the altar in thanksgiving and recite the Te Deum nine times, inviting the choirs of angels and saints to thank the Most Holy Trinity for this extraordinary favour.”
In May 1839, Rosmini relieved Gentili of the superiorship of the brethren at Prior Park and appointed Father John-Baptist Pagani in his place. The news of Dr. Gentili’s departure from Prior Park spread rapidly. Wiseman regarded it as a proof of the inability of Bishop Baines to work in harmony with the gifted young men who had done their best to give that erratic and difficult man loyal and devoted service. About this time, Ambrose March Phillips de Lisle wrote to Gentili, inviting him to organise a mission around his manor of Grace Dieu in Leicestershire. Gentili replied that he would be very willing, if Rosmini would give his consent. At the same time de Lisle also wrote to Rosmini: “Send this holy man, this truly apostolic man, this man worthy of carrying the faith of Christ apud gentes, coram regibus et principibus [to the peoples, before kings and rulers]! For love of our poor England, I beg you to give me Dr Gentili.”
De Lisle’s request was not granted immediately. In July 1839, Gentili, Pagani and Belisy were recalled to Rome to take their vows of special obedience to the Pope as “presbyters” or “elders” in the newly approved Institute. On 17th August, Gregory XVI the Pope received them in audience; the vows were taken by Rosmini and his companions 22nd August in the catacombs of St. Sebastian.
Before they left Rome, Rosmini took Gentili aside and told him that he would not be returning to England. Despite his assent, Gentili was deeply shocked and although outwardly calm, his whole spirit was thrown into turmoil; a long line of reasons sprang to mind supporting his return. This was the fiercest, and most subtle, temptation of his whole life but it had been safely overcome before his recall to England in June 1840 when he arrived at Grace Dieu Manor, Leicestershire, as chaplain to Ambrose de Lisle. His life there is described by Mrs Laura de Lisle, Ambrose’s wife:
At the particular request of Rosmini, Dr. Gentili, during the two years of his stay at Grace Dieu, always had his meals in his room (except occasionally when he met persons). At breakfast he ate a little toast and two eggs, after which he set off on his missionary duties, and seldom returned before 9.00 o’clock at night, winter and summer. He then took his second meal, which again consisted of some tea with a little toast and two eggs. It was his custom to remain in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament from night prayers at 10, till 12. He knelt generally on the steps of the altar, not resting against anything… He rose at 4 in the morning, and frequently his nights were spent on the floor…housemaids found his bed in the morning as they had left it the day before. [Nevertheless] no one understood better [than Gentili] the duties peculiar to each state.
Father Gentili’s early days at Grace Dieu were very busy, with many processions, preaching, solemn Masses and other ceremonies. De Lisle wanted the ceremonial at Grace Dieu carried out with more than monastic splendour! In the beginning there could have been only a tiny congregation, but Dr Gentili, besides exercising his duties as de Lisle’s chaplain, was also ‘Missionary Apostolic’ to the Grace Dieu mission. This was a fine title, but Gentili’s first census of Catholics ran to only 27 people of whom eight were children, three were ill, and all except two lived in the direst poverty. It was a little flock, swallowed up by six thousand or more Anglicans or Nonconformists. But on 8th December, only six months after he had arrived at Grace Dieu, Gentili was able to write:
I am here in the midst of four villages, two of which are very large, and all at a distance of several miles from the chapel (that is, Grace Dieu). I have already taken a room in one of the villages, and I must say to my great satisfaction and consolation, I find a great harvest prepared … I have to contend with the most violent opposition from the parsons and their party. In Shepshed, a large village of about five thousand people, I have already above forty under instruction, and I hope to receive them into the Church all together next Christmas. There are hundreds who will become Catholics.
It was at Shepshed that Gentili built the first church of the Institute of Charity in England with help from the Earl of Shrewsbury and Ambrose de Lisle. The church was designed by Pugin and dedicated to St. Winifred. Dr. Gentili also preached as far away as Hathern, where he had fifty converts, and Barrow-on-Soar where he had two hundred.
Gentili’s missionary work in these Leicestershire villages was truly an astonishing achievement for one foreign priest after only ten months in the district. He ministered to the sick and infirm, Protestant as well as Catholic. A less sectarian man could not be found. With unflagging zeal, he trudged the roads and lanes of Leicestershire. Often he walked ten or twelve miles, and even further, along roads deep in snow or heavy with mud, always dressed in his cassock, cincture, and Roman collar. From time to time he suffered anti-popery insults. Various stories are told about him in Shepshed. Once, early in 1841 he was utterly exhausted and he sought refuge in the house of Mr. Thomas Fox, a Baptist, who later became a Catholic and allowed Gentili to preach from a window in his house. Numberless times he arrived back at Grace Dieu covered in the filth that had been thrown at him. At the village of Osgathorpe he was burnt in effigy. The very next day he went with his converts in procession to the place of the bonfire, singing the Litany of the Holy Name. The citizens thought this was a brave and sporting gesture! Gradually the crowds began to take his part: they liked him because he was earnest, friendly and compassionate.
But it was at Shepshed that he had most to endure, and it was here that he had his greatest success. His fruitful apostolate produced a school at Shepshed with one hundred and fifty pupils, which he built with money given him by Lady Newburgh, and after ten months preaching he had received into the Church 320 people. The achievement of Father Gentili in these villages of Leicestershire, is without parallel in English Catholic history.
Despite the success of his missionary work, life for Dr. Gentili was not easy at Grace Dieu. The more he went among the people, the less happy he was at the manor. It is true that de Lisle rejoiced in the good work done by his chaplain, but the squire, ever conscious of his position, insisted that everything be done in his way and at his time. The poor, however, who clamoured for Father Gentili’s help did not need nor want the velvet copes and processions that so occupied de Lisle. There were scenes, and times when de Lisle treated Gentili worse than a servant. The break came in May 1842 when the bishop of the Midland District, Dr. Walsh, gave Gentili permission to say Mass at a house in Shepshed because of the distance from Grace Dieu. On the last Sunday of the month Gentili went to Shepshed after saying Mass at Grace Dieu; a secular priest said the second mass at Grace Dieu. The result was an almost empty chapel at Grace Dieu. De Lisle was annoyed and decided to confide to Fr. Gentili a part of the Whitwick parish. In this way the chapel at Grace Dieu would be filled with people of the district. Gentili told de Lisle that this was quite unfair to the priest at Whitwick and that he himself could not undertake responsibility for a fifth village. At this de Lisle lost his temper and told Gentili that from now on he was forbidden to say Mass at Shepshed. Gentili pointed out that he could not give up the Mass at Shepshed; the people needed it, and moreover, he had promised publicly to go there every Sunday. This was the end for de Lisle who told Gentili that he was no longer his chaplain.
At Father Pagani’s urgent request, Rosmini now agreed to remove Gentili from Grace Dieu to Loughborough, the first house of the Institute in England, where he arrived in the early summer of 1842. He was to be a member of the community until 1845, when he was released, with Fr. Furlong, the first English member of the Institute, to devote himself full-time to itinerant missionary work. For the moment, Gentili’s request had been answered:
I pray God that he may soon send me back to my brethren, so as to be able to lead a real religious life. The world of the gentry, even when it has no scandals, has such a complicated etiquette and elaborate taboos and its own ways of doing things, that although they are innocent, they are enough to make you waste a great deal of time, and gradually undermine your spirit.
Gentili’s years at Loughborough, where he was effectively superior of the parish, were also occupied with the foundation of a noviciate for the Institute at nearby Ratcliffe, much preaching to his own people, who numbered about one hundred and twenty on his arrival, and to non-Catholics. A presage of the future was the fornight’s mission conducted at Loughborough by Gentili. This was so successful that it was prolonged for a further three days. It convinced Gentili, who received sixty-three non Catholics into the Church, that the greatest fruit would be gained from such a mission if it were given by two priests. Loughborough was also popular among the clergy for private retreats under Pagani or Gentili. The latter directed Ullathorne, Bishops Riddell, Wilson of Hobart, Briggs, Mostyn, Walsh and Wareing. Polding, the Downside monk who became archbishop of Sydney, visited the house and left six Irish students there to be trained as missionaries for Australia; Brother Riordan, Superior General of the Irish Christian Brothers was another visitor. William Lockhart, whose entry into the Catholic Church provoked Newman’s celebrated sermon on The Parting of Friends, made his profession of faith as a Catholic at Loughborough in August 1843. And it was at Loughborough in the same year that Rosmini’s Sisters of Providence opened their first house in England.
Despite all this activity, Gentili took great care of the poor of all denominations who thronged the religious house, often in search of the bare necessities of life. He preached continually (on occasions to thousands of people, Catholics and non-Catholics), greatly encouraged the temperance movement and with his brethren opened schools for many hundreds of poor children in Loughborough and the surrounding countryside. In all, 344 adults were received and 140 children baptised during Gentili’s three years at Loughborough. Ullathorne, a blunt Englishman, aptly describes the scene at Grace Dieu in 1843 when Gentili preached to a great crowd, “mostly the children of his own labours intermixed with a number of strangers”, at the blessing of De Lisle’s Calvary near Whitwick. He concludes rightly:
To see this public memorial of faith displayed openly in the very centre of England, and for the first time in modern ages, seemed … to open a new era on missionary life.
In 1844, Gentili began to preach missions in the Midland district; in September 1845 he was relieved of all his parochial duties at Loughborough. Rosmini freed him from all attachments to houses of the Institute, and appointed him and Father Furlong as itinerant missioners. It was the beginning of a wonderful and extraordinary life for Gentili who, from now on, was at the beck and call of bishops and priests. Making maximum use of the new railway system, he travelled the length of the land preaching, hearing confessions, and receiving converts. It was the great work of his life, a work he had longed to do and to which he gave himself unstintingly in the spirit of St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier. Once he had written to Rosmini:
How happy would I be if, before I die, I were to obtain the grace to preach the Gospel throughout the land, to so many of the poor who are without the necessities of body and soul! I feel myself quite unworthy of such a favour.
Now the favour was granted. His ministry was modelled on Christ. To go from place to place without rest, instructing, reproving, comforting. The poor especially must have the Gospel preached to them. For Dr. Gentili this contact with the poor was of vital necessity. Perhaps it is only today that we can really appreciate the inspired attitude and life of Father Luigi Gentili and his Passionist countryman, Blessed Dominic Barberi. These two great priests went after the poor, the outcast, the humble and lowly, and all this at a time when England stood in awe before the conversion of gentlemen!
Eye-witnesses are unanimous about Gentili’s striking appearance. His pale complexion, striking features, shining eyes and rich voice, all arrested the attention of listeners. One onlooker said:
He looked as if he came straight from the presence of God to deliver a message from Heaven.
It is very difficult to uncover Father Gentili’s secret. He spoke with a marked accent to unknown audiences of hundreds and even thousands, but his words had immense force and efficacy. He believed in charity and compassion; he had faith in the power of grace and the force of a message that could convert the world. He once told Bishop Ullathorne, “I speak heart to heart.” And, as Ullathorne assures us, he was ready to learn:
For many years he [Gentili] concealed not his opinions on the English clergy and their ‘low’ views…A few months before his death I had to my great happiness, many and long conversations with him…We had conversed as intimately just before he had begun his mission; he had been for years a country missioner on new ground; but that experience had not changed his first opinions. It was his wide experience of the whole body of society in England which changed his views. He saw that many things he had formerly attributed to sluggishness were to be ascribed to prudence.
In 1845 Father Gentili gave missions at Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Coventry, Leamington, Newport, Huddersfield, Bradford, Leicester (in the Dominican church of the Holy Cross), Worksop, Birmingham, York, Scarborough, Egton Bridge and Newcastle. Besides these missions, he also conducted retreats for the Dominican Sisters at Atherstone, the Sisters of Mercy in Liverpool, and for the clergy of York. He gave two retreats to the clergy of Lancashire at Oscott, to the clergy of the Midland District, to the priests of the London District at St. Edmunds Ware, to the clergy of the Northern District at Ushaw, and to the nuns of the Bar Convent in York. Each mission lasted at least two weeks. Besides the missions and retreats, he began the practice of the Forty Hours Adoration, the devotions of the Month of May in honour of the Mother of God, and the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, all of which were his work.
In September 1845, despite being overwhelmed with work and so many calls on his charity, Father Gentili made his first visit to Dublin where he gave a retreat to the Sisters of Mercy in their house at Baggot Street, the burial place of Mother Catherine McCauley. His appeal on behalf of the Christian Brothers Schools, recently established at North Richmond Street, was outstandingly successful.
The years 1846 and 1847 continued the same relentless round of missions and retreats. Accompanied by Fr. Furlong, Gentili preached ceaselessly throughout England in his great apostolate. During these years he never speaks of his lodgings, his food or the lack of it; he scarcely mentions the hardships --- some of them very great --- nor the appalling conditions in which he often had to travel. He was quite simply the humble instrument of God, and his constant prayer was that the apostles might come to England. The controversies about Gothic vestments and rood screens and the like which so exercised some of his fellow-Catholics had no interest for Father Gentili. To him that sort of thing was a child’s game, flavoured with English insular pride. The word of God and its fruit were all that he had at heart. In Manchester alone, in the space of two missions, he received 418 people into the Church.
Gentili’s method was simple. In all his sermons and retreat conferences, he spoke, as he himself said, “heart to heart”. In his morning sermons, it was his custom to take the Commandments one by one. He analysed them and spoke of the passions of the heart. He preached on divine grace and the way to the perfection of love. His evening instructions were on the Christian way of life, its duties and obligations, on the happiness it gives, and on its fulfilment. All was pure Gospel: there were no flights of fancy, no rhetoric. We have the testimony of one who heard him:
It is beautiful beyond words. Sublimely simple. There was at times a touch of humour, especially in his moral instructions: he missed nothing and was always quick to shatter any kind of self-complacency. He had immense eloquence.
And confessions invariably lasted well into the night.
1846 and 1847 were the most hectic years in Father Gentili’s life. Between September and the following July, he preached no less than fourteen missions, many retreats and innumerable individual sermons. In all these months he had only fourteen days free from engagements.
Bath was the scene of Father Gentili’s last mission in England. He was accompanied by his friend Bishop Ullathorne. Less than thirteen years after Gentili had begun his marvellous apostolate in England at Prior Park, “He ended that work in sight of the vast Palladian College, having made a great circle with his net in a mighty throw that caught many fish.” And he did his best to persuade Ullathorne not to dispose of the great establishment.
Gentili had breathed new life into many English Catholics, life which was to last a century or more.