Monsignor Gilbey's obituary, HERE.A recent post on the noble Tea at Trianon website about a distinguished Oxford University Catholic Chaplain, Monsignor Ronald Knox, has led me – to be fair – to put something about a great chaplain at the other place: Monsignor Gilbey who was chaplain, to the Catholic undergraduates in the University of Cambridge from 1932 to 1965 – 100 terms. When he died, aged 97, in 1998, one obituary said he was “the best loved priest of his generation.”
Alfred Gilbey, having been educated at Beaumont, (a Jesuit boarding school on the Thames near Eton, which the order later closed) he then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, subsequently, after his ordination, returning to Cambridge as chaplain. He remained there for 33 years. He then lived in London, “ in retirement” for 32 years. His leaving of the chaplaincy was a disgrace. Those who know what happened can hardly bring themselves to mention it: it was concerned with his not wishing to integrate the men’s and women’s chaplaincies into one. In retirement he was granted the singular privilege of living in a famous London club, the Travellers’, in Pall Mall where the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Heenan, gave him permission to say the old Mass in his room. He also went to say Mass at the London Oratory, often known as the Brompton Oratory.
His time as Cambridge chaplain was a fruitful one and one of joy. The obituary in the London Daily Telegraph said: “His extraordinary influence as chaplain was due in part to his piety, his rock-like faith and his ability to explain Catholic beliefs in clear and simple terms; and party to his kindness and friendliness, his sympathy, his courtesy and charm.” This is a man who appreciated good food and wine – especially claret from his family firm, which still imports gin and claret into England. He was a member for years of the Trinity Foot Beagles – an organisation who hunt with dogs but follow on foot rather than riding. But he was no snob or neglecter of his duty. Professor Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity, former President of Magdalene College (and whose book The Stripping of the Altars is a classic) said of him: “Alfred Gilbey was a man of disarming simplicity, in whom social decorum blended indistinguishably into the life of grace.” In his retirement, even as a very old man he still responded to sick calls and was at the side of the dying.
Then there are all his converts. To change slightly Mark Antony’s famous words, “He hath brought many converts home to Rome…” In our days when an individual convert is amazing news, it is difficult to grasp that Monsignor Gilbey instructed hundreds of converts. He was clear what he was about. He once told a journalist; “Conversion? No, I’ve never done that. I receive. I instruct.” One of the most distinguished is Professor David Watkin former fellow of Peterhouse (one of the oldest Cambridge colleges) and Professor of the History of Architecture, the author of such fine books as Morality in Architecture Revisited. Professor Watkin has written with a real love of the man who received him into the Church in 1963. He expressed sadness at Gilbey’s resignation from the chaplaincy before he had intended to go: “a victim of Vatican II, though he would not have put it like this.”
Trinity College, Monsignor Gilbey’s college, vies with King’s as the grandest of the Cambridge colleges. A member of the aristocratic Lambton family in the early 1900s is said, when asked at Newmarket (the racecourse near Cambridge) which college he attended, to have replied: 'Don't know. Trinity, I suppose. But it was the college of inter alios, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein not to mention Isaac Newton who discovered the law of gravity when an apple hit him on the head in Trinity gardens and he speculated as to why it fell down and did not go up. Trinity claims to have been the home of more Nobel Prize winners than Japan.
Monsignor Gilbey was always faithful to the Church, though one who knew him says that “Of the many changes in the Society of Jesus after the Second Vatican council and the closure of Beaumont, his old school, he could hardly bring himself to speak, so painful he found them.” His views on education were sensible and, therefore, are now very unfashionable. Nicholas Lorriman wrote of him: “Alfred’s view of education was necessarily ‘vertical’ and hierarchical, the duty of the educator being to draw those in his charge up towards the highest values, not degrade them to some socially engineered common denominator.” He wrote a book of instruction called We Believe, now out of print, I fear, but if you come across one buy it because it is better on the beliefs of the Catholic Church than anything produced by the committees of bureaucrats for the last thirty years, though this is faint praise. His Monsignor Gilbey’s Commonplace Book is a mine of fine and delightful passages and again should be snapped up if a copy is found. A wonderful book, edited by David Watkin, is Alfred Gilbey: A Memoir by Some Friends but it was published privately and copies are very rare; I keep mine under lock and key.
Monsignor Gilbey gave good advice not just about spiritual matters but about life, such as about how to order from a menu: always choose your main course first and then your first course to go with it and not the other way round. It is, however, the piety of the man that made the greatest impression on all who knew him. RIP.