Thursday, April 12, 2007


Writing about Caryll Houselander brings one, of course, to her friend and biographer, Maisie Ward. Maisie and her Australian husband Frank Sheed worked for the Catholic Evidence Guild and started their own publishing house. The Catholic Evidence Guild had strict guidelines for their lay catechists, who would preach in parks and on street corners.

Guild members formed close ties by studying and training together and sharing a vibrant spiritual life. Their outreach was grounded in prayer and daily Mass. They maintained an important rule: For every hour on the soapbox, they had to spend an equal amount of time before the Blessed Sacrament.

The speakers were taught never to attack others or to be confrontational in anyway. "We cannot regard the non-Catholic as an enemy," Frank wrote. Nor was the goal to demonstrate "clever ideas for getting the better of an antagonist." The Guild's ultimate aim was to "spread a knowledge of the truth."

The Guild challenged and sharpened Maisie's and Frank's beliefs; it transformed their ideas about serving the church with their talents; it catapulted them into a life of speaking and writing; and not least of all, it brought them together. They became the Guild's natural leaders. Together they compiled the Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, a speakers' handbook that remains in use today.

Frank and Maisie got to know each other while being heckled in Hyde Park. According to an article by Patrick Madrid:

They met at a Catholic Evidence Guild talk. He was working with the guild to make ends meet while he decided what to do with his life. Maisie Ward was a speaker one afternoon at the center where he was helping.

Their encounter was the start of the famous Sheed and Ward publishing career that would catapult many now-legendary Catholic writers to prominence.

Maisie was as different from Sheed as one could imagine. He, although now a Catholic, had been raised a Protestant. The Wards were an ardently Catholic family that had converted to the faith in the 1860s. Maisie was born in 1889, when the English faithful were still severely tested by their country's oppressive anti-Romanism. Frank was an Australian with a broad, suntanned brogue and a taste for adventure and action.

Maisie was English, Edwardian, proper, upper-crust, ferociously Catholic, witty, likable, and incredibly intelligent. Born into a family of writers and editors, Maisie's mind was as keen and expansive as Frank's, and she was steeped in centuries of tough-as-nails English Catholicism. His family was poor; hers had money. For years, the Wards had rubbed shoulders with the major figures in the English Church. This heady atmosphere, cloudy with incense and ringing with Latin and chant and the glorious echoes of generations of recusant English Catholics, was immensely attractive to Sheed. He gravitated immediately to Maisie and her live-wire Catholic world.

Once Frank and Maisie had married, they plunged into the work of Catholic apologetics with gusto. Soon children came: Rosemary in 1929 and Wilfrid in 1930. Frank's writing career began as he discovered his facility for conveying with the written word the same clarity and force he was able to muster on the stump. Books explaining the faith poured forth in a steady stream: A Map of Life, Theology and Sanity, What Difference Does Jesus Make?, Christ in Eclipse, The Instructed Heart, To Know Christ Jesus. Frank Sheed had found his vocation as a Catholic apologist.

Along the way, he and Maisie decided that in addition to writing their own books, they would help fledgling Catholic authors launch their careers. And so they formed a publishing house: Sheed and Ward.

Frank and Maisie worked with many of the great names of 20th-century Catholic literature: Fulton Sheen, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, John Hugo, Arnold Lunn, Dorothy Day, Ronald Knox, Caryll Houselander, Clare Luce, and Evelyn Waugh. He moved easily among these writers with an amiable self-effacement that won many admirers.

Frank and Maisie paved the way for the lay apostles and Catholic writers of today. The Sheeds had their soap boxes and we have our blogs. They helped other Catholic writers instead of being in competition with them; they had humility. Let us hope we can be live up to their high standards of class, wit, charity, and compassion.


Anonymous said...

Amen. And now my eyes are stinging, because of this beautiful Catholic-love story.. This is what Love does-- it (re)builds all others, and humbly (even if tongue-bitten-throughly so) restricts itself to desiring that.

Thank you also for news of the Benkovics. They'll be back in my prayers, too, today.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you! You are welcome!