A Memorial to Jesuit Army Chaplains killed in action in WWI

POST BY JHellings

Fr Walter Montagu SJ 1886-1918

Laeti qui se obtulerunt

Commemorentur quinque

E societate jesu capellani

Annos inter mcmxiv – xviii

Pro deo atque concivibus

Mortui militantes

R.M.  D.D.  W.M.   C.M.G.  T.C.

(“In memory of five chaplains of the Society of Jesus, who died in action between 1914 and 1918, gladly offering their lives on behalf of God and their fellow-citizens:  RM, DD, WM, CMG, TC. May the Heart of Jesus receive them”.) 

A quiet back garden in leafy Wimbledon is an unlikely place to find a war memorial dedicated to five Jesuit army chaplains who were killed in action during the First World War.  Yet that is what some Jesuit students of Heythrop College found in 1972 when they moved into a secluded house in suburban SW19. When they explored the garden at the back of the house, they were intrigued to find it contained a small stone well with a carved Latin inscription on it and surmounted by a Graeco-Roman statue of a seated youth with  a broken arm. 

Enquiries uncovered that the initials belonged to five Jesuit army chaplains whose obituaries confirmed that they had indeed been killed in action during World War One, and provided their identity as well as details of their military service and deaths: Fathers Robert Monteith, died in France, 27 November 1917;  Denis Doyle, died in France 19 August 1916;  Walter Montagu, died in France, 31 October 1918; Cuthbert McGinity, died in Italy, 8 November 1918; and Tim Carey, died in France, 27 February 1919.

Further investigation produced more information on the memorial. The house had long belonged to the Jesuits, who staffed the local parish dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon, and it had contained the editorial offices of the popular English Jesuit monthly magazine, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart. It was the resident editor of the Messenger at the time, Father Geoffrey Bliss, who had the memorial erected to his former colleagues out of admiring devotion, and it is likely that the composing and the inscribing of its dedication were both his work, since he was well known for his poetic and artistic abilities.

As for the marble sculpted figure, this turned out to be a statue of an angel which had once, significantly, been in the Holy Souls chapel of the local Sacred Heart Church, and which Fr Bliss had salvaged to enrich his memorial. Possibly it had been abandoned because its upraised right arm was broken below the elbow, resulting in the statue being no longer serviceable in the church. However, as depicting the angel who traditionally cared for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and whose broken raised arm may have once held a guiding lamp to lead them to heaven, the statue made a striking component of the memorial to men who, in accordance with traditional Catholic belief, would have on their death spent some time in Purgatory to prepare them to enter God’s presence, reminiscent of the role of the Guardian Angel in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. Nor is it a coincidence that the dedication of the memorial ends with commending the deceased chaplains to the care of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, since, apart from this being a traditional Jesuit devotion, the statue was originally on display in the local Sacred Heart church, and its new location was the editorial offices of the Messenger also devoted to the Sacred Heart.

Fr Robert Monteith 1877-1917Among the five men who gave up their lives for their friends were the following.  

Father Robert Monteith SJ (pictured left) was 40 years of age when he enlisted as a chaplain, and he is described in his obituary as one of a large party of Chaplains who left for France in 1917, where he was attached to the 15th Divisional Ammunition Column, and was slightly wounded soon after his arrival. Later, he was in a bivouac in Ribécourt with a veterinary officer and an interpreter when an incoming enemy shell wrecked the place, killing the officer and badly injuring the interpreter. Badly injured, Fr Monteith was carried to a dressing-station where another Catholic padre, one Fr Keary, was able to anoint him before being able to give him the joyous informing him that he was a brother Jesuit. “One is not surprised to hear that officers at the Front spoke of Fr Monteith as an exceptionally brave man”, read his obituary.

Fr Denis Doyle SJ 1878-1916When an army training camp was set up in Regent’s Park in 1915, Father Denis Doyle SJ (pictured right) became Chaplain to the Catholic soldiers there. Shortly after arriving in France with the second Leinsters - an Irish regiment - an enemy shell burst close to him, killing or wounding everyone in the vicinity of the advanced dressing station of the 4th Army where he was providing his spiritual ministrations. His many injuries included his leg being blown off, and he was taken back behind the lines, where he was given the last sacraments by another Jesuit, Fr King who later wrote “he was conscious and cheerful to the last”.  In informing its readers of Fr Doyle’s death, the Daily Sketch of 29 August 1915 wrote: “he went to France in November last, and has been in the thick of the fighting ever since. Men writing home have said that Father Doyle has deserved the V.C. half a dozen times.” He apparently cut a commanding figure in his officer’s uniform and was evidently greatly admired by all to whom he ministered, officers and men.  In the letters he himself regularly wrote to his Jesuit Superiors in Britain, he described how “I made a compact with them [the Leinsters], that whenever I passed them in the trenches or in the danger zone, they could be sure that they were getting Absolution; and how, when I pass they salute and lift their caps just for a second to show me they remember”.  Little wonder that his Commanding Office wrote to the Jesuit Provincial after Fr Doyle’s death that he was “the most conscientious chaplain that I have yet had the pleasure to meet”. 

Little is known of the military ministry of the third Jesuit commemorated on the Wimbledon memorial, Father Walter Montagu SJ (pictured top), apart from the fact that he was admitted to a field hospital with “very severe wounds of the thighs”, which were presumably the fatal results of a shell or a bomb. He was taken to the theatre for an operation, but records of the time note: “On that day … all hope of saving his life was abandoned, and he died before the day was ended.” Born in 1886 in Londonderry, Fr Montagu was the fifth of seven boys who attended Stonyhurst College; five of them joined the Army or Navy. He was one of those scholastics (Jesuit students) who obtained a canonical dispensation to be ordained to the priesthood early, in order to be available to serve as an Army Chaplain. According to a fellow scholastic: “The labours of our Chaplains at the front fired him with a desire to join them”.

There were two other Jesuit Chaplains who served and died in the First World War and whose names were inscribed on the Sacred Heart memorial in Wimbledon: Father Timothy Carey SJ and Father Henry Cuthbert McGinity SJ. We will recall their military ministries in the First World War on Armistice Day itself, 11 November.


In presenting this article, Fr Jack Mahoney SJ is happy to record his indebtedness to Rebecca Volk, archivist at the Jesuit Archives in Mount Street, London, for her help.