TWENTY years before Catholic F.mancipation. the English vicars apostolic were faced with one of the strangest aspirants to the priesthood they had ever had: Sir Harry Trelawny of Trelawne.
He was a Cornish baronet of historic title. As a young man he had been ordained as a Congregational minister. Later he had been ordained afresh as an Anglican clergyman. then in middle age became a Catholic. He had a wife and six grown-up children.
The bishops were hesitant to grant his request to be ordained a third time. as a Catholic priest. It was not until long afterwards that he gained his wish, and was ordained in Rome — at the age of 74.
February 25 was the 150th anniversary of Sir Harry's death. Now almost forgotten. this remarkable man found himself — by chance or providence — destined to act as a catalyst in that revival of the Faith in England which we now call the Second Spring.
Sir Harry was born in 1175(a. at St Budeaux near Plymouth. His great-grandfather Sir Jonathan Trelawny was one of the seven bishops sent to the Tower for defying James Il's order to proclaim the Declaration of Indulgence: he is remembered by every Cornishman to this day in the ballad with its refrain And shall Trelawnv die?".
Young Sir Harry went on to Christ Church College. Oxford. When the time came to take his degree, he shook the university authorities by declining to sign the 39 Articles (then a requirement) until he had considered whether he could in conscience do so. Friends temporarily convinced him. and he duly signed.
Even before he left Oxford he had been attracted by the Methodists, then sweeping the West Country with religious fervour. He joined a well-known preacher. Rowland Hill. travelling with him all over Cornwall to preach wherever they could find an audience. day in. day out.
After a year of this. Sir Harry moved further from his Anglican upbringing by joining the Calvinist dissenters. He was ordained as an Independent (nonconformist) minister at Southampton in 1777, while still under 21.
The Trelawny name, with the eloquence and enthusiasm orthe younger baronet, no doubt helped him to form his own congregation of dissenters in the small fishing port of West Looe, He provided a cottage to be converted into a chapel. and became its first pastor.
Before long. however, the Rev Sir Harry Trelawny decided that his excursion into dissent had been an error. He left his little congregation. and took back their cottage-chapel The next year, 1778. Sir Harry married the daughter of a Somerset parson. Anna Browne, and in 1781 received his second ordination — in the Church of England. at Exeter. where the name of Trelawny and Anglicanism were inseparable. He was 25. The young couple had six children in quick succession, four boys and two girls. In 1789 Sir Harry was given a prebend of Exeter Cathedral, where his great-grandfather had been bishop. and soon afterwards spent two years as vicar of St Allen, near Truro.
In 1793 his relative William Buller, who had become Bishop of Exeter. enabled him to change to thik parish of Egloshayle, near Wadebridge.
In the early years of the French Revolution. two refugee priests from Brittany were given hospitality at Trelawne, where Sir Harry allowed them to say Mass in his (Anglican) chapel. Before long one of them had received into the church Sir Harry's two daughters.
In 1802 there came the Peace of Amiens. and the priests left. However. two years later Sir Harry resigned his Anglican parish. went abroad again and was soon received into the Catholic Church in Germany. He promptly bought some fine vestments. a chalice and other things to equip the chapel at Trelawne as a Mass centre.
Sir Harry. who had been a minister of religion all his adult life. now sought to become a Catholic priest.
To help him obtain dispensation from the rule of celibacy. Lady Trelawny. though she remained a Protestant. generously signed a deed of separation and had it witnessed by the celebrated Abbe Carron of Somers Town.
Although Sir Harry's piety was undoubted — he now recited the whole Benedictine office every day. ate no flesh meat and drank no wine — the vicars apostolic felt unable to grant a dispensation to this unusual candidate.
In 1822 Lady Trelawny died. leaving Sir Harry free, as a widower. to renew his request for ordination. He did so. and (with the example of the widower Cardinal Weld as a precedent) this time it was granted.
His Catholic daughter Anne Letitia came with her now elderly father to live in Rome while he prepared himself for the sacrament.
A priest was assigried to teach him the ceremonies of the Mass — the Passionist Fr Dominic Barberi.
From a human point of view this was hardly promising. Blessed Dominic (as we now know hint) was a holy man. but he knew no English and Sir Harry knew no Italian.
Anne Letitia was inspired to ask the English College to provide an interpreter. They sent George (later Fr Ignatius) Spencer. who in turn introduced to Fr Barberi another notable English convert. Ambrose de Lisle Phillips.
This trio of outstanding men — two upper-class Englishmen and an Italian peasant were to play a big part in the renewed Catholic life of nineteenthcentury England.
So, too, was another notable priest whom the Trelawnys came to know in Italy:-Fr Luigi Gentili of the then new Rosminian congregation.
Encouraged by the Trelawny family, both Barberi and Gentili later became celebrated missioners in England, of which they gained their first information from the old baronet.
Sir Harry was ordained in Rome on Whitsunday, 1830. and spent his remaining years trying to arrange for the Passionists or the Rosminians to settle priests at Trelawne to found a permanent mission there. There were endless delays, and the project was still in the air when Sir Harry — now -again the Reverend Sir Harry — died, aged 77. on February 25, 1834. He lies buried at Laveno. near Lake Maggiore, in a tomb inscribed with lines from St Augustine.
A story that he had been made a bishop in partibus is in keeping with the drama of his life, but is almost certainly untrue. 1-11e did not live to see the fulfilment of his bream. a permanent Catholic church on the estates of his ancestors in Cornwall.
He made provision in his will for the support of such a mission. but the' Protestant members of the family contested the will at law.
Eventually a compromise was reached. The dispute had finally put off the religious orders in Rome. but nine years after Sir Harry's death his dream was realised. thanks to the perseverance of his two Catholic daughters. the husband of one of them, and a grand-daughter.
A small church was built between Looe and Polperro. They named it Sclerder. the Breton word for 'light'. and a devotion to Our Lady of Light came to flourish there.
Trelawne itself is no longer in the family. After many changes Sclerder — now enlarged but still isolated in the Cornish countryside — is today a Carmelite convent.