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Lament for body no.223

08 May 2015

The Lusitania was sunk 100 years ago with heavy loss of life. Andrew Doll recalls one of its passengers

illustrated london News

Those in peril: Norman Wilkinson's depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania for the London Illustrated News

Those in peril: Norman Wilkinson's depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania for the London Illustrated News

BY MAY 1915, the First World War was raging, and, in response to the British naval blockade, German U-boats were wreaking havoc on British shipping. One hundred years ago on Thursday, the RMS Lusitania sailed within range of U-20, a submarine lurking off the coast of County Cork. With a single torpedo, the great Cunard ocean liner was lost to sight within 20 minutes.

The human cost was appalling: more than 1000 lives were lost. Whole families perished together, such as Paul and Gladys Crompton, along with their six children, and the children's nurse. Other families were rent apart: Annie Marsh lost her husband and their only child, who was 11 months old. Infants, such as the eight-month-old Nigel Booth, were left orphaned, and grew up without memory of their parents. And among the lost was body no. 223 - washed up on the shores of the land of his birth, and identified by the fountain pen he kept in his inside pocket - Fr Basil Maturin.

MATURIN was born in 1847, one of the ten children of William Maturin, the Tractarian Vicar of All Saints', Grangegorman, on the outskirts of Dublin. Basil and his siblings grew up playing games in the vicarage garden, and enjoyed long walks in the countryside around Grangegorman.

After schooling in Dublin, and studies at Trinity College, he took holy orders - as did two of his brothers. Two sisters entered the convent. In 1871, he became Assistant Curate of Peterstow, in the diocese of Hereford.

Not long afterwards, while on retreat in Oxford, Maturin felt that God was calling him to the religious life. Richard Meux Benson's Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) - the Cowley Fathers - was the first stable religious order for men in the Church of England, and Maturin felt that he needed to be a part of it.

He wrote to his father: "I feel that I have the power within me, if it was rightly directed, but that I need direction most dreadfully, and require so much Rule . . . and silence, and to be by myself above all. . . I do feel so really that I should serve Him so much better there; and as to doing good, must not one do most good by devoting oneself entirely to His service by giving up the world?"

In 1873, Maturin joined the Cowley Fathers as a novice, and three years later was sent to help establish the order's new mission in Philadelphia. For ten years, Maturin worked at a church there, St Clement's, and became deeply attached to the place, later saying: "I felt when I left America as if I left half myself behind me."

In the United States, Maturin became well-known for his sermons. His confrère Arthur Hall, later Bishop of Vermont, noted the ability of this "pulpit orator" to draw large congregations with his "magnetic preaching".

"It held his hearers spellbound," another said. "It took possession of them, soul and mind, and made it impossible to be inattentive. It was true eloquence, a torrent of eloquence - but it was more; it had a fascination that was irresistible. And the delicious accent of his native land imbued his language with a musical beauty difficult to describe."

One novice did complain, however: "It was very living and vivid, but there was not much time to pray afterwards."

AFTER Philadelphia, Maturin spent six months at the SSJE mission in Cape Town, before finally returning to the British Isles; but he had long been wrestling with his position in the Church of England, and this became a permanent source of inner turmoil for him.

In 1897, he became a Roman Catholic - which would presumably have horrified his paternal grandfather, Charles Maturin, who was of Huguenot descent, and had published Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church (1824).

Theologically, Maturin felt he had made the right decision; but, culturally, it was a struggle. He tried to join the Jesuits, and also spent some time with the Benedictines at Downside, but neither plan matured. Moreover, he lost contact with many close friends at Cowley. He dearly wished to visit. "I intend to slip down quietly to Oxford before I leave," he intimated to his fellow Irishman, George Congreve, "and prowl about unseen, and if I can sum up courage, look into the church."

He did not manage to visit unseen, as he had hoped. "The other day", Benson wrote at the end of 1900, "Brother Maynard found someone who had scamlled [sic] into the new cloister and was greatly delighted with the house - Fr Maturin! I cannot help thinking that he was looking under the loose pavement to see if his heart was not buried there. . ."

IN 1914, after more than a decade's ministry in London, Maturin was appointed RC Chaplain to the University of Oxford. The outbreak of war, however, meant that only a handful of "unfit" RC undergraduates returned for Michaelmas Term, the others having joined up. In Hilary Term 1915, Maturin travelled to the US, and preached a series of Lenten sermons in New York.

He made the decision to return home on the RMS Lusitania on 1 May, believing, like many others, in her size and speed, despite the German Embassy's warning in the American papers of the danger to shipping. On 7 May, Maturin had taken lunch on board with a fellow RC priest, Fr Charles Clarke, before the ship was struck by the torpedo.

From the point of impact, he knew his duty to the men and women on board. He was seen on deck looking pale, but perfectly calm, giving absolution to his fellow passengers in their final moments. As the last lifeboat was lowered into the water, he handed over a baby with the words: "Find its mother." Of more than 30 infants who boarded safely at New York, only four survived.

When Maturin's body was washed ashore, it was not wearing a life-jacket.

JOSEPHINE WARD recalled that "Fr Maturin used to say that he knew he should have a lonely funeral, and he prophesied that it would be on a wet day, and in an empty church."

But Maturin was deeply mourned by his Roman Catholic and Anglican friends. His body was brought to London, and Cardinal Bourne presided at the requiem mass sung in a packed Westminster Cathedral on 21 May.

The Cowley Fathers mourned him, too. Congreve wrote to Sister Fidelia CSJB, Maturin's sister at Clewer: "Our Irish origin drew us together, and enabled us generally to understand one another. And so I came gradually to find all the vitality of intelligence and affection, all the light and joy and beauty of his soul. . .

"I refuse to dwell in thought on the sorrow of the end, for that is passed and over for ever, and one thinks of the Infinite Love that has welcomed him home. And of all the hope and happiness he has brought to numberless souls in this world, whom he has taught to look through it, to our Lord."

Andrew Doll is Research Assistant to the Director of the Cowley Project, and Scholar-elect of Jesus College, Oxford.


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