The formation of the Society of Retreat Conductors

The origins of the Society can be traced back to the publication of Fr Charles Plater’s book Retreats for the People in 1912. One of those it inspired was Major Arthur Bowker who, together with Fr Philip Bacon, visited Belgium to see some of the houses which had been described by Plater. As a result, in 1914 Bowker and a group of laymen produced a report to the Bishop of Rochester recommending that the Diocese establish a retreat house for the laity. They suggested that this be staffed by a team of three priests, relieved from all parish work and especially trained and experienced in the giving of retreats.

In 1923, Bowker and Bacon returned to the Continent accompanied by Fr Herbert Mather. They saw teams of fully trained priests using Ignatian methods when leading retreats, in houses which were designed and built especially for the purpose. On their return, Bowker and his companions began to study Ignatian spirituality and resolved to form the Society of Retreat Conductors.

By October 1924, Frs Wyatt and Bacon had joined Fr Mather in his home in Tufnell Park to live as a kind of Oratorian community. Through Mather’s generosity, they bought a lease on the adjacent property so that they could welcome other priests and accommodate a limited number of retreatants. On October 21st, the Bishop of Stepney admitted them as members of the Society, with Fr Mather as their Superior. The birth of the Society was announced in an article published in Vision (Nov. 1924).

The Implementation of the Society’s ideal, 1924-1940

Initially, there were three levels of belonging to the Society.

  • The first was that of the full Members who formed the permanent priestly ‘staff’ of the Society, living together, attending the offices and spending at least half an hour each day in mental prayer;
  • The second level was that of Priest Associates, who carried on their normal duties but received training and led retreats on behalf of the Society;
  • The third level was that of Lay Associates. These were men and women who were actively involved in the life of the Society and provided much of its finance.

A wider group of people formed the Fellowship of SRC who were advocates for the mission of the Society, formed a pool of retreatants and underwrote its work by their subscriptions and gifts. Inaugurated in 1927, within 11 years this had grown to no less than 332 members.

The Society had five stated objects;

  • to train priests for the conduct of retreats
  • to conduct retreats
  • to own and to manage retreat houses
  • to study the Ignatian and other methods of retreats and all that relates to the Retreat Movement
  • to publish, or assist in publishing, literature about retreats

The limited accommodation in the Society’s home in Tufnell Park gave little scope for welcoming retreatants, but during 1925 and 1926 members were kept busy leading retreats in some 32 different houses.

The beginnings of Stacklands Retreat House

In 1927, an estate near West Kingsdown in Kent was purchased by Major Bowker and presented by him to the Society. It consisted of some 100 acres, with woodland and two cottages, and became known as Stacklands. An architect was appointed to draw up ambitious plans. The need for the proposed house was confirmed by the demand for the work of the Society. 47 retreats were conducted in 1931 attended by some 520 retreatants.

By early 1934, the Society had moved from Tufnell Park Road to 37 Queens Gate, with permission from the Bishop of London to reserve the sacrament in their oratory.

By 1938, the lay associates of the Society were becoming restless about the lack of progress. A new architect presented plans for an initial domestic block which could be erected within the available budget and could accommodate eight to ten retreatants. Work began on this design on June 16th, with Major Bowker acting as Clerk of Works. The new house was eventually ready in 1940, and the Superior took up residence on 29th April, the first Mass being said the following morning. Bishop Chavasse of Rochester came to bless the house on the Feast of St Ignatius.

The early years at Stacklands

Retreatants soon began to come to Stacklands. However, maintaining the number of resident priests remained difficult. As a result, some of the priest associates assisted the Superior in leading retreats. This proved to be a pointer to the way in which the Society would operate in future years.

Major Bowker died on June 12th 1950. Sadly, he had not lived to see work commenced on a new wing which began in December 1951. This included a chapel, which housed an antique statue of the Mother of God and relics of St Vincent, St Victorinus and St Margaret Mary. The bedrooms and chapel were blessed on 10th April 1953. Although the design was far from the grandeur of the original plans, the vision of large individual rooms for retreatants was retained, making real solitude possible.

Despite failing health, Fr Mather continued conducting retreats, leading some 23 during 1953. There was by now a core of regular retreatants and growing support for the work of the Society through an increase in the membership of the Fellowship. The opening of the new facilities had led to further growth in the number of retreats and it was decided to proceed with a second wing. After some delays, work began on 21st March 1955, but less than four months later Fr Mather died on June 1st.

With his death, followed by the completion of the second wing, the first phase of the life of SRC had come to an end.

1955 – 1971

No records appear to survive for the period following Fr Mather’s death. However, the work at Stacklands continued with major contributions from Fr Jack Lambeth, Fr Peter Laister and Canon Donald Nicholson.

Stacklands after 1971

Work is continuing on the history of the later phases of the Society’s life. Please visit this page again to read the next part of our story which will soon be posted here.