Page, Bernard – priest

Bernard Page - Jesuit priestA former priest at St Walburge’s, Preston, Fr Bernard Page S.J., served throughout the Great War as an army chaplain, including service with the British Expeditionary Force in France. After the Armistice he joined an Arctic convoy sailing from Newcastle for Murmansk and Archangel with the troops sent to support the White Russians fighting the Bolsheviks.


Related articles:
Lancashire’s Catholic chaplains on the Western Front
Preston priests go to war: Fr Tom Baines and Fr John Myerscough
Great War conscription and Preston’s ‘class ceiling’
Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990
When Preston’s Catholics had to lie under ye Bushel
Christopher Tootell – a 17th-century Preston priest


His early life and army career can be followed in a number of documents preserved in archives in England, Ireland and Tasmania, and from scholarly papers.

Medal card for Fr. Bernard Page
Medal card for Fr. Bernard Page

The medal card for Fr. Page indicates that he was awarded the Victory Medal and 1915 Star Medal and had been Mentioned in Despatches.

The archives of the Irish Jesuits supply the above image and the following information:

Fr. Bernard Fullerton Page S.J. (n.16 July 1877, Khishagur, Bengal, India +30 Nov. 1948, Petworth, England): 1916: No. 2 Cavalry Field Ambulance., B.E.F., France; 1917 & 1918: 3rd Cav. Field Ambulance; 1919: No. 2 Cav. Field Ambul., B.E.F., France; 1920: ?

Arriving in Tasmania aged 7, Bernard Page was a boarder at Xavier College and began his noviceship on 1 March 1895 in Sydney, Australia where he also spent his juniorate. Australia was a mission of the Irish Province at the time. He undertook philosophy at Valkenberg and theology at Louvain but completed his course and was ordained, at Milltown Park, 26 July 1910. After finishing tertianship, he joined the staff at St. Ignatius, Preston.

During the war, Fr. Page’s parents were resident in Bruges. He received a copy of a note from his father with permission of the German Commander in Bruges to the American Ambassador in Berlin in December 1916, after two years without news. In December 1918, Fr. Page visited his parents in Bruges having survived the war, ‘They were in a pitiable state of health. Both were horribly thin’.

After demobilisation, he was at St. Aloysius, Oxford in 1921 and in 1922 he went to St. Walburge’s, Preston, where he remained until he retired to Petworth in 1948. He was the editor of the Walburgian. [1]

The Irish archive also supplies the following information about Fr Page’s wartime experiences:

Do Jesuits ever answer back? Our archives hold an exchange between Fr Bernard Page SJ, an army chaplain, and his Provincial, T.V.Nolan, who had passed on a complaint from an Irish officer that Fr Page was neglecting the care of his troops. Bernard replied: “Frankly, your note has greatly pained me. It appears to me hasty, unjust and unkind: hasty because you did not obtain full knowledge of the facts; unjust because you apparently condemn me unheard; unkind because you do not give me credit for doing my best.” After an emollient reply from the Provincial, Bernard softens: “You don’t know what long horseback rides, days and nights in rain and snow, little or no sleep and continual ‘iron rations’ can do to make one tired and not too good-tempered.” [2]

Fr Bernard Page in his army chaplain's uniform
Another photograph of Fr Bernard Page in his army chaplain’s uniform

Damien Burke, who is the assistant archivist of the Irish Jesuit Province, emailed me a short item about Fr Page, together with the above photograph, from the 1919 issue of The Clongownian, the magazine of Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school in Kildare:

Father Page, who was in Clongowes a short time as master and Prefect, is with the Cavalry, and has been at the front since the beginning of the war. In January he wrote to us: ‘At present it is frightfully cold and it is not easy to ride twenty-five or thirty kilometres before breakfast in the snow and say two Masses and preach two sermons.’ This little sidelight gives us some idea of what a Chaplain’s life can be at times.

In his email Mr Burke wrote that he had ‘answered a query a number of years ago from the Talbot Library – they suggested that Fr Page’s swords were made into a cross and candlesticks for use on the war memorial in St Walburge’s.’ A nice substitute for ploughshares.

War memorial at St Walburge's, Preston, with Fr Page's swords reused as cross and candlesticks
The war memorial at St Walburge’s, Preston, with Fr Page’s swords reused as crucifix and candlesticks

The helpful people at two Facebook groups (Catholic Life and History in Preston, South Ribble and Chorley and Catholic Lancashire, Past and Present) established the existence of the crucifix and candlesticks at the church. One member, Michael Durnan, explained that the swords and candlesticks are now put on display only during guided tours and  during Requiem Mass on Remembrance Sunday. Mr Durnan kindly supplied the above photograph from his collection.

Fr Page’s wartime service was discussed in a University of Birmingham MPhil thesis which described him as coming from a well-to-do background [3] and provided more information on the complaint made against him:

Problems with chaplains again surfaced in letters from the Jesuit provincial in Dublin, Fr. Nolan, to Fr. Page in Flanders. It is clear that Nolan had received a complaint from a relation of a Catholic officer claiming that Fr. Page was not performing his duty correctly. The relative claimed that Fr. Page had not been seen and that it was necessary to go to a French priest for confession: ‘He is not doing his duty as it ought to be done’. Fr. Page’s letter to Nolan was very defensive. He pointed out that he was responsible for an area of 200 square miles and that he had to travel twenty miles, while fasting on a Sunday, to hear confession, say two masses and preach. Page, however, may have had other concerns. His parents had been in Brussels in August 1914 during the German invasion and had been living behind German lines ever since. Both survived the war but conditions were very hard in the occupied part of Belgium. Fr. Page was no doubt very concerned about their welfare throughout the war. [4]

Some officers certainly felt that Catholic chaplains were necessary for discipline. Fr. Bernard Page noted that when his orders came for his move to France, the commanding officer of the ninth battalion the East Lancashires was less than pleased. The East Lancs. generally had large numbers of Catholics both in the ranks and as officers. Page went on to point out that, in the ninth  battalion,  there were thirty one officers of which six were Catholic and he cites two examples of officers being very conscientious Catholics, ‘Major Pearce (second in command) who attends Mass and communion every morning and Captain Power a most enthusiastic Beaumont boy’. The Commanding Officer, who was not a Catholic, told Page; ‘There is work for you to do here. I must have someone who my young fellows trust. They are good lads but only half disciplined. I want a padre to keep the Catholics in order and to be a good example to the rest. It is not everyone who can get hold of men’. [5]

An Australian historian Nick Brodie, who works in the Archdiocese of Hobart Archives, has contributed an article on Fr. Page’s wartime service, which includes the following: [6]

A child of the empire as well as the church, Bernard Page was the son of a colonial magistrate. Born in India, he mostly grew up in Australia, earning a reputation as a scholarly sportsman before heading to Europe to join the Jesuits.

… Writing in 1915 to the Archbishop of Hobart — a family friend — Page reported celebrating Mass ‘in a battered chapel just near the lines’, marching ‘along a road which was being shelled by high explosives’, and other such snippets of war.

… Page ‘heard confessions of men sitting on horses, standing sentry, walking along muddy roads in the rain at night and in the day’. He gave Communion to big crowds of soldiers without worrying about the technical rules concerning fasting. He lived the Church of the dressing station in ways both literal and figurative, foreshadowing the unofficial motto of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope.

Two pages of Catholic Magazine of Tasmania 1919
The pages from the Catholic Magazine containing Fr Page’s first letter
Two pages of Catholic Magazine of Tasmania 1919
The pages from the Catholic Magazine containing Fr Page’s second letter

Fr Page’s service in Russia is described in two letters that he wrote to his parents that were printed in Tasmania’s Catholic Magazine. I have transcribed them in full here: Letter 1 and Letter 2.

He records the emotional send off the Arctic convoy was given when it left Newcastle:

We had a most wonderful passage down the Tyne. Every one of the thousands of steam whistles blew blasts of farewell, and ships dipped their flags. Thousands of people rushed to the water’s edge to cheer, and as we passed the shipbuilding yards, all work people “downed tools” and simply rushed to cheer; it was a most wholehearted spontaneous send-off.

Throughout his correspondence Fr Page displays many examples of self-deprecating humour, as in the following:

Every man-jack on board was served with a life belt and posted to a boat … Mine is 11a, and if the ship should be badly mined, I shall not have a wonderful chance of getting off as the other three boats have to be launched, before mine can be touched. … Personally, I think you get a much better view of a ship going down from one of the boats a little way off! The weather is perfectly splendid.

They had to thread their way through minefields and the alarm was soon raised when two mines were spotted drifting just ahead, ‘The skipper told me he thought it would be ten years before the North Sea would again be free of mines.’

Further information was supplied by the skipper:

I was talking to the captain on the bridge, and he told me that some time ago a crew of Lascars were up here during their great fast of Ramazan, when they would not eat till the sun set. But as the sun refused to set, only going down as far as the horizon, and then up again, quite a number of them died of starvation.

The arrival in Murmansk was in sad contrast to their departure from Newcastle:

We got to Murmansk this morning at about 5 a.m., but no one is yet allowed on shore, and we are likely to be kept here a week, as the ice is not yet broken on the way to Archangelsk. I believe passes are to be given us to land, but no one will be allowed to go unless he carries a loaded revolver, as the inhabitants are almost all Bolsheviks who have unpleasant habits with regard to stray unarmed officers.

A warmer (probably not the best word) welcome awaited them in frozen Archangel where they were met with ‘tremendous ovations from the crowd’.

Fr Page, who had served in Preston at St Ignatius’s from sometime after 1910, returned to Preston after the war, to St Walburge’s, where he stayed until shortly before his death in 1948.

While at St Walburge’s he wrote a history of The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston. He was one of the officers of the charity, a role it seems he sometimes found burdensome to judge by a message slip at St Walburge’s dated 15 July 1930: ‘Priest contacted St Walburge’s asking that Fr Page be informed he could not preside at a meeting of the Charitable Society that night.’

Fr Page’s reply at the bottom of the note reads: ‘Get biggest priest present to preside. If no one else is there I’ll take the chair, but I don’t want to.’ [7]

On the eve of World War II Fr Page again found himself on parade, as shown in this article in the Catholic Herald 4th August 1939:

Parade on Eve of Soldier Saint’s Feast: 100 Ex-Servicemen at Preston Church

Well over 100 ex-Servicemen marched to St. Wilfrid’s Church, Preston, on Sunday for 11 o’clock Mass, the parade being organised by the East Lancashire Regimental Association.

Some time ago the Association obtained an Old Comrades’ regimental standard. It has been to another church service and the Catholics desired that it should also be taken to a Catholic church. Hence that friend of the Forces who served as Army Chaplain during the Great War, Fr. B. F. Page, S.J. (St. Walburge’s), was approached to arrange a Catholic church parade for the purpose on a Sunday near the Feast of St. Ignatius, and he duly arranged it for Sunday.

Colour parties from the Old Contemptibles and other organisations participated, with the East Lancashires’ standard leading the march from the Covered Market to St. Wilfrid’s, and after Mass to the Salute at the Cenotaph.

Fr. A. Ferguson, S.J., celebrated the Mass, Fr. Page preached. “You old soldiers,” said Fr. Page, “who are manly men and have always been men of character, give the lie to those who would have us believe that it is unmanly to turn your minds to thoughts of higher things, to raise them to the supernatural.

“For twenty-five years I have known you intimately, and I am convinced that the true soldier, with all his shortcomings, is a man faithful to his religion as he is loyal to his King.” [8]

[1] Irish Jesuits, Fr. Bernard Page S.J. – Medal Card, 10 September 1920, photo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jesuitsireland/4898153356/.
[2] ‘JESUITICA: Answering Back’, Jesuits Ireland (blog), 14 September 2010, https://www.jesuit.ie/news/jesuitica-answering-back-2/.
[3] John Martin Brennan, ‘Irish Catholic Chaplains in the First World War’ (M.Phil thesis, University of Birmingham, 2011), 29, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=17&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwj1mNn45O7kAhVJhlwKHROkC3YQFjAQegQINxAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fetheses.bham.ac.uk%2F3413%2F1%2FBrennan12MPhil.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3WEt6H4wz06AJmB9IYuX8_.
[4] Brennan, 67–68.
[5] Brennan, 71–72.
[6] Nick Brodie, ‘Father Page versus the Bolsheviks’, Eureka Street, accessed 2 January 2020, https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/father-page-versus-the-bolsheviks.
[7] ‘DDX 1130/ACC6491 – First Catholic Charitable Society, Preston’, Lancashire Record Office Catalogue, 1920s-1930s, https://archivecat.lancashire.gov.uk/calmview/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=DDX+1130%2fACC6491&pos=1.
[8] ‘Parade On Eve Of Soldier Saint’s Feast 100 Ex-Servicemen At Preston Church – from the Catholic Herald Archive’, n.d., http://archive-uat.catholicherald.co.uk/article/4th-august-1939/12/parade-on-eve-of-soldier-saints-feast-100-ex-servi.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s