Father Wainwright (1847-1929) lived and died a member of the Church of England. Had it been otherwise, he would perhaps have been canonised and known as ‘The English Cure d’Ars’. He ministered as curate and then vicar of St Peter’s, Wapping, when the Docks of East London were at their height – and the living conditions of the dockers and their families at their most fearsome.
Evelyn Underhill, herself one of the most remarkable Anglican spiritual guides of the 20th century, wrote this appreciation of Fr Wainwright, in the Spectator.
In 1873, a dapper young clergyman, very correctly dressed, with well-brushed hat and black kid gloves, arrived at the Clergy House of St Peter’s London Docks. Fifty-six years later, on a bed as poor and comfortless as any ascetic could desire, a little old man lay dead in his bare and carpetless room; and in the words of one of his children, “Dockland was washed with tears,” because this tiny but indomitable figure, shabby, untiring, spendthrift of love, would not serve them on earth any more.
There are two ruling factors in all the varied types of Christian holiness. One is the great stream of tradition which rises in the New Testament, and in which all these lives are bathed. To that tradition, each adds something; and from it each takes inspiration, formation, power. The other factor is the social life within which the saint emerges; with its special incitements to heroic virtue, its special demands and needs. Thus the world of the sixth century asked for just what St Benedict gave it; it was to the intellectual turmoil of the thirteenth that St Thomas sacrificed his career; the world of the Counter-Reformation gave St Ignatius his peculiar call. But the demand and the response may also be found in their perfection within a narrower sphere. St Vincent de Paul is nowhere closer to his pattern that in the slums of Paris; hunting the rubbish heaps for abandoned babies, and serving poverty in its most repulsive disguises with reverent love. The Cure d’Ars fulfils his vocation in an obscure French village and among the simplest souls. Perhaps it was the inspiring force of these two lives, with their self-spending passion for the sinful and the abject which – more than any other factor – determined Father Wainwright’s particular place in the communion of saints. For in them he saw radiant charity triumphing in an environment very like his own.
Nineteenth century Dockland was not conspicuously above the standards of seventeenth century Paris; nor were its inhabitants much more promising material than the peasants of Ars. It was for this very reason that they made their overwhelming appeal. He served them for over half a century, without holidays and always in a poverty of life very near their own. The blankets from his bed had a way of disappearing; several times he gave away the shirt he was wearing … Yet his life was not so deliberately, as inevitably austere….
Every day developed naturally from its invariable beginning; a long period of rapt devotion before the altar, which nothing but an urgent summons to the dying was allowed to interrupt. The morning was usually absorbed by letters and interviews with the growing crowd who brought him their difficulties and sorrows. The afternoon was given to the visiting of the sick, always one of his chief cares. He went with an untiring zest from house to house and hospital to hospital, often those in distant parts of London which had patients from among his flock; and slept in the train between his visits to make up for the shortness of his nights … the sick, the destitute, the outcasts and the sinful had always the first claim on his time and love; direct personal contacts with individuals, unlimited self-spending in their interests, was pastoral methods he thoroughly understood. He was always ready to leave the ninety-nine good churchgoers and start single-handed to rescue one lost sheep.
There was much that was mediaeval in his outlook and the realistic temper of his religious life; and he would have been completely at home among those English mystics who wore printed above their hearts the Holy Name … But a sweet little smile and gentle manner hid an iron will where the essentials of the faith and practice were concerned, for he remained loyal to the strict Tractarian tradition within which his vocation had developed and made few concessions to modern ideas… his character and his presence did more for the true social salvation of Dockland than all the forces of law and order and social reform. He found an all-lit, insanitary, largely lawless area; where policemen went in couples and no-one’s property was safe. With the entire fearlessness of a person whose life in not his own, he went at all hours through its worst alleys, intervened in street rows, fraternized with the roughest inhabitants, and attracted children who formed his constant bodyguard. At first he was ridiculed, then tolerate, then liked; at last, universally loved and revered.
And this was achieved by a person without striking qualities of intellect or manner, and with none of the “extraordinary” gifts so commonly attributed to saints. He was an inarticulate preacher; people came to his sermons not so much to listen as to look at his face and be in his atmosphere. In practical matters his judgement, from a worldly point of view, was not always sound. But a compassion that was more than human seemed to reach out through his spirit from beyond the world, and move among derelict men as one that serveth.
For there is a kind of sanctity in which human love and pity are transfused and transmuted into a channel of the Celestial Charity itself: and it was Fr. Wainwright’s entire self-giving to that holy Energy which sent him out as its agent to the hospital and the slum. In his old age it was said of that fiery little soldier, St Ignatius, that “he seemed to have become all love.” The power which operated that transformation is still at work within the world of men.