Richard Waldo Sibthorpe (1792-1879)

written by Peter Clarke

In Ryde we know Richard Waldo Sibthorpe as the Anglican Pastor of St. James’s, Lind St, Ryde who caused such a storm when he converted to the Catholic Church. As a boy he had an early flirtation with Catholicism. His family found him praying before a crucifix and conversing with Catholic priests and bishops. On one occasion they arranged for him to be escorted home by the police and subsequently “read him the Riot Act”! This appeared to work as he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1818. Nine years later he purchased the proprietary church of St. James next to the town hall. A proprietary church had an independence to the extent that the pastor’s income came solely from the contributions of the congregation. The larger the congregation the more money he received especially (as in this case) if they were largely the gentry and upper class. Sibthorpe certainly benefitted financially. He was a fiery and eloquent preacher and he knew how to draw a crowd.

The most high profile English convert at this time was Fr. George Spencer; youngest son of the Spencers of Althorpe. (The same family as the late Princess Diana). His mother, Lavinia Spencer, is well known for providing the first Free School (1814) here on the Island. Spencer converted in 1830 and was ordained to the Priesthood in 1832. It was here in Ryde that he first met Sibthorpe. The Spencers had a holiday home, Westfield House, in Spencer Road overlooking the Solent. It was here that Spencer and Sibthorpe would discuss their religious beliefs for many hours.

Sibthorpe soon started to visit Fr. Joseph Rathbone (Parish Priest at St. Thomas’s, Cowes 1830-42) in secret to receive instructions in the faith. Elizabeth, Countess of Clare, was a member of Sibthorpe’s congregation in her Anglican days and when she set out on her famous grand tour of Europe in 1841, Sibthorpe had little doubt that she would return as a Catholic. He himself converted to Catholicism in 1841 six weeks after the Countess. For Sibthorpe the time was right. Newman had just published his famous Tract 90 in which he sought to explain how the Thirty-Nine Articles were compatible with the teachings of the Council of Trent. Sibthorpe identified with the Tract which, not surprisingly, was repudiated by the Anglican Hierarchy. Secondly, Fr. George Spencer had been appointed to Oscott College as Spiritual Director. Nicholas Wiseman, now Auxiliary Bishop of the Midlands, was also based at Oscott in 1841. Fr. Dominic Barberi’s arrival at the College meant that the three Catholics, whom Sibthorpe most admired and respected, were together in one place for the first time in England. Sibthorpe wanted to be actively involved with their mission to evangelize England but he had much to lose: his own proprietary chapel, a comfortable position, a beautiful house (Holmwood) which he had built for himself at Upton, to the south of the town, and with one of the finest gardens in Ryde, cared for by no less than seven gardeners. Could he relinquish all this to join a Church with an uncertain future in England, with no Hierarchy; churches scattered sporadically around the country and priests who were mostly poor and living in modest, basic, rented accommodation? Could he live with his conscience if he chose an easy, comfortable life and simply watched progress from the sidelines, while he maintained his status quo? Long hours of prayer and scripture study finally convinced him. For Sibthorpe all roads now led to Oscott, where he was received into the Church on 21st May 1842 by Bishop (later Cardinal) Wiseman and ordained to the priesthood six months later. Inevitably this caused much consternation in Protestant Ryde. The timing was significant as it was slightly before the “Oxford Movement” reached its height with the conversions of Newman and Ward in 1845. The Hampshire Telegraph of 20th Dec 1841 states “Ryde – A rumour is very prevalent and surmounts to a certainty, that Mr Sibthorp is shortly coming back here, and will commence his labours as a Romish Priest, and that a chapel will be opened here or at St Helen’s. His first Sermon will be preached at Newport”. When he did return to sell his house and clear up his affairs, he was condemned and attacked by most of his congregation and fellow churchmen who regarded him as a traitor. It was made worse when he initially attempted to sell his proprietary church in Ryde to the Countess of Clare. If she had purchased it Ryde Catholics would probably not have their beloved St. Mary’s, as it is today. She decided however that it would be diplomatic to look elsewhere. For a while Sibthorpe rented a cottage at St. Helen’s; a safe distance, he thought, from his adversaries in Ryde. His more devoted followers from St. James’s Church attended his Masses but he did not make many converts among his former parishioners. His first sermon as a Catholic was preached after Christmas at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, Newport. To the surprise of most of his friends and the ridicule of his enemies he was back in the Anglican fold within a few years, although they did not exactly welcome him with open arms. Fr. Michael Clifton (Southwark Diocesan archivist) spoke to the IW Catholic History Society in 2003. In his book, “A Victorian Convert Quintet”, he explains that Sibthorpe’s return was prompted by an unfortunate incident at St. Helen’s. Apparently the altar server forgot to extinquish the candles one day after Mass and the room caught fire, destroying vestments, holy pictures and altar linen. Only the previous year, when staying with a friend in Southampton, the house was burned down by arsonists, following the appeal of a radical, dissenting minister to “burn this Romish priest”. Was this lightening striking twice? A strange co-incidence indeed! Sibthorpe considered this to be a warning from God that he had made the wrong decision in “going over to Rome”. Indeed the Hampshire Telegraph described Sibthorpe as “an awkward papist. His fellow papists do not know what to make of him as he does not pray to the Virgin Mary”. By now he was in an inner torment, missing what he had left, fearing to return, unsatisfied by what he embraced. He wrote to J R Bloxam, once Newman’s curate at Littlemore, “God knows how I have felt the change from Rome to Anglicanism! I have scarcely known a day of mental or heart peace since I made it.” The turning point came on 1st October 1843 when Sibthorpe received Holy Communion at St. Helens Parish Church. This marked his return to the Anglican Church, much to the distress of Wiseman, who was ridiculed by many for permitting Sibthorpe’s “fast-track route” to Ordination. There was no warm welcome home by the Anglican Church. The Bishop of Winchester was reluctant to allow him to minister again so Sibthorpe returned to his native Lincolnshire where he was eventually permitted to work as an Anglican priest once more, although he kept in contact with his Catholic friends. It was in Lincolnshire during this time that he built some alms-houses.

By the early 1860s his writings and sermons portrayed a more Catholic nature and character. It was the death of his friend, Fr. George Spencer, in October 1864 that persuaded Sibthorpe to look once again towards the Church of Rome. Spencer had been influential in Sibthorpe’s conversion and his sermons and writings on Christian Unity were never far from Sibthorpe as he prayed earnestly and considered his next move. Always searching for the truth in his faith journey, he even considered for a time, an independent Christian ministry. Eventually it was the writings of the Cure d’Ars (St. John Vianney) and Newman’s “Apologia” that persuaded him that the Catholic Church was his true home. It was the Concept of Truth which was paramount to him and he considered that everything else was dependent on this pre-eminent concept. According to his biographer, Rev. J. Fowler, the pious, yet simple lifestyle of Abbe Vianney, and the conscientious and devotional nature that he portrayed, reflected in his love and concern for the poor, had a profound effect on him. Likewise, Newman’s concise and analytical response to Charles Kingsley’s attack, struck a chord with Sibthorpe. He recommended the “Apologia” to all his friends. Shortly before his return, Sibthorpe wrote to a friend, “I now consider the Roman Mass one of the finest offices ever put together, and in regard of which, I find myself concurring, approving and delighting.” Cardinal Wiseman heard the news with great joy and summoned his former Oscott student to meet him. Sibthorpe’s first Mass, in this, his second and final period, as a Catholic priest, was celebrated in the presence of the ailing Cardinal in his own private chapel in London. Was it a coincidence that it was on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus (25th Jan); which today marks the conclusion of the week of prayer for Christian Unity; a crusade close to Fr. Sibthorpe’s heart? Ultimately he came to realise that Truth, as exemplified by the Catholic Church, was more important than unity. In Ryde the Protestant community had virtually “airbrushed” Sibthorpe from their mind. Most had regarded him as a Roman anyway since 1842, although a few members of his former church in Lind Street still maintained contact with him. At St. Mary’s a Mass of thanksgiving was arranged by the Countess to mark the reconciliation of her former pastor.

The Vatican I decree on Papal Infallibility severely tested Sibthorpe’s allegiance. He could not stomach this doctrine. The idea of an Italian telling Queen Victoria what to do almost drove him back to the Anglican fold. At almost eighty years of age he eventually decided against another change in his faith journey. His final years were spent in Nottingham at St. Barnabas Cathedral, still attracting a crowd with his forthright and eloquent sermons as he did in Ryde forty years earlier. He died in April 1879 (three weeks before the Countess of Clare). How appropriate that Almighty God should call him to his eternal rest on Maundy Thursday, the day of the commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist; the day of the Last Supper; the day of the first Mass; the Eve of the Passion of the Crucified Saviour. These two singular events, the most significant in the Catholic Church, represented the strongest yearning of his devout heart. As he prepared to meet his Maker at the age of eighty seven, he uttered his last words, spoken with anticipation and confidence: “I am now preparing to go to heaven”. Before this final journey, news reached him that Newman had accepted a Cardinal’s hat from Pope Leo XIII, much to his disappointment. He had for long considered Newman an ecumenical bridge between the two churches. Sibthorpe saw Newman’s membership of the College of Cardinals as a final rejection of Anglicanism and his acceptance of the “Rome of the Vatican dogmas”.

William Gladstone, a parliamentary colleague of Richard’s brother, Col. Charles Sibthorpe, MP for Lincoln, had known the family for many years and had heard Sibthorpe’s fiery sermons in his youth. He paid a fitting tribute to this complex pastor and pioneering advocate of Christian unity, “I am sure that his peace is now deep and his light abundant. I can only think of him as a simple, rare and truly elect soul”. It is difficult to analyse the religious affiliation of Richard Sibthorpe. He regretted what he saw as the “nineteenth century extras” that had infiltrated the Church; – the devotion to the Sacred Heart, Marian pilgrimages, the definition of papal infalliblity and the Ultramontane views of Manning and Ward as exemplified by Vatican I. A letter to his most intimate friend, Rev. Dr. Bloxham of Beeding Priory, reveals, despite many doubts, his preference in Christian worship; “I prefer the worship of the Roman Church, especially her Eucharistic Sacrifice, her sacramental ordinances, her discipline, her many helps to a closer walk with God, her Confession and her special aids to the ministry of the Word. This preference is the most genuine recognition of salvation out of her communion.” His Funeral Mass at Nottingham Cathedral was followed by committal proceedings at the graveside led by an Anglican minister; emphasising that, despite his search for the ideal of Christian Unity and the fact that he had a foot in both camps, he did not fully understand the Catholic faith. The Countess could not be similarly accused. She was completely focussed on the doctrines and teachings of the Church and happily endorsed Marian devotions that Sibthorpe considered superfluous to the Christian message. While she was never without her rosary beads, Sibthorpe had little time for the repetition of Hail Marys, which he found stifling and unrewarding. In 1875 he complained to his friend Dr. Bloxam, “I want to lead Catholics here in Nottingham, in the knowledge of, and reflection on, the Scripture truth. They seem content with simply saying the rosary over and over again”. He could never reconcile himself to what he saw as Mariolatry, – the worship of the Virgin Mary.

Sibthorpe met all the great religious characters of his day and he exemplified many of the characteristics and eccentricities of the period. It inspired his energetic Evangelical preaching and his adornment of St. James’s, Ryde with Romish furnishings and a full-dress choir (one of the first in an Anglican church)

A book on Richard Sibthorpe, written by Michael Trott (available from Sussex Press) identifies Sibthorpe’s continual search for holiness. That search led him to co-operation with Methodists in his early days and an admiration for the Indian missions. Sibthorpe was searching throughout his eighty-seven years. One wonders whether he really found what he was searching for.