John Hamilton Cowper Johnson, Priest, S.S.J.E. (1960)

ON the second of June, 1877, there was born at the parsonage in Pulloxhill, Bedfordshire, England to the Reverend William Cowper Johnson and his wife Emily Barham, a son. He was baptized John Hamilton Cowper. The Johnsons belonged to a network of clerical families of the Diocese of Norwich. One of the best known forebears was Johnny Johnson the loyal friend and guardian of the poet Cowper. Another forebear was the famous John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, London, and Poet (1571-1631.) While Hamilton, as he was called in the family, was still very young, the family moved back into the Diocese of Norwich. The parishes of Welborne and Yaxham had been in the family for several generations. Johnny Johnson had built the very large Rectory at Yaxham when he was caring for the mentally unbalanced poet Cowper. It was in this house that the young Johnsons, four brothers, grew up. Their parents were first cousins. Mrs. Johnson’s father had been Rector of the nearby parish of Welbourne. This parish was afterwards united with Yaxham under one priest. Hamilton’s first recollections were of the Norfolk countryside, of the ancient city and cathedral of Norwich, and of seaside places such as Sherringham, where relatives were the local incumbents of the churches. He was sent, like all sons of gentlemen in those days, to private preparatory schools. These were terribly rough, and the sensitive and rather delicate boy had nothing but memories of bullying, cold, hunger, and loneliness in them. No wonder that he seemed not to be of a scholarly bent. It was decided that when he had reached his teens he should go to London and live in lodgings at Heme Hill while he learned to be a telegraph operator. He was sent to Malta in 1894 to pursue that work. His recollections of Malta were his happiest ones. The bright sun, warmth, romantic surroundings, pleased him. He made friends with the Anglican Chaplain and it was through him that his mind began to turn to the sacred ministry as his vocation. He had been confirmed in 1892 while in London at St. Paul’s Cathedral by Bishop Frederick Temple. In Malta he saw something of the local Catholicism, but only from the outside. He heard the singing and saw the processions and was attracted by the ceremonial. Through family connections he was able to enter New College, Oxford, where he was graduated in 1902, after which he went to Cuddesdon Theological College for a year in divinity. He was ordained Deacon in 1903 by Bishop Edward Talbot in Southwark Cathedral with the title of Wimbledon parish and Priest in 1904, by the same Bishop. Remington Rocksborough Smith, afterwards Bishop of Algoma in Canada, was the incumbent. There was what would now be considered a large staff of clergy who cared for several churches in the town. At Oxford Hamilton had come under the influence of the Rev. Stuckey Coles, where he had also seen something of the Cowley Fathers. So in 1906 he went to the Mission House to try his vocation in the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The Father Founder, Richard Meux Benson, was still alive. Father Hollings was the Novice Master. Father Burton, afterwards Bishop of Nassau, was also in the Novitiate at the same time.

Father Powell, S.S.J.E. Superior in Boston visited England a few years after Fr. Johnson’s profession in 1909, and he suggested to the Father Superior General, Father Bull, that Father Johnson be assigned to the Mission House in Boston which was at that time a branch house of Cowley. So in 1916 Father Johnson settled down to a long ministry at St. John’s Church, Bowdoin Street. His most fruitful work was done with individuals. He spent many hours in the old Church into which all sorts and conditions of men, women, and children wandered. He would make friends with them, and many were brought to Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession. The Old Howard Theatre, a not very reputable place of entertainment, was only a couple of blocks away. Those who performed there often lodged in the grubby houses in the neighborhood of Bowdoin Street. Two women tightrope dancers came to the church one day seeking one of the Fathers. They had been brought up as Mennonites, and so had not been baptized in infancy. A friend of these sisters had said one day “Aren’t you scared of being killed when you are not even Baptized?” They had accordingly gone to the minister of the Tremont Baptist Temple seeking Baptism. They were highly insulted at his insisting that they must give up their profession. Mrs. Delmonico, the woman who kept the lodging house where they were staying, said to them “Go over to the Fathers on Bowdoin Street. They won’t treat you like that.” As a result Fr. Johnson brought these women into the Church in which they became very devout communicants. They gave us their itinerary, and we looked up the addresses of churches in the places where they performed, so that they could go to church each Sunday. That is just one example of Father Johnson’s ministry. There were families and children on and around Bowdoin Street who were devoted to him, and he to them. He was nervous about preaching from notes only. He hesitated a good deal for words. At one time, when Fr. Powell was away in England we got Fr. Johnson to write out short sermons and to read them. They were gems of devotion and of lovely English. The congregation appreciated them. Unfortunately he was teased out of keeping it up. He was always an ardent Latin scholar. He loved the Latin classics. His devotional life was built up upon the Latin Collects. He never tired of finding in them that primitive evangelical teaching about the one great sacrament and mystery of our holy religion. By 1941 he was no longer able to carry on his ministry at the Mission House, and he moved to the Monastery at Cambridge where he was a joy and help to the Fathers and Brothers, and where he heard the Confessions of many priests and layfolk who sought him out there.

Father Johnson was a great believer in reading good novels. He found that they kept him in touch with ordinary and extraordinary people. Through them he was better able to understand the difficulties of those who came to him for counsel. His. acquaintance was not limited to the simple folk around Bowdoin Street. He was a close friend of Ralph Adams Cram the architect and of his family, and went with them in 1921 on a journey to Spain, acting as ,their chaplain. Prof. Chandler Post of Harvard and Thomas Whittemore, who restored the famous mosaics at Sancta Sophia, Istanbul, were close friends, who valued Father Johnson’s advice, not only on spiritual, but on scholarly matters. He carried on a long correspondence with Rose Macaulay the novelist, and was the means of bringing her back into the religion of the Church.

He had his foibles. He really seemed to enjoy worrying about practical matters. He was devoted to the Monastery cat, and could never settle down for the night until he was sure that spoiled animal was in and fed. He greatly disliked having a number of the Brethren away from home especially if they were in a car. He was sure they would all be killed! He had no use for either the modern pronunciation of Latin as used in schools, or of the Roman “chees and shaws”. He pronounced Latin in the old-fashioned English way, just as though it were English. He could not believe that anyone could appreciate Latin poetry unless he used this method.

Father Johnson gladly gave his time and attention to individuals. His counsel was always sound and based on his praying and thinking upon the Mystery of our Holy Religion.

“Then doth the Cross of Christ work fruitfully
Within our hearts, when we love harmlessly
That cross’s pictures much, and with more care
That Cross’s children, which our Crosses are.”

John Donne, Divine Poems, “the Cross.”

Cowley, Vol. XXXII, No. 3.

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