Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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Br Giles

Hilfield Friary’s place in the history of Anglican Franciscans is well-known, but the man who founded it in December 1921 has remained stubbornly elusive. So little has been known of Giles’ pre-friar years and he had simply disappeared from records after the mid-1930s. It was always feared he had died anonymously somewhere, perhaps even in a ditch at a roadside. The founder of Hilfield – as his successor Brother Douglas always insisted in calling him – was as enigmatic in death as he had been in life. Would answers ever be found to the questions of his early life and when he died?

At the time of writing This Poor Sort, it was known that Giles had been born Edward Kelly Evans in a small town in Ireland on 17 December 1879. There was much more detail about his role in the beginning of the friary. Brother Giles was a former novice from the Society of the Divine Compassion (1911-13), who had begun a ministry on the roads with wayfarers before the First World War. His experiment was cut short by the war, in which he served as a stretcher bearer in France before responding to a request for men to serve as NCOs in the King’s African Rifles in modern day Kenya/Tanzania.

Returning to Britain in 1918, he had resumed his former itinerant life. But  social attitudes to people living on the roads had changed dramatically. Rather than the pre-war scorn, wayfarers had public sympathy, as so many were ex-soldiers. Giles found a groundswell of support for his ministry. At first offered Bartlemas, the medieval leper chapel on the outskirts of Oxford, as a base – a place where he regularly prayed – he finally took on a more ambitious offer. The Earl of Sandwich offered him the collection of buildings at Hilfield, formerly a residential school. Here Giles would found a religious house for friars (Brotherhood of St Francis of Assisi), as well as a farm where wayfarers could be rehabilitated through work on the land.

Giles and his first novices went to Hilfield on 16/17 December 1921. The initial financial generosity of patrons was soon used up on equipping the farm and on living expenses. The wayfarers who came were not, for the most part, skilled in market gardening or farming – and neither were the brothers. By September 1922, debts had mounted alarmingly and the experiment was in danger of collapse. All the responsibility fell on Brother Giles and he was under great stress.

Late in September 1922, he was caught in a sexual embrace with a visiting undergraduate from an Oxford college. The man who discovered this was a retired army major, who had brought his family to live in one of the houses at the friary, so he could help the brothers. Major Lloyd had a traditional view of morality, in which homosexuality was absolutely taboo. Sexual activity between men was a criminal offence and the student was under the age of 21 and therefore in 1922 was regarded as a ‘minor’. Major Lloyd could have had Giles arrested. Instead he took him to the rail station and told him to leave and never come back.

Brother Giles returned to the roads, helping out in parishes in the next decade or so, spending short periods with friends before moving on, and spending many hours in silent prayer in churches he visited. The last recorded sighting was with Canon Charles Hutchinson, a vicar in London, in the mid-1930s, by which time Giles was viewed as ‘a sick, sad eccentric’, physically and mentally frail.

That would have been the end of our knowledge of an important figure in SSF history if it were not for the advent of new records, not available in the 1990s.

The Irish census of 1901 is one, and we find the 21-year-old Edward Evans living in Dublin. His widowed mother was living off rents and Edward and his siblings were living in a prosperous part of the city. He had a job as a clerk but also described himself as a student.  His family were all ‘Church of Ireland’, but Edward described himself as a ‘Bible Christian’, which was a branch of Methodism that stressed Bible study. Edward clearly took faith very seriously at this age.

The local Church of Ireland parish was St Bartholomew’s, one of the ‘high church’ parishes in the city. The vicar of the parish had founded a small women’s community in 1892 that had its purpose-built convent at the end of the very road in which the Evans family lived. The sisters ran a school, and Giles would have seen them in their blue serge habits and been aware, therefore, that Anglicans had recovered Religious Life. Maybe it was the sisters who told him of the Society of the Divine Compassion whose Franciscan novitiate he joined around 1911.

We now have a better understanding of Giles’s background, but what of his final years? In the recently-issued 1939 Register in which people were counted soon after the Second World War broke out, we find that ‘Edward Evans’ is a common name. By including the name ‘Kelly’, used by some of his family in 1901 to create a double-barrelled surname, we find that a man with the correct date of birth and listed as a former KAR soldier was living in Poole, Dorset, with another retired army man and his wife. It is impossible to know if Giles was staying with them on a long-term basis or simply resting there for a few weeks.

In the Second World War, the government was keen to avoid having anyone tramping the roads, as this would have been a perfect ‘cover’ for espionage. So those who were fit were sent to work on the land or making munitions, while those who were unwell were taken into care, the beginning of the welfare state that emerged formally after 1945. Giles, known as ‘Edward Kelly-Evans’, is listed on the Register as being ‘incapacitated’.

One of the new homes for men suffering the ailments of old age and dementia was established after the war at Stopham House, in the west Sussex village of Stopham. It was to here that Giles was eventually transferred. With three proper meals a day and sufficient medical care, Giles would have recovered physically, even if mentally he remained impaired or confused.

Giles died at Stopham House on 25 April 1963 at the age of 83, from heart failure. He outlived Douglas and Algy and the other Franciscan pioneers in the Church of England by some years. Sadly no one knew he lived so long. Those who tried to trace him in the 1950s drew a blank. Yet nothing can erase the role he played in establishing Hilfield Friary, for Douglas would never have gone there first or started a religious community of friars. It is good to know at last that, despite all his sufferings, Giles did not die alone or uncared for. A picture of him now graces the walls of the refectory at Hilfield along with Douglas and Algy, co-founders of the Society of St Francis. f

Dr Petà Dunstan was, until her retirement, Librarian of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of St Edmund’s College in Cambridge and has written widely on the subject of Anglican Religious Life. Her book ‘This Poor Sort: History of the European Province of the Society of St Francis’ was published in 2011.