There cannot be many people who are remembered so vividly and affectionately 20 years after their death. A goodly number of friends, colleagues, former and current students of the University of York, including the present ecumenical chaplaincy team, gathered on 13 October 2010 in St Paul’s Church, Heslington, for a Memorial Mass to give thanks for Fabian Cowper’s life, ministry, and wicked humour. Fittingly, the celebrant and preacher was Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB, a fellow if slightly junior novice with Fabian, and it was Dom Henry who succeeded him as Master of St Benet’s Hall Oxford.
Peter Charles Cowper was born on 7 September 1931, one of the five children of Major Charles Deane Cowper, and his wife Lorna Christine. His career at Ampleforth School went well, arriving there at St Aidan’s House in September 1945. He was a quiet, rather reserved boy, but was well liked by his contemporaries, and had already developed a quick, ironic humour. In due course, he became a house monitor. He was also a fine athlete, running several times for the school in the most demanding of all events, the 440 yards.
On leaving in 1949, he did his National Service and was then briefly articled to a firm of solicitors. He was becoming clear that he had a vocation to the religious life, and after much thought - for a time he seriously considered joining the Dominicans - he entered the novitiate at Ampleforth in 1952, assuming the name of Fabian (though he continued to be known as Peter to his family and many of his friends).
At one level, this was a surprising decision. Peter - Fabian - was never a rebel. All his life, he was unfailingly obedient to legitimate authority, reflecting his ingrained loyalty to the higher aristocratic branches of his family for whom he often exercised a domestic chaplaincy, officiating at the baptisms, weddings and funerals of ‘the great and the good’. Indeed some of his Benedictine brethren frequently expressed their amusement at his regular appearance in broadsheet society columns, when they had not seen him for months. But he could and did question the wisdom of many established rules and practices.
He had hated the hectic and undignified rush at which, so often, the life of an Ampleforth boy in the 1940's had to be lived, and he was perhaps unfortunate in that his first housemaster was a particularly robust upholder of the conventions of the day. In fact, some of his friends doubted whether he would be able to cope with the routines of the novitiate, and of the monastic life. These were indeed the aspects of life in the novitiate that he found hardest; he most emphatically did not like being 'summoned by bells'. But his vocation held, and after three years reading history at St Benet's Hall, he was ordained a priest in 1961. He then taught for a few years in the School, and served also as an affectionately remembered parish priest of Kirkbymoorside.
In 1967, Ampleforth was asked if it could provide a priest to be assistant Chaplain at London University. Fabian was appointed, and then went on to York University in 1970. These were moves which he welcomed. He had not found in the community the sorts of personal relationship and sense of shared purposes which he needed, and though he blamed himself as much as his brethren for these gaps in his life, there is no doubt that he felt a great sense of liberation. At London, and especially at York, he was an outstandingly successful university chaplain. He kept an open house; had the warmest welcome for all comers; and somehow provided an ambiance in which a lively religious, social and intellectual life could be lived. Under him, More House was a happy and memorable place. He would have been delighted at the ecumenical spirit which so animates today’s York chaplaincy He was from 1975 to 1977 Chairman of the National Conference of Catholic University Chaplains, becoming also in 1974 chaplain to the Knights of Malta.
It was at York that he discovered, to himself and his superiors, his extraordinary gifts as a friend and counsellor. He was one of the first Catholic priests to offer an informed and sensitive pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay Catholics. In 1977, he returned to London; himself underwent a course of psychoanalysis; and worked at various relatively menial jobs to support himself, while he qualified as a professional psychotherapist. This was not an easy time for him, but from 1980 he was established as a professional consultant. (Though he worked with many more people, lay and religious, rich and poor, than came to him formally as clients.) It is almost impossible to analyse the reasons for his remarkable success. Tea and sympathy he could certainly offer - he would readily wash and clothe and feed people in need - and sympathy; patience, understanding, friendship, love; cor ad cor Ioquitum - a heart spoken unto heart, in the spirit of Blessed John Henry Newman.
He was efficient: if there were problems about wrongful dismissal, or redundancy payments, or social security benefits, he would sort them out; foreign holidays, even, were planned with meticulous care. He maintained a sense of humour, a sense of proportion, and an unfailing intellectual rigour.
There were those who wondered how he could combine this life with that of a monk and priest; and I believe he did, over a period, ask himself just that question. He did not always see eye to eye with Abbot Basil Hume and the distance which for some time marked their relationship was bridged in Fabian’s final months of life. His answer came to be clearly given; he had in the second world-war phrase, signed on for the duration - tu es sacerdos in aeternum.
In 1989, he was appointed Master of St Benet's Hall. A great joy to him, it brought him back into the mainstream of Ampleforth life and at the same time gave scope for the exercise of his special gifts. He was already unwell when he took up the post and soon heard that he had an incurable cancer. But he worked on with a confident enthusiasm, and those who were at St Benet's during his year there remember it as a singularly sunny place. His final illness was not easy but to the end his cheeky wit prevailed and he relished being read to, not from solemn texts, but from his favourite humorous newspaper columnists. As his body let him down, he found the loss of his voice particularly hard to bear. But those who saw him in his last few weeks recognised the force of his faith. Speech by then almost beyond him, he managed to say to the monk who was tending him 'I am trying to say the prayer of Gethsemane'.
Fabian died on 13 October 1990; faithful servant of God and the people he loved. He was buried at Ampleforth and a later Memorial Service was held at St James, Spanish Place on 24 November 1990. He was deeply serious about serious things. He found himself increasingly out of sympathy with much contemporary policy, whether ecclesiastical or political. But his own intellectual integrity prevented him from uncritically accepting alternative progressive orthodoxies, and this habit of mind could sometimes make him seem somewhat austere. But, as against that, he was, in the memory of his friends, the most entertaining of companions and correspondents; witty, ironic, self-deprecatory, impishly derisive of pomposity, sometimes frankly fantastical. Cheerfulness was always breaking in and it was this joyful banquet in the communion of saints which was celebrated twenty years later.
Martin Pendergast – with thanks to other sources.
DOM PETER FABIAN COWPER, died 13 Oct 1990
1931 - 7 Sept, born Sandgate Kent, educated Winterfold House & Ampleforth
1949-51 - National Service (Army)
1951-52 - Articled to a firm of solicitors
1952 - 21 Sept, Habit - Ampleforth - Abbot Byrne
1953 - 22 Sept, Simple Vows " "
1954 - 15 Jan, Tonsure " "
1956 - 22 Sept, Solemn Vows " "
1959 - 11/12 Apr, Minor Orders " "
- 19 Jul, Subdeacon Bishop Brunner
1960 - 17 Jul, Deacon " "
1961 - 23 Jul, Priest " "
1955-58 St.Benet's Hall Oxford MA Modern History
1958-66 School - taught History and Politics
1962-63 Monastery Guestmaster
1963-64 Priest-in-charge Kirkbymoorside
Cofounder Ryedale Christian Council
1966-67 Corpus Christi College London - diploma in catechetics
1967-70 Assistant Chaplain London University
1970-77 Chaplain York University
1975-77 Chairperson - National Conference of Catholic Chaplains
1974 Chaplain to the Knights of Malta
1977 Began study and training in psychoanalysis
1977-80 Graduate at London University (MSc Social Studies &
1979 Certificate of Qualification in Social Work
1979-81 Senior Social Worker at Middlesex Hospital Psychiatric Day Centre
1982-88 In private practice in London as Jungian analyst
1983 Member of British Association of Psychotherapists (BAP)
1987 Member of International Association of Analytical
Psychologists (Jungian Analists)
1989 Appointed Master of St.Benet's Hall Oxford - to come into residence Sept 1989
1990 - 13 Oct, died in hospital at Oxford
Buried at Ampleforth
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