FATHER BROCARD SEWELL 1912 - 2000
by Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the April 2008 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Last year on our way to Whitstable to attend the Sole Society Gathering my husband, David and I stopped off at Faversham in Kent. There was not a lot to see but we did find the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel which contains the shrine of St Jude. Just as we were about to leave David drew my attention to a notice with the name of Father Brocard Sewell, a Friar at Aylesford in Kent, commemorating his death in the year 2000.
Naturally I had to find out more, not only the Sewell connection but also the mention of Aylesford. As a convent schoolgirl, every year we went to Aylesford on retreat. I remember it as a good day out, on the coach, a picnic in the grounds and chatting with friends, and it always seemed to be sunny. Although Father Brocard must have been at Aylesford at the time I had no idea there had been a Sewell there, other than myself, so I naturally had to find out more about him.
What I did find was a fascinating character. Father Brocard Sewell was for forty eight years a Carmelite monk, as well as a literary figure, a friend and patron of young poets. He was a scholar and theologian, with a career as an editor, printer, publisher and prolific writer. His religious life was equally diverse as his secular career.
Father Brocard was born Michael Gerveys Seymour Sewell, on the 30th July 1912 in Bangkok, a descendent of a notable Sewell family from the Isle of Wight. His father, Cecil Arthur Seymour Sewell, was a teacher for the Siamese Government Education Services at the time. Born into the Anglican hierarchy he was baptised on 1st November 1912 by his paternal grandfather, the Rev Arthur Sewell, who came from a long line of Anglican clergy connected with the Oxford Movement. His great great great grandfather was William Sewell, the Tractarian, who founded Radley College, Oxford and a great Uncle, Henry Sewell, being the first Premier of New Zealand
After the death of his mother, Ethel, soon after his birth, he was sent back to England where he was brought up in Cornwall by his maternal Grylls grandparents. He was educated at Weymouth College, leaving at the age of sixteen, having received a score of nil out of three hundred in school certificate mathematics. In his autobiography ‘The Habit of a Lifetime’ published in 1992, he described Weymouth College as run on Low Church lines and as a hell of rain-drenched rugby pitches and swishing canes.
Leaving school at 16, he found work as a general factotum in the London Office of ‘GK’s Weekly’, the paper founded by GK Chesterton. Here he met writers, thinkers and artists. Among the many were, Hilary Pepler a printer and writer, a Quaker who converted to Roman Catholicism, Henry Williamson, the writer of Tarka the Otter and more controversial books and Arthur Machen a ‘black-arts’ writer. After he left GK’s he went to join the Eric Gill’s artistic community at Ditchling in Sussex. The controversial Eric Gill was the designer of various typefaces as well as the relief Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. In that Catholic community (Michael had already converted) he found an emotional haven and professional direction, and stayed for five years working as a compositor.
In 1931 Michael converted to Roman Catholicism, at the church of the Canons Regular of the Lateran, St Peter in Chains in London. After becoming a Catholic he tried a vocation as a Dominican Friar. Having left shortly after he went back to Ditchling. During the Second World War although essentially a pacifist he joined the RAF becoming a map specialist. He later spent a year in occupied Germany after the war. On re-entering civilian life he tried his vocation again this time with the Austin Canons
He finally achieved his ambition in 1952 to become a Carmelite Friar and joined the Order at their Priory in Aylesford, in Kent. Michael Gerveys Seymour Sewell became Father Brocard Sewell, taking the name of Brocard from the 13th century prior of the hermits of Mount Carmel. St Brocard was said to have been the Prior of Mount Carmel when St Albert of Jerusalem gave the Carmelites their rule in 1210. Father Brocard was ordained a priest in 1954.
At Aylesford he established a Community library and the St Albert’s Press where he continued the tradition of hand-printed works. For twelve years he edited the ‘Aylesford Review’, a significant literary magazine, whose contributors included Thomas Merton, Muriel Sparks and Henry Williamson. In the early 1960’s the ‘Aylesford Review’, under the guidance of Father Brocard, entered a more combative, overtly political phrase, publishing articles on the Official Secrets Act, police corruption and the Profumo scandal over Christine Keeler. He befriended Christine Keeler, describing her in his memoirs as a ‘beautiful and well-mannered young women’. When asked how these incendiary issues drew no comment from his superiors, Father Brocard suggested that neither the prior nor the prior-general ever read the magazine. However they did respond when he became engaged in a controversy speaking out against the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception, in a letter he wrote to ‘The Times’ in 1968 protesting at the papal report on birth control.
He was suspended from preaching and hearing confessions in his diocese and expelled from the Aylesford Priory. In exile he went to Canada, teaching courses on the pre-Raphaelites and fin-de-siecle (end of the nineteenth century, decadence) writers at St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia. He then moved to Mount Carmel College where among other things he taught seminarians to make Christmas puddings. He was finally allowed to come back to the Carmelite house at Aylesford.
Returning to England he spent the last twenty years of his life at various Carmelite Communities at Cheltenham, Faversham and North London, continuing with his literary interests. Father Brocard died aged 87, on the 2nd of April 2000. He was described in his obituary in the Guardian as a ‘small, owlish man in his brown habit, with a quizzical but, imperturbable expression, he was an unforgettable figure on the fringes of English literary life – he had the strange mix of innocence and sharp intelligence that seems to flourish more creatively in a religious order than in the outside world.’ It goes on to say that ‘The level of his tolerance of human oddity was part of his extraordinary charm.’
Wilfred McGreal of the Order of Carmelites wrote, ‘While holding a wide range of esoteric opinions, he was always obedient and would take on any task however uncongenial. He enlivened Community life with his anecdotes and good-natured conversation. He had a great belief in always being charitable. Despite the onset of the weaknesses that come with old age he remained good company to the last. The Carmelite Order in Great Britain is the poorer for his death.’ n
Guardian, 4th April 2000
Wilfred Mc Greal, Order of Carmelites
Return to The Sole Society Home Page