Monday, April 18, 2016

Father O'Connor/Father Brown

Our G.K. Chesterton group discussed the first three chapters of Nancy Carpentier Brown's biography of Frances Chesterton Friday night and decided to assign the rest of the book for our next meeting on Friday, May 13 (the second Friday of the month instead of our usual third Friday).

Several of us commented on the friendship between Frances Chesterton and Father John O'Connor, which was first demonstrated through a correspondence filled with spiritual advice and consolation. Because Brown wrote a biography of Frances and not of Gilbert, she only hints that Father O'Connor was Chesterton's model for Father Brown.

This biography, The Elusive Father Brown: The Life of Mgr John O'Connor by Julia Smith, published by Gracewing Press, may fill some of the necessary gaps left by Nancy Carpentier Brown:

G. K. Chesterton’s much-loved priest-detective, Father Brown, was based on his friend John Joseph O’Connor, born in Ireland and ordained a Catholic priest in 1895. Mgr. John O’Connor became known for possessing one of the finest intellects in early twentieth-century Europe, friend and confidante of statesmen, writers and artists, his own literary output was prolific. He collected fine works of art, the sale of which part funded the building of his first church, and through his friendship with Eric Gill he commissioned the Stations of the Cross for his Bradford church. This, the first biography, aims to introduce the shadowy figure who was involved in so many different worlds.

K.V. Turley reviewed the biography on June 13, 2015 for The Catholic World Report:

Crime fiction fans are well aware of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and his place in the Pantheon of great detectives. Nevertheless, in contrast with the seemingly endless speculation as to the ‘real Sherlock Holmes’, there has been little such debate about the origin of the priest sleuth. However, a recent book, The Elusive Father Brown(Gracewing, 2010), by Laura [sic] Smith, goes some way to rectifying this, detailing as it does the life of the cleric who formed the basis upon which Chesterton’s characterization was based, and who played a part in at least two very public conversions. . . .

Monsignor O’Connor, as he was to become, unlike his fictional alter ego, was very much a priest with a parish and one he was to remain attached to for most of his priestly ministry. Although unmistakeably an Irish man, in accent and manner, he was to live the majority of his life in Yorkshire, more precisely Bradford. In that city he was to gain the status of a local celebrity. He seems to have known the great and the good—Catholic or not—while never neglecting his own flock to whom he was very much an old-fashioned parish priest. He was familiar with the social and political currents that played out around this West Yorkshire municipality as much as they did other British cities. Whereas, at times, Fr. Brown appears ‘other worldly’, this could never have been said of Mgr. O’Connor who was in the thick of things at all times.

In fact, his reach was well beyond the city limits of Bradford, then a place known for heavy industry rather than culture. It was through his influence that all sorts of contemporary cultural figures were to descend upon it, writers like Chesterton and Belloc, and artists such as David Jones and Eric Gill. They came hardly knowing the priest, only, in some instances, to leave as friends and, for some, more deeply Catholic. In Chesterton’s case, he began writing Fr. Brown stories as Anglican only to end those adventures as Catholic, the writer’s conversion in no small part to the influence of Mgr. O’Connor.

Read the rest there.

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