Of Dom and Chant: Benedictine Flashbacks

At present I am putting together the next edition of the monastery’s annual magazine. For this I needed to scan some images from the bound volume containing past magazines from 1924. In my skim-search for the images two little articles came into my ken.


The monks of Douai sit rather loose to the traditional appellation of Benedictine monks, Dom. Some of our current monks are quite passionately against this title, to which an English Benedictine (EBC) monk is entitled (literally) from first profession. The animus is partly for particular personal reasons in some cases. In the main, however, it probably reflects the consistent commitment of the monks of St Edmund’s to the English mission dating from penal times, and which has developed today into our parochial apostolate. On a parish, priests are called Father, not Dom. So when Downside stirred the EBC pot from the latter part of the 19th century, with its zeal for the cloister and more primitive observance and its consequent partial retreat from the missions, the old houses were confronted with the question of identity. Were we monks or missioners first? The sons of St Edmund at Douai inclined to the missionary identity, in contrast to the Downside inclination to the cloister.

But are the options Father and Dom so neatly and accurately explained in the EBC context?

It was intriguing to see a brief article in the July 1924 edition of The Douai Magazine (it was, at this time, published biannually) entitled “The Title ‘Dom’.” It begins prosaically but quickly becomes more interesting:

The fathers of the English Benedictine congregation (sic) receive the title Dom. St. Benedict directed that the Abbot should be addressed as Domnus, the senior monks as nonnus, the junior monks as frater. Custom brought the title domnus to other monks besides the abbot. In England it was don or dan; in Italy, likewise don; in France, dom; in Spain where the title don was used by laymen, the monks were called fray or frai (i.e., frater).

Remember that, after the English Reformation had obliterated monastic life, Englishmen seeking to be Benedictines had to go Spain or Italy, in the main, to find a monastery to join, and the particularly English form of Benedictine life ceased to exist.

Hence at the beginning of the 17th Century when the English monks from Italy and Spain and the Westminster monks were treating of union, it was a very interesting question whether it was to be don or fray, for it implied more than the mere title, in fact it implied an independent English congregation or subjection to Spain, English observance or Spanish observance.

Italian observance was not at issue since the English monks had previously shared with the Italians the title of don.

The English monks were very nice in their observance of this distinction of titles, as may be seen throughout the Apostolatus; the Cassinese [ie Italian-based] and Westminster monks are D, those from Spain fr.

In 1616 there is a letter from Fr Barlow referring to a number of monks resident at the newly-founded St Edmund’s priory in Paris, listing “fr. Nicholas, fr. Placido, fr. George, don Dunstan.” The article notes that all four had been professed within a short space of time at Dieulouard (St Laurence’s, now at Ampleforth) by the same superior, who would have called them all don.

… but Fr Barlow makes a historical distinction. Don Dunstan had been professed in 1614, while the Anselmian or English union was still unrepealed; consequently he was don;  but Nicholas, Placid and George had been professed later, when the English union has been suspended and when, in Fr. Barlow’s opinion, the Four Articles or Spanish union had returned into force, and so they were frater or fray.

Are you keeping up with this? These various unions reflect the turmoil that surrounded the attempts to re-found an English congregation of Benedictines. Needless to say politics was lurking in the shadows:

The agreement of 1617, by which the English and Spanish parties were finally united, left the question of proper title a very doubtful one. On the one hand they had united into an English congregation; on the other they still retained some subjection to the Spanish congregation.This subjection, it is true, was practically merely a titular one… Rome, insisting on the preservation of the old English congregation, and following on a protest from France against Spanish dependence… [modified the articles of union] in order to make the real independence of the English congregation more clear. Still the titular dependence, with a few rights, remained to the Spanish congregation, and when Rome authoritatively confirmed the union a difficulty arose as to whether the members were now to be don or frater.

The monasteries of the newly-(re-)erected English congregation were all in France. Realpolitik was at work, along with the very human attachment of the more senior individuals to their place of original formation and profession.

At the General Chapter, 1621, opinion evidently had unified, for all the fathers, even the English protagonist Fr. Maihew, sign as frater… Frater or brother they all remained until 1725. In 1725 General Chapter decreed that all the fathers should be termed domnus. The change at once appears in the registers… Thus came about the French form Dom, which we use to-day, in place of the old English Don.

So the French and Italian/old English titles cede the ground to the French, though that development took a century to mature. What is clear is that no monk was being called Father. In very formal contexts Dom would be used; in day to day speech it would most likely have been Mister, at least for those monks on the mission, until well into the 19th century.

The article left me hanging, almost teasingly:

It is noticeable in the registers that the priests only are termed Domnus—the rest frater. Moreover it is clear that, although after 1729 the General Chapter did not repeat the decree, it had no intention of discarding the title, for it is continued in the registers, and even the presidents general in the visitation book [ie of the St Edmund’s community] continue all along to use it.

There we have it. Long before Father began to be used for any priest (beginning in Ireland in the 1840s), monk-priests of the EBC were titled Dom. The modern EBC custom, as in the USA and Australia, reflects the 19th-century Irish migrations and the battalions of Irish parochial clergy who consolidated the Church in these new lands. We have, not least due to our parochial work, fallen into line with this trend. Even our anonymous Edmundian author above refers, anachronistically, as Father to the 17th century monks whom he cites.

The unsigned article ends with a reference to an account on the issue in Dom Cuthbert Almond’s History of Ampleforth Abbey. I had better track that down…

Curiously, in Br Choleric’s (ie Dom Hubert van Zeller) evocation of mid-20th century high-monastic Downside in the Cracks in the Cloister series of the 1950s and 60s, the brethren always address each other as… Brother!



In the previous edition of The Douai Magazine, ie from January 1924, there are two small entries in the “Community Notes” section that caught the eye.

The first has the bald title “Gregorian Chant.” The notesman, presumably the editor Dom (ie Fr) Bernard Ryan, begins with gusto:

Under our energetic choir-master we are attempting to attain the ideal set forth by Pope Pius X in the Motu Proprio, wherein he wrote: “The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must be largely restored to the function of public worship… Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may take a more active part in ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.”

The energetic choirmaster was the recently-appointed Fr (or should I say Dom?!) Clement Sherlock. The motu proprio is, of course, Tra le sollecitudini, of 1903. It is in this papal document that the controverted phrase “active participation” bursts on to the liturgical stage. Here we see an interesting elucidation of the phrase by its author, namely that the people participate not by invading the sanctuary and clericalising themselves, but by singing the parts of the liturgy proper to them, in the Church’s proper mode of music in worship, the chant.

Compared with the days of Mechlin, the school might consider that there is rather retrogression, but that is because we are still suffering from growing pains and are at present merely feeling our way. “It’s hard to learn all these new tunes”, as some boys would put it. Nevertheless good progress has been made, despite the delay consequent on the non-printing of the new edition of the Monastic Antiphonal.

The monks of Douai had long been wont to sing chant according to the interpretation of the Mechlin Graduale Romanum of 1848. However, the monks of Solesmes had been engaging in exhaustive research into the chant, and were seeking to correct the corruptions of the chant over time by producing new books that built on their research into ancient manuscripts. It was a sort of musical reformation. It was resisted, not least by the English monks (and our nuns at Stanbrook suffered from the strife, but that is another story). But ongoing official disdain gave way, on the election of Pope Pius X in 1903, to sudden papal approbation. The chant St Pius X is referring to is that of Solesmes. That is why the monks and boys of Douai had so many “new tunes” to learn.

Much practice has brought a certain familiarity with the gradual and all the “Common of the Mass” section is well sung. The “schola” at present has best right to the Proper, which it studies every evening! Tempora mutantur!

How the times change indeed! What is clear is that the boys were singing the Mass (not just at Mass), and it was presumably the conventual Mass of the monastic community. For the changeable parts, the Proper, a more highly-trained and skilled schola of boys was leading the way. More intriguingly, given that they were learning the “new tunes” of the imminent Antiphonal, the boys must have been singing something of the Divine Office as well.

Until the new Antiphonal is printed, we seem destined to be content with sung Compline… Dom Gregory Ould’s “Adoremus” and Abbot Burge’s “Hymn to St Benedict” have been introduced. At the Professions, the traditional tones were used for the “Suscipe” and the Litany of the Saints.

There is a lot to unpack here. The “new Antiphonal” is clearly the awaited edition from Solesmes. The edition Douai bought by the crate-full was that of 1934, though I am not sure if an edition was published in between, that is after 1924. The “Professions” must refer to monastic professions of monks, given the reference to the Suscipe. From the context, it appears that the “traditional tones” must be those of Mechlin. If so, the chant at Douai in the mid-20s must have been a little schizoid: sometimes Mechlin, sometimes Solesmes. As to this “sung Compline” they are resigning themselves to, one can only speculate for now that “sung” is being used in contrast with “chanted,” and that they were singing the office using melodic tunes rather than plainsong.

As if in anticipation of some of my questions, there comes after this another article, “The School Choir.”

There is a further suggestion in the Motu Proprio: “That boys be taught the chant in schools, and thus by degrees it will be brought about (as is our special desire) that the whole body of the faithful may be heard singing with voices and hearts in unison”. Hence the attempt to introduce the Gregorian Chant into the School by using the choir boys as a “Schola”.

This raises some questions I cannot answer as yet. Prior to this, had only the monks sung at Mass? Had the boys not sung any chant at all prior to this, or does “Gregorian Chant” here mean the new Solesmes chant as opposed to the Mechlin chant that the monks had certainly been using before?

As was noted in the last number of the the Magazine, the boys of the Lower School at first sang the Gloria and Credo alternatively with the monks—with a very smooth and pleasing effect. This was but a step to the singing of all the Common of the Mass by the whole school. They were practiced (sic) in the “Missa de Angelis” particularly during the Retreat, and sang it in unison on the Feast of All Saints. It is intended to use the school choir as leaders for the boys in introducing Congregational Plain Song, but this must be a gradual process if the best results are to be attained.

So the monks and boys sang alternatim. Fittingly, in recent years a number of alternatim chant–polyphony masses have been written for Douai to be used at Sunday Mass and on other high days on which we have a significant congregation, though these are between our lay choir against the monks/congregation. The singing of the masses of the Graduale between monk-cantors and monks/congregation has been the norm for years now. What is interesting to note is the strategy employed to introduce a wider use of chant in the school, and as something that answers papal exhortation as well as respecting the monastic heritage.

I’m still looking for a photo of the choirboys of former days. For now, here is Abbot Sylvester Mooney (abbot 1929–1969) pontificating on St Edmund’s day.

The article ends with some lovely insights into the life of the monastery and school in the 1920s:

For the sung Rosary, morning and evening, Dom Cuthbert Murphy’s “Our Father” was harmonised by the choir and his “Hail Holy Queen” sung by the whole school.

Choral rosary for the whole school! The mind boggles, with delight.

All is not absolute sweetness and light, however. The notesman manages to slip in a little gripe of his own aimed at the choirboys:

In the Saturday night Litanies, last term, the tenors were too prominent at times; they are requested to remember that the melody, not the harmonies, must predominate. We hope that the choir boys will give of their best, not in volume but in sweetness of tone, so that (again in the words of Pope Pius X) the church music “may be sung to the glory of God, and to the sanctification and edification of the faithful”.

So the harmonising tenors were getting carried away with their singing. O felix culpa. At Douai the monastic choir still sings the Litany of Our Lady on Saturday nights, using a range of charming melodies accompanied by the Tamburini organ. Not everything has gone. But how different is the Church of the early 20th century to that of the early 21st century, a difference far more radical than between any two consecutive centuries for a very long time previously. Whether, in our situation, this profound change counts as progress in “the sanctification and edification of the faithful” I leave to your judgment.


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  1. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m to now call you, how to address you—it was Father…now I’m not so sure—-I couldn’t move on to the chant portion of your post as I was still wrestling with the whole padre, dom, abbot…etc debacle—-I did meet a kindly monk in Italy once—he was Padre….
    what a conundrum you have cast in your historical diggings 😉
    but isn’t the history of how we got to where we are today always fascinating?? I was the history major you know—linguistics—not so much 😉

  2. I recall reading that that redoubtable monk William Ullathorne, on returning to England from his stint as vicar apostolic in Australia, was heard harrumphing at the newfangled title ‘Father’ that had crept in during his absence. (Is it also true that he once remarked of Cardinal Manning that “I ‘ad a mitre on me ‘ead when ‘e was still a bloomin ‘eretic”?)

    On a matter of greater gravitas, can anyone date the origin of the convention at the beginning of Compline of the cantor asking ‘Iube Domine benedicere’ if no priest is present, and ‘iube domne benedicere’ if one is? That may help in unravelling the complex history of these titles. A further complication in this history is that over time it became customary for most monks to be ordained, but that was not the original picture; St Benedict himself, after all, was not a priest. Might he eclipse of ‘Brother’ be connected with that?

    1. If WU had stayed longer in Australia he would have heard it soon enough there too. As to the quotation, I have no idea it is authentic or apocryphal, but I rather like it. 😉

      The variation in the wording of the blessing request at Compline is not something I know about alas. Some guru might see this and help us.

      While I have no doubt that ordination had some role in the decline of Brother, I am conscious that choir monks were not called Father until very late relatively speaking, and then, obviously, only if they were ordained. The monastic attachment to Dom is no doubt is some measure due to the fact that it denotes profession not ordination, and so is something of an equalizer in a community. In our egalitarian age that makes it attractive again.

  3. Years ago I was always amused that in England non-Catholics would address a priest as ‘Padre’ – which supposedly sounded better to them than ‘Father’, though it means the same.

    Conversely, in Rome in the early 60s – perhaps given the number of seminarians in habits milling about – the gate-keepers at St. Peter’s rarely used ‘Padre’, instead using ‘Reverendo’ which was a ‘safe’ egalitarian alternative!

    1. I suspect that Padre came about something like this: The regiments of the Army of the British East India Company that had a lot of Catholics (probably mostly Irish or Scots) would sometime have Catholic chaplains paid by the men rather than by the army or the Company. These priests were sometimes Indian priests recruited locally from Goa, a Portuguese colony, who would have been called Padre by their own community and others in India.This title was retained as the British government became more tolerant and conciliatory towards Catholics and Catholic chaplains were hired by the Company itself and by the British Army regiments posted in India, and applied to ‘white’ priests from the British Isles. Then Padre became military jargon for a chaplain of any denomination, and got back to the home country.

  4. Just discovered this blog , and also recently discovered the Douai Society magazine archive , where I come across the referenced article just two weeks ago! All through Worth Prep and Downside we always refered to the monks as D Denis, D Roger , D Hugh etc and starting aged 9 or earlier that was probably before we knew that the ‘D’ stood for Dom. And I still think of some of the older monks in that way ..such as D Charles at Worth who taught me 50 years ago!


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