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Fr Illtud Evans OP - a Welsh Dominican Convert

Friday, May 27, 2016

The following portrait of a Dominican Friar featured in the Pentecost newsletter of the St Barnabas Society. Reproduced with kind permission of Fr Richard Biggerstaff, Director of the Society.

A Welsh Dominican Convert

On a crisp, sunny February morning I drove from my home in Oxford to Douai Abbey in rural Berkshire. I was eager to read the private papers of Fr Illtud Evans OP stored there at the abbey archive in order to learn more about this much-travelled Welsh Dominican friar. 

G.K.Chesterton, writing in the decade after the First World War, described the Welsh as 'a most mysterious people whose mystery is not recognized by their closest neighbours since the great majority of Englishmen have no notion of the Welsh type or spirit'. 

Although born in London, John Alban Evans was brought up amid the language and culture of North-West Wales. From Towyn County School he entered St David's College, Lampeter in 1931 as a Bates English Prizeman. He came to the Order of Preachers in 1937, made his profession in 1938 (taking the name, Illtud), and was ordained priest in 1943. Before coming to the Order he had embarked upon a career in journalism, the tools of which trade were employed throughout his ministry - particularly, in editing Blackfriars, and writing innumerable articles and reviews. 

An understanding of 'the Welsh type or spirit' can only come from a realization that the culture of Wales is Christian to the core. The poetry which John Alban wrote during his student days reveal him to be a natural Thomist. His praise for the beauty of creation was based upon his knowledge of it. In his poem, A Suburban Garden, (1932) he writes: 

So still the garden's morning haze;
So elegant this petulantly active butterfly,
Teasing the riotous maze
Of sullen purple phlax and flaunting marigold; 

Undoubtedly, his experience of worship in the College chapel (an episcopal peculiar) led to his later conversion. The College's Society of St David, to which he belonged, could best be describes as Anglo-Papalist. Vespers were sung in the chapel on the Eve of All Souls, and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, and prayers were offered for the conversion of Wales. 

It was the culture of Wales that stirred up the emotional intensity and vigour of Fr Illtud's ministry. Among his many spiritual gifts shone forth his Christian compassion and interest in people. He had a natural sympathy towards the anxious and socially deprived. He invested a lot of his time and energy in helping those in prison, and he wrote extensively upon prison conditions and penal reform. 

In the 1950's he moved from Blackfriars, Cambridge to become Prior of London. During this period, his natural eloquence was put to use not only as a preacher but also as a retreat-giver and broadcaster. His book, One and Many (1957), describes how Christ lives in each Catholic, making the many one. 

He lived in New York in the early 1960's before moving to the Dominican Provincial House of Studies, Oaklands, California in 1966 as Preacher-General. There he taught homiletics and conducted diocesan retreats until 1970 when he suffered a stroke and had to return to England. 

Fr Illtud returned to Cambridge but he continued to travel. The ardour of his apostolic spirit never waned. His spiritual odyssey ended with his death in Athens on 22nd July 1972, aged 59, and his burial at the Catholic cemetery in Heraklion. Yet, a substantial collection of his private papers found their way to his homeland and are stored at the University Archive in Lampeter). 

Fr Gerard Meath OP, writing in the Catholic Herald (4th August 1972), summed-up Fr IlItud's life as 'a triumph of God's grace, given in the cross; the cross of his own turbulent apostolic spirit, the cross of his loneliness in the love of his Master; and the cross of sickness which fettered and shackled his vigorous priestly life'. 

Rhidian Jones
With gratitude to Alison Day, Archivist of Douai Abbey for her assistance and hospitality during my research for this article.

For further information on the St Barnabas Society (formerly the Converts' Aid Society), see their website.


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