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Peter Augustine Baines
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Titular Bishop of Siga, one of the most striking figures among English Catholics at the period of Emancipation, was born at Kirkby, in Lancashire, 25 January, 1787; d. 6 July, 1843. For his early education he was sent to the English monastery at Lampspring, in Hanover, where he arrived in 1798. Four years later the monastery was suppressed by the Prussian Government, and the monks and their pupils returned to England. Some of them, Baines among the number, took refuge at the recently founded monastery at Ampleforth, in Yorkshire. It was not long before his talents and force of character brought him into prominence in the small community there. He joined the Benedictine Order, and held in succession every post of authority in the monastery, the priorship alone excepted.
In 1817 Baines left Ampleforth and was appointed to Bath, one of the most important Benedictine missions in the country. There he became a well-known figure, his sermons attracting great attention not only among Catholics, but also among Protestants. His printed letters in answer to Archdeacon Moysey created quite a stir, being commonly known as "Baines's Defence". His reputation continuing to increase, Bishop Collingridge, 0. S. F., Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, chose him for his co-adjutor. He received episcopal consecration as titular Bishop of Siga at the hands of Archbishop Murray, at Dublin, 1 May, 1823.
Bishop Baines soon began to formulate schemes for the future of the district, on that large scale so congenial to his mind. Realizing that, alone among the four, it was without a regular seminary for the education of its clergy, he set himself to work to supply the want. The Western District differed from the other three in that the bishop had always been chosen from among the regular clergy — Benedictines or Franciscans — and a large proportion of the missions were in their hands. Dr. Baines thought that he saw the solution of his difficulty in utilizing the new school which had been recently opened at Downside, near Bath. The fact that it was under Benedictine management appeared to him no disadvantage, and he has assured us that he meant his whole scheme to benefit his order. But he considered that a bishop should be supreme in his own seminary, and boldly proposed that the whole community of monks at Downside should be transferred from the Anglo-Benedictine Congregation, and placed under the Bishop of the Western District. The idea was not favourably received at Downside, so the bishop put forward the alternative proposition that they should exchange their property for that at Ampleforth, hoping that the members of his own monastery might take more kindly to his scheme. This proposal, however, was also refused, and there matters rested for some years.
In 1826 Bishop Baines's health gave way, and he was ordered a long tour on the Continent. He spent the greater part of the time in Rome, and Wiseman tells us (Last Four Popes, p. 323) that Leo XII, wishing to create a Benedictine Cardinal, fixed upon Bishop Baines for that dignity, and was only prevented by death from carrying out his intention. Bishop Collingridge died 3 March, 1829, the same year in which Catholic Emancipation was passed, and Bishop Baines returned to England, in restored health, to succeed as vicar Apostolic. He at once revived his scheme for the seminary at Downside, and, having failed to secure the consent of the monks, he put forward the contention that the monasteries at Downside and Ampleforth had never been canonically erected, for, owing to the unsettled condition of the English mission, the formality of obtaining the written consent of the ordinary had been overlooked. He drew the drastic conclusion that all the monastic vows had been invalid, and that the property belonged to the bishops. The case was argued out in Rome, but it was considered that, even if the strict law was on Bishop Baines's side, equity demanded that the rights of the Benedictines should be maintained, and a sanatio was issued by papal authority, making good any possible defects in the past. Leave was given, however, for four of the Ampleforth monks, including the prior, to be secularized. They left, together with thirty of the boys, to join Bishop Baines, who had himself been secularized, in founding a new college. The site chosen was Prior Park, a large mansion outside Bath, which Bishop Baines bought, and he set to work to build two colleges at either end of the "mansion house", which he dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul respectively, the former being intended as a lay college, the latter as a seminary. He seems to have had visions of a Catholic University as a sequel to Emancipation, and Prior Park was intended to be its centre.
The new college thus opened under most favourable auspices; but it never became really prosperous. The buildings were on too vast a scale for the number of students, and the older clergy viewed askance an undertaking which they feared would absorb all the resources of the diocese. To add to the difficulties, in the year 1836 a destructive fire almost completely consumed the interior of the mansion, involving fresh outlay in making good the damage. In 1840 the number of vicariates in England was raised from four to eight, Wales being separated off into a district of its own. Bishop Baines continued over the Western District for three years more, when his sudden death took place. On the 4th of July, 1843, he distributed the prizes at Prior Park; the following day he preached at the opening of the new church of St. Mary on the Quay, Bristol, returning to Prior Park in the evening, apparently in his usual health; but the following morning he was found dead in his bed. His funeral at Prior Park was conducted with the solemnity due to his position and his personality ; but when, some years later, the college was sold, his body was removed to Downside, where it rests today.
Many of Bishop Baines's sermons, pastorals, etc., were published, and some ran to several editions. An oil painting of him, formerly at Prior Park, is now at the Bishop's House (St. Ambrose), Clifton There is an engraving in the Catholic Directory for 1844.
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