The Cardinal Virtues

The Journal (Newcastle, England), June 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Cardinal Virtues


Byline: By David Whetstone

The official biography of Cardinal Basil Hume, the much-loved Geordie churchman, is to be launched in Newcastle tomorrow. David Whetstone reviews the book.

When Basil Hume's name was included in a 1975 Sunday Times article about likely successors to Cardinal John Heenan as Archbishop of Westminster, his first reaction was to ring his elderly mother in Newcastle to alert her to it.

"To his slight chagrin," we are told in Anthony Howard's official biography of Hume, "her only response was to roar with laughter."

Basil Hume was mentioned only as a dark horse candidate with the shortlist for the job of leading Britain's Roman Catholics headed by a formidable group of archbishops. But his election as Abbot of Ampleforth at the age of 40 had marked Hume out as a high flyer, according to the journalist who wrote the article.

History tells us that he duly got the job, moving in 1976 from the North Yorkshire monastery to Archbishop's House in Westminster, a building described by one correspondent as resembling "a nursing home for upper-class alcoholics".

In vivid contrast, Basil Hume is universally remembered with great fondness. The statue outside St Mary's RC Cathedral in Newcastle, where Anthony Howard's book will be launched tomorrow, is a faithful likeness which exudes genuine warmth.

"Few churchmen in this century, inside the Catholic Church, have died more deeply loved," concluded the obituary in The Times in 1999.

An affectionate obit and a mother's laughter sum up the personality of Basil Hume who was made Cardinal just a few weeks after his move to Westminster. But if it wasn't apparent during his lifetime, this book makes clear that he gave a powerful, global Church one of its most appealing human faces.

A blue plaque marks the Georgian terraced house in Ellison Place, Newcastle, where Basil Hume was born on March 2, 1923. It is now owned by Northumbria University but it used to be situated in what was known locally as `Doctors' Row'.

George Hume (Basil was the name he adopted in 1941 on entering his novitiate as a Benedictine monk) was the third of five children born to 43-year-old heart specialist William Errington Hume and his French wife, Marie, known as "Mimi".

They met in France during the First World War when he was a 35-year-old Army medical officer and she was the 18-year-old girl who lived next door to the house in which he was billeted. Howard describes him as "austere" and says his proposal to Marie was his one truly rash act.

While Marie's family, the Tisseyres, were Catholics, her husband, though nominally a Protestant, had little sympathy with organised religion. While Marie took the children off to Mass, his father played golf.

He also used to take young George to St James's Park on Saturday afternoons, partly to "counter the domestic petticoat influence" (the boy had three sisters and a succession of nurses and governesses). Consequently the future Cardinal became a Newcastle United fan. Mimi nurtured an interest in the Catholic religion, re-enacting Mass in the nursery with candles. …

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