As he said his prayers and rosary, all alone in the woodland stone flint chapel, there chanced upon the good Beadsman’s ears, the distant, faint sound of young mirthful chattering. Youthful, happy voices. He raised his kneeling, frozen frame, and peered from around the chapel doors into the dark moonless night. There, beyond the midst of the yews and fir trees he could see Fawley Court, its warm and glowing windows invitingly lit up, the red brick building splendidly outlined in the frost, under a sky, filled with the twinkling jewelled cluster of the holy stars.
Yes, of course. It was 6 December (1964), St Nicholas’s Day (Święty Mikołaj!). The happy, excited voices belonged to the boys of Fr Jozef’s Divine Mercy College, making their way in the dusk, along different paths to Fawley Court’s imposing main building. At this time, every year, the Marian priests, brothers, teachers, staff, cooks, and pupils all excitedly await the arrival of Święty Mikołaj. Naturally, as always, it was the expectation of gifts, and good food (a rarity), as much as Święty Mikołaj’s appearance that delighted everyone.
Święty Mikołaj always appeared in Fawley Court’s Red Room – the one with marvellous views onto the Venetian canal, and river Thames – under the picturesque ceiling of deer, herons in reeds, rabbits, and dogs, carved by the famous Grinling Gibbons.
The huge Red Room was lit by just one huge ornate glass chandelier, which gave off a hazy, indeed lazy golden hue. In the far right corner, facing the rows of chairs, slowly filled by the schoolboys, was the nativity crib – baby Jesus in the straw manger, with Mary and Joseph surrounded by faithful animals. And next to the crib, a beautiful Fawley Court Christmas tree with the Star of Bethlehem on top.
In the opposite corner behind the seated boys playing on the small but robust oakwood foot-pedal organ was Divine Mercy College’s accomplished musician Vyvyan Ekkel. Vyvan’s forte was to play hymns and carols, but at the same time skilfully weave in the latest pop songs. Hence whilst listening to Silent Night you’d suddenly get a rendering of Cliff Richard’s Batchelor Boy, or with any one Polish carol Vyvyan would work in Bobby Vee’s Rubber Ball, or This night of a Thousand Stars. Even the Beatle’s got a look in. The boys were thrilled, and absolutely loved it. The priests thinking Vyvyan was playing out of tune, never quite grasped what was going on.
The big moment was arriving. Father Andrzej Janicki, The Rector, commanded a hush from all those gathered – some one hundred and fifty festive boys and staff. Fr Wlodzimierz Okonski joined in; ”Father Christmas/Święty Mikołaj is approaching!”
Finally the huge double-doors facing the canal windows gently swept open bringing in a white bearded figure, dressed from head to toe in red, with matching hat (with bells), and brown boots. In attendance was a small delegation of schoolboys, dragging in the most enormous, bulging sacks... one bright spark from the boys blurted out; ”Where are the lazy reindeer?”. The joke of course raised much laughter, but also a quick rebuke from one of the teachers.
Looking in through one of the huge frosted windows, touched by, and enjoying all the fun and revelry, was our Holy Beadsman, (he prays for the souls of others), accompanied by the spirit of Father Jozef Jarzebowski. Father ”Jo” had just recently passed away, (13 September 1964), and had been entrusted – in keeping with his will, Polonia’s allegiance, and the Marian's duty of promise, a permanent resting place – his beloved ”football spot” – a grave on the hillock near where now stands St Anne’s Church, (1971), of Fawley Court.
Święty Mikołaj, in a booming voice, (and it must be said, excellent Polish), explained that it was an honour to be in England at the Polish Kolegium Bożego Miłosierdzia (Divine Mercy College, Fawley Court, Henley). He hoped the boys would forgive him for the absence of the reindeer, but there was much work delivering presents, and so the creatures needed a rest. Święty Mikołaj then asked if all the boys said their prayers properly, did their homework, and whether they were all good students. ”Of course we are!” – the response was unanimous. Everyone was excellent at prayers, homework was diligently done, and as for academic studies, well... they were as good as Copernicus, Einstein, or Shakespeare any day!
Święty Mikołaj, then very kindly gave a little history about himself. He said he was born (around AD 290 – he could not quite remember the date), at the village of Patara, formerly in Greece, now Turkey. His wealthy, very devout Christian parents christened him Nicholas, but died in an epidemic when he was still very young. He used his inherited wealth to ”help the needy, sick and suffering, but particularly children”. Life for him became very tough under the ruthless Roman emperor Gaius Diocletianus (AD 245-316), who mercilessly persecuted all Christians. As a young man, Nicholas, although not a cleric, became Bishop of Myra, and for his Christian beliefs was thrown into prison. The prison was so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for real criminals – murderers, thieves, or robbers!
As Bishop of Myra, Święty Mikołaj told how he particularly liked helping children, then sailors and travellers, and even thieves..! This drew a gasp from the boys...”Thieves!?” Święty Mikołaj hastily added; ”Reformed thieves, of course.”
When released from prison he continued his genuine charity, saying he gained great pleasure from helping the needy, poor, and suffering, and privately rejoiced at seeing the fruits of his work, and the many happy faces. It is said that he supposedly died on 6 December AD 343, but the boys could see for themselves, this was not true. He added that a relic from his grave at his cathedral church in Myra produces a unique substance with great healing powers called manna...
Outside in the frost the Holy Beadsman, and Father Jozef were captivated – entranced by Święty Mikołaj’s account. Also, whilst fascinated with Święty Mikołaj’s story of his past, the boys had become visibly restless. None more so than young Maksymilian. And so, with that essential formality out of the way, it was time to hand out the presents; ”Tadeusz L”, ”Albert C”, ”Zenon S”, ”Kazimierz J”, and so the presents poured out. Both the brothers, and some of the boys acted as Święty Mikołaj’s assistants. The gifts were various; crayons, books, the Bible, pen-knives, marbles, fountain pens, little food hampers (with an opłatek – holy wafer). It was, it must be admitted, all very thoughtfully organised. Clearly Święty Mikołaj had done his homework. Maksymilian however was still waiting...
And so the gifts continued being handed out; ”Andrzej C”, ”Jerzy G”,”Miroslaw M”, ”Ryszard G”, ”Father Janicki”, ”Father Mirosz” (Latin), ”Professor Schejbal” (Maths), and ”Professor Kapiszewski” (English)... but still nothing for Maksymilian. The bulky sacks had by now began to sag and empty alarmingly. Maksymilian was agitated, and very worried. ”Surely, I won't be forgotten..?” The brothers, cooks... all got their gifts...Then, at last. Then the magic words; ”Maksymilian Dobry”... He raced swiftly to Święty Mikołaj dodging the loose wrappings and strings. Grabbing his presents, almost forgetting to listen to Święty Mikołaj‘s kind words, he paused, listened, then retreated and unwrapped his treasures, ready to examine a copy of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, a copy of the Bible, (with a parallel text in Polish/Latin), and a delicious hamper.
Meanwhile Vyvyan Ekkel, our organist, was now in full swing; Bóg się rodzi (Christ the Lord is Born), interlaced with Elvis Presley's It’s Now or Never...
This was God’s earth at its happiest. Young and old. Humankind in a tiny beautiful corner of England, in communion with its Maker, and all that is good.
Outside, today, and every night on the 6th December, St Nicholas’s Day, the Holy Beadsman, and Father Jozef saunter up to Fawley Court’s main building, and look in utter bewilderment, and sheer sadness, at the forlorn, empty, cold building, asking themselves where has all that youthful joy gone, evaporated into thin air? Not for much longer they assure themselves. There are so many Polish schools in the UK, all looking for an educational and occasional or weekend cultural home, and religious retreat. How could anyone (even temporarily) have so cruelly robbed them and Polonia of such a treasure?!
PS. To the memory of Divine Mercy College’s dedicated Professor S. Kapiszewski. A Polish professor and master of English literature, who taught us how to love the (English) language and respect the written, spoken, and sung word.
The opening stanza from The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Keats (1795-1821), taken from A Book of Narrative Verse, Oxford University Press, first published 1931. Professor Kapiszewski made it compulsory holiday-Christmas reading from which we had to learn by heart large chunks...