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Founding father who started religious order to be honoured
A PRIEST who founded a religious order in East Oxford that had missions all over the world could soon have his life commemorated.
In 1866 Father Richard Meux Benson was the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist – better known as the Cowley Fathers.
It was the first religious community of men to be founded in the Church of England since the Reformation in the 16th century and its creation could soon be recognised with a blue plaque on its former base in Marston Street.
The building is now St Stephen’s House, a permanent private hall of Oxford University, where men and women are trained towards ordination in the Church of England.
Canon Robin Ward, principal of St Stephen’s House, said: “He was an important person in the life of the area and was vicar of Cowley just as East Oxford was being built up. He built the parish church of St Mary and St John in Cowley Road and was very involved with the local area. The Cowley Fathers were quite a small order but were very influential in the spiritual life of Oxford University. They ran missions in India and Japan.”
Fr Benson was born in London in 1824 and went to Christ Church in Oxford before being ordained as a priest. In 1850 he became vicar of the parish of Cowley.
It was during this period that he was joined by two other priests who formed the community with him as their Superior and they moved into their new Marston Street home in 1868.
Fr Benson remained in charge of the order for 24 years, also remaining vicar of Cowley until 1886 when he retired to concentrate on the order and travel to India and the USA.
He returned to Oxford and died in 1915. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary and St John where a memorial to him now stands. The order he founded is now closed, and there are only three living members, but a trust has been set up which gives grants and financial support to missions abroad and in the UK.
St Stephen’s bursar Michele Smith said: “We are delighted. It would be wonderful to commemorate all the things that Fr Benson has done.”
Father Charles Card-Reynolds, chairman of the Fellowship of St John Trust, said: “We enthusiastically support the proposal to put up a blue plaque at St Stephen’s House to honour the memory of Fr Richard Meux Benson.
“The Society of St John the Evangelist worked throughout Britain and in North America, India, Africa and Japan setting up parishes, schools, orphanages and medical centres.”
Planning permission for the blue plaque has been submitted to Oxford City Council by the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board.
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