Benign singularity in almost all his works seemed to have been inherited along with his title. Shortly before his death in a nursing home, he positively boasted of the amiable ways of his great-grandfather, Sir Thomas, the fourth Baronet, who ordered servants to leave dishes of water for the rats in the ancestral home, Belhus Manor, and slyly exploited his position as master of the local hunt to distract his friends from the foxes. The old baronet paid little attention to his clothing and sometimes was tipped by visitors who thought he was the grounds keeper. Sir Hugh’s own father, a colonial judge, was not always recollect: Upon returning from his honeymoon he retired to his old bed and recalled that he was no longer a bachelor only when he found a stranger in it.
Although the family line had been Catholic since it started in Kent in the 14th century, his mother and he became, by conversion, the only Catholic members of the family since the domestic agitations of Henry VIII. Revisions of the internal revenue code required the sale of Belhus Manor in 1923, along with its verdant park that had been landscaped by Capability Brown, and the family removed to Horsford Manor in Norwich. He absolutely insisted that, on a return visit to the old manor when he was about 13 years old, his mother and he had been chased down the stairs of a tower by a ghost.
With the war cannons quiet, he began priestly studies in the Beda in Rome, and was ordained in St. John Lateran next to a German soldier he had shot at unfatally in Normandy. Both gave thanks for Father Hugh’s bad aim. Back in the London Oratory, admirers saw through a kindly lens that he resembled St. Philip Neri himself in his earnest idiosyncrasies. Then, too, the shade of the fourth baronet was not absent in the priest’s cassock, sometimes stained with remnants of breakfast, and unmatched shoes. As confessor to visiting priests like myself, he was perfect reason and charity, and his wide mouth and not undersized ears gave the assurance of generous counsel and attention. He obliged a woman who wanted him to hear her confession on a lawn, but he used a tennis racquet as a confessional screen. As unofficial prison chaplain, a couple of his acolytes were doing time for assault and battery, and the regular thurifer was a murderer.
On occasion he gave retreats in the United States. In 1991, in the "Windows on the World" restaurant on top the World Trade Center, he blessed a kosher dinner, celebrating the successful kidney transplant of a cousin who had married a Jewish physician in Brooklyn, along with a Korean surgeon who had removed the old kidney and a Pakistani who had put the new one in. That tower is gone now and so, too, the old family manor, which was demolished in 1957. The family portraits have gone to the daughter of the fifth baronet. The closest I came to a baronetcy was playing the part of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd in a Gilbert and Sullivan production of Ruddigore, when all the portraits stepped out of their frames in Act II. The baronets of Ruddigore were an odd lot, but all ended happily. I think none could have ended as happily as Father Sir Hugh Dacre Bennett-Lennard, as I imagine him slogging on and announcing to the eternal gates at the end of his life’s Act III: "Je suis l’Armée de Dieu!"
Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviourin New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available through Crossroads Publishing.