Fr. Paul Lester Stenhouse, MSC (1935–2019), passed away of cancer recently. I initially learned about him through the good offices of his dear friend, a contributor to his publications and fellow Aussie, Wanda Skowronska, who was kind enough to share some stories about him. She also encouraged our cooperation.
Fr. Stenhouse was truly a Christian universalist in the best sense, firmly believing that we are all children of God. Thus, he made friends easily and they came in all shapes and hues. His milieu in Australia was extremely colorful in all sorts of ways. It included Pierre Rykmans, an Orientalist; Father Matthew of the Coptic Orthodox church; and Father Peter Guy, who prays the Mass in the Graeco-Byzantine Catholic rite, as well as in the Novus Ordo and Tridentine Latin rites. Father John F. McMahon, MSC, dubbed his friend “a priest for all seasons.” Fr. Stenhouse helped immigrants, journalists, scholars, and even musicians. He was a Catholic priest of the world, without losing his bearings by descending into the morass of cosmopolitism.
Fr. Stenhouse resolved to serve the Church when he was seventeen. At the time, he was working as a setter and printer for several local newspapers in Camden, New South Wales. Having graduated from St. Mary’s Towers high school in Douglas Park and then Croydon seminary in Melbourne, he professed his vows in 1963. He joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, who put him back to the work he knew best: journalism. He edited the Annals of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Australia’s oldest Catholic journal (launched in 1889). He focused on catechesis, with young people, in particular, on his mind. Further, he established Chevalier Press to facilitate the mission.
At the same time, Fr. Stenhouse continued his education at the University of Sidney, where he earned his BA in Hebrew and Arabic languages in 1972. He also mastered Samaritan and translated Abul Fath’s History of the Samaritans, which earned him an MA degree with honors. The translation and edition were so superb that his honors thesis metamorphized into a Ph.D thesis, which he based on a comparative exegesis and deciphering of almost two score of mostly damaged and corrupted Arabic manuscripts of the work.
The next logical step was to beg a leave from his missionary work and enroll at Oxford University’s St. Catherine’s College for his Doctor in Philosophy degree. He never finished his degree because en route he was enlisted by Father General E.J. Cuskelly, MSC, in Rome, to serve as his personal assistant and the chief administrator of the society’s residence hall in Rome. He dropped out of Oxford in 1976, but continued with his doctoral dissertation and completed it in 1980, while posted in Yugoslavia’s Croatia region—namely, in Dubrovnik. Fr. Stenhouse wrote his Ph.D. thesis in three volumes based on multiple sources in multiple languages. Unfortunately, no scholar was available at his institution to assess the work. The doctoral student had to wait until a qualified dissertation reader was located.
And wait he did, but not idly. For example, during the civil war in Lebanon, Fr. Stenhouse flew to Malta, where he hired a boat to smuggle medicine for the needy in the Levant. The medicine was donated by Australian pharmaceutical companies. Unauthorized and unorthodox, the mission was a success and a prime example of what the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart could accomplish. Before this audacious stunt, virtually all aid moving through the so-called proper channels had fallen into the hands of thugs and militias. Our priest figured out a way to outsmart them as well as the dead hand of international bureaucracy.
Recalled to Australia in 1981, Fr. Stenhouse resumed the editorship of the Annals. He immediately appended a new section, on “Religious Fundamentalism.” He made the Annals a powerhouse of Catholic intellectual prowess. He taught theology and other topics occasionally at St. Paul’s Seminary and the University of Sidney. From time to time, he gave lectures, for instance, at the College de France, where he was a member, or at the University of Tel Aviv, where he dazzled everyone with his knowledge of the Sarmatians. Meanwhile, at the University of New England at Armidale, in New South Wales, he submitted a work on his Argentinian grandfather, John Farrell, who was a reformer and a poet. This earned him an honorary MA in 1988.
Eventually, I got to know Fr. Stenhouse to some degree through correspondence. He published a few articles by my wife and sister in Annals Australasia, a prime Catholic periodical. He obviously liked our stuff, and we liked his, as did others.
According to Cardinal George Pell, whom my Aussie Protestant friend David Archibald calls “Australia’s first political prisoner” on account of what he sees as a rigged trial by a lynch jury predicated upon flawed evidence of alleged child abuse: “Fr. Paul and his writing stand very much at the ‘radical centre’ of the Catholic intellectual tradition. He knows where he’s come from; he knows where we are and understands the very, very real and hostile pressures that are working against the Church today… He uses his vast array of learning, his elegant writing and his intelligence to present genuinely Christian views on a whole variety of subjects and challenges that confront us.”
Karl Schmude, a Catholic academic, confirms this in the Catholic Herald: “Paul Stenhouse could have lectured in any of the College’s core subjects of history, literature, philosophy and theology, studied across the centuries—and, for good measure, he would have translated a Latin passage into Hebrew or Greek during the lunch break!”
I do not know much about his ministry and spirituality, aside from a sense that he was a traditional Catholic. The main point of attraction for me was his omnivorous mind, and in particular his mastery of the Middle East and east Africa. Since I have been in the process of writing a monograph on “The Worlds of Islam” for a while now, I always cast about for sagacious insights and solid sources on the topic. Therefore, I was smitten by Fr. Stenhouse’s original translation of arguably the best original source on jihad, by Šȋhab ad-Dȋn Aḥmad bin ‘Abd al-Qader bin Salem bin ‘Utman vel ‘Arab Faqih, his 16th century study Futȗḥ al-Habaša: The Conquest of Abyssinia (Tsehai, 2003), which was further edited and footnoted by the late Richard Pankhurst, an illustrious Ethiopia expert. As my tribute to Fr. Stenhouse, I would like to share some of what he made available to us in English.
‘Arab Faqih’s account is simply morbid. It is a rather laconic chronicle of killing and enslaving Christians, routinely massacring combatants and non-combatants alike; forcing the survivors to convert; raping their wives, mothers, and daughters; and looting, desecrating, and burning their churches. By my count the chronicle recalls that last dastardly deed in some detail perhaps 25 times (s. 32, 36, 60, 138, 144, 161, 163, 165-167, 184-185, 190-192, 222, 227, 239, 247-251, 265, 272, 304, 312, 346-347). A standard account is rather casual: “He went… and set the church ablaze… the monks plunged into the fire, like moths dive into the wick of the lamp; all but a few of them… There was nothing wrong in burning it down” (p. 191-192).
One sad reflection is that most captives apostatized. “Of the patricians you captured, keep with you those who become Muslims; kill anyone who refuses” (p. 324). And then “ ‘Slit the throats of all of them like slaughtered sheep… Convert to Islam… otherwise I’ll do to you what I did to your leaders.’ So all of them converted to Islam, great and small alike” (s. 119). Most of the conquered population stopped resisting. They accommodated the conquerors. In Gedem, for example, all “inhabitants became Muslims” (p. 218). The same happened in Zarji, Zaquala, and other places (p. 298).
At times, Christian troops defected en bloc to the Muslims, sometimes giving up their commanders to escape death at their unmerciful hands. Occasionally, they’d try to re-defect, but would face slaughter if caught. “Thereupon the Muslims pursued them, killed them, and made prisoners of them, to the very last… They were handed over to the imam who ordered them to be put to death so that the ground was covered with their dead bodies” (p. 71). Only in one instance of mass slaughter in Tegre were 10,550 Christians beheaded after a fortress fell (s. 352-353).
Examples of martyrdom are many, but most martyrs had no choice. Only a few are noted to have chosen death consciously by remaining true to their Christian faith (p. 210). At times the martyrs were Ethiopian patricians too proud to apostatize; in one instance, 500 monks were slaughtered inside their church of Abba Samuel in Sire (s. 355).
In the Muslim interpretation of the calamity, “[Imam] Ahmed [the Left-Handed] ruled the country of Abyssynia and brought it peace” (p. 20). As for the Christians, “they are Satans” (s. 116). The author narrates the horrors matter-of-factly. He sees the mayhem as Allah-ordained and sanctified. Only sometimes do his emotions get the better of him, as when he vividly describes a holy Islamic warrior: “And Sabr ad-Din, a fearless horseman who, if ever he saw an infidel, could not control himself until he had seized him. He was like a camel in heat. Blood flowed from his nose, so infuriated did he become for God, and so deep was his longing for the Jihad in the way of God” (s. 55).
The jihadis brought Christian Ethiopia to the brink of extinction. They even killed the Emperor, and most of the aristocrats. Only a joint Abyssinian-Portuguese crusade—which is not covered in the account—saved the third-oldest Christian kingdom on earth from total annihilation. The Christians united and overcame the calamity of jihad. Fr. Stenhouse believed that the ancient text was relevant to the present and the future, in particular the specter of the martyrdom of the Church. His last book, Islam: Context and Complexity, which he finished while on his death bed, will appear shortly in the United States.
On November 27, 2019, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP, prayed the Requiem Mass for Fr. Stenhouse along with 30 religious. Several hundred people attended. The priest was reunited with his Heavenly Father, while his earthly remains rested on a dais with a copy of the last edition of his beloved Annals beside him. The journal died with its editor. Requiescat in pace.
Photo credit: Campion College