Henry Edward Dormer gave selflessly to aid the poor and sick in London, Ont. Photo courtesy Diocese of London

Henry Dormer’s short life left long-lasting impression in London

By  Herman Goodden
  • April 29, 2018

London Ontario’s only candidate for sainthood, Henry Edward Dormer (1844-66) was a 21-year-old British Army ensign who only lived in London for a grand total of 220 days — the last seven months of his life — but left an indelible impression that still inspires his adopted townspeople a century and a half later. 

The first London chapter of the Knights of Columbus called itself the Dormer Assembly in his honour. The last artwork that Jack Chambers (1931-78) created was his Dormer Memorial designed to be marketed as a limited edition print with proceeds going to help the cause of Dormer’s beatification. And to mark the 150th anniversary of his death in 2016, Dormer House, which serves as a house of discernment for up to four young men contemplating the priesthood, was opened in the vicinity of St. Peter’s Seminary in old north London.

Dormer was born near Warwick, England, in a glorious old pile called Grove Park which, Brideshead-style, came with its own private in-house chapel. Henry was the fourth son and youngest child of a well-positioned recusant Catholic family. His father Joseph Thaddeus was titled the 11th Baron Dormer and the family had provided generations of service, military and otherwise, to the Tudor and Stuart monarchies.

Removed from St. Mary’s College, Oscott, due to ill health, Dormer was taught by private tutors until the age of 15. After further studies in Europe and Ireland, Dormer’s faith was dramatically deepened following a retreat he made at the age of 19 under a Dominican friar named Fr. Rudolph Suffield.

Picking up on the family tradition, in 1863 Henry was gazetted an ensign in the 4th Battalion of the 60th Regiment of the King’s Own Royal Rifles. Shortly after his basic training in Winchester, Dormer was posted overseas to the military garrison then set up in what is now Victoria Park in the heart of downtown London, arriving here on Feb. 24, 1866. Originally established in 1838 to protect London citizens from the threat of Fenian raids, the stabilizing presence of the garrison over the next 30 years was a real boon to London’s early development.

In the couple years preceding his trans-Atlantic trek, Henry Edward Dormer’s sense of religious commitment had dramatically deepened. Always a notably kind soul concerned with the well-being of others, he had recently pledged himself to the lifelong care of a young orphan. And en route to his embarkation to Canada West, he paid a farewell visit to his beloved sister who was just beginning her life as a Dominican nun at Stone Priory in Staffordshire. 

Once in London, he wrote her that he was a changed man: “From the moment I left Stone, after having had the inestimable blessing of making my peace with God, I have had a kind of resolution in my mind to abandon the world and join a religious order.”

After his military duties, Dormer could be found in an ecstasy of prayer either at St. Peter’s Church or in the chapel of the Sacred Heart Convent, often all night long. He also attended selflessly to London’s poor and sick, donating not just his time and his care but also money, food and his own clothing. 

He served as a teacher to the children at St. Peter’s Church and also gave religious instruction to his fellow soldiers and officers if they requested it. As a result of his work with the sick, Dormer contracted typhoid fever which killed him on Oct. 2, 1866.

Making good on the determination expressed in his letter to his sister, Dormer had submitted his resignation to the army and was awaiting word about whether he would be accepted into the Dominican friars. As Catholic historian Theodore Smeenk wrote, “Dormer’s release from the army was in the mail and reached London on the morning of his death. He died between the uniform of his Queen and the uniform of his Lord.”

Less than two weeks after his death, Fr. Byrne, the superior of the Dominican friars in Louisville, Ky., who then staffed London’s only Catholic church, wrote to Dormer’s parents: “I was the first priest whose acquaintance he formed in America, and the last who saw him while reason still remained on Earth. In all the sincerity of my soul I believe, my dear Lord and Lady, that you have brought into the world and reared to manhood a great saint.”

In 1922 the Bishop of London, Michael Frances Fallon, had the honour and pleasure of writing to Dormer’s sister, by then the Prioress at the Dominican convent in Stone, that “carefully and prudently” he was undertaking to set in motion the famously slow process of canonization, which continues to this day.

(Herman Goodden, a writer in London, Ont. He also wrote about Dormer as a contributor to the 2005 book 100 Fascinating Londoners. His latest book is Speakable Acts: Six Plays.)

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