A Bit of History

Harcourt Lightburne was Chaplain of St Ursula's from October 1913 until the spring of 1916. Recently, a chance discovery on the internet put me in contact with his daughter. She had been sorting through his papers. Among them were some old annual reports and newspaper clippings that cast a fascinating light on church life ninety years ago.

In 1913, the present church building had been standing for seven years. (Before 1906, services had been held in the hall of the Lerberschule in Nageligasse.) Gilbert Sissons, the chaplain who had superintended the building had moved on to the Riviera, and his successor had gone to Algiers. But the church was by all accounts a lively one. During Harcourt's first month, the average attendance was 129 per week. A weekly Bible Study started in Advent, and there was a children's service and catechism class after church on Sundays. Daily services began the following Lent, and there was a midweek communion service as well.

An urgent need was to restore the finances to a sound state. With barely Fr 1'000 in the church's bank account (or 40, at the then exchange rate of Fr 25 to the pound), Harcourt initiated a "subscription", or pledge scheme. In its first year, nineteen donors gave Fr 1'690 between them - His Majesty's ambassador, Evelyn Grant-Duff gave Fr 500, the American ambassador, Pleasant Stovall, gave Fr 250. Miss Keightley and Miss Chaplyn gave Fr 75 between them, a Mr Hill gave Fr 10. Unlike today, each donation was acknowledged separately in the accounts - even Mrs Schneider's gift of 30 rappen to the bell fund.

Two hotels, the Bernerhof and the Bellevue Palace gave Fr 100 each. "The Management of these hotels recognize," wrote Harcourt, "that the existence of an English Church in a town is a deciding factor with many of their English and American guests as to the length of their stay." Would that this were so today! "On the other hand," he adds, "it is naturally a pleasure for us to recommend to inquirers those hotels which subscribe towards the provision of such ministrations."

A grant of Fr 1'750 from the church's patron, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and collections of some Fr 3'000 ("three times the average of previous years") made up the balance of the money available for running the church. The chief expense was Harcourt's stipend, Fr 4432.50 (or 177), but there was also a cleaner and a gardener to be paid, insurance, heating, lighting, taxes, postage, bread, wine, candles and, in 1915, Fr 182.30 for "new window curtains." Presumably these helped to keep the winter cold at bay!

There was also a sanctuary fund, to provide ornaments for the sanctuary, a bell fund (the church still lacked a bell), and a vicarage fund, which stood at some Fr 450 (or 18). The chaplain at the time lived in the Pension Harter, in Kramgasse, and Harcourt wrote that "I am, personally, convinced that a permanent Vicarage would, in the circumstances of this Chaplaincy, be a costly luxury.... It would be a continuous expense in upkeep.... In addition, it will be either necessary to maintain it fully furnished, or expect successive Chaplains to furnish it, which for obvious reasons they would in nine out of ten cases be either unable or unwilling to do."

Here, Harcourt had a axe to grind. He felt his stipend was too small. A young man of thirty, he had fallen in love with a local girl, Nora Münch, whom he was later to marry. It would be far better, he thought, to invest the vicarage fund so that the interest could pay the rent for an apartment corresponding to the chaplain's needs.

Harcourt also contributed a gossip column to the Italian Lakes and Swiss Chronicle, published weekly in English, under the pseudonym of Harcourt Harcourtson. In the summer of 1914, a special Berne edition was produced. Privacy and security consciousness had not yet become a theme - we learn from the issue of 6 June 1914 that Mr George Pryde from Epsom has just arrived at the Schweizerhof, Mr John Calder from Boston at the Bernerhof, and that Mr and Mrs Musgrave from Oxford were at the Palace Bellevue.

(And in those days, gossip was gossip. "Mr Russell ... from the Herter has left us to charm the people of Geneva with his inexhaustible anecdotes, and to discover their city for them! 'May his shadow never grow less,' as he would say to you!")

War at the end of 1914 brought changes to the church. At first, these were slight - a reduction in the number of tourists led to collections in 1915 falling to Fr 2'078. A special collection for distressed British subjects raised Fr 74.80, one for British prisoners of war only Fr 26.50. Flanders seemed remote.

At the beginning of 1916, Harcourt wrote in his annual report to the congregation, "Having now ministered to you here at St Ursula's for over two years - quite a long time as these chaplaincies go - I am returning shortly to England; considerations of a personal nature making it now necessary for me to resume work there promising provision for the future." A stipend that would enable him to marry Nora called him away, and thus ended one of many episodes in the life of St Ursula's.


(If you have any information about St Ursula's in the past, or would like to do some research, then contact Richard!)