Stephen Dessain

The following recollections by Mr Arthur Hunt are taken from the Oratory Parish Magazine for Autumn 1997.

I remember Father Stephen Dessain, the tall, slender priest with the hesitant walk and a similar way of speaking. Modest to the point of appearing shy, he had a ready smile, qualities which were a great help in the work he did with the lads and young men of the Parish. For some years Fr. Stephen was in charge of the Oratory Youth Club. (Its official title was “The Perseverance”, but it was often known locally as “The Interference”!) Not the easiest of tasks, but he endeared himself to its members, who gave him the nickname “Evoe”, the signature on the card he sent to my wife and myself on our wedding day.

He organised and took part in camps for the Club – one very memorable at Harvington where he calmly drank Bisto at the Camp Fire because we thought it was Oxo!

He also attended the large 400 strong camps of the Birmingham Catholic Boys’ Association in Wales, organised by Reg Lester, and he generously accepted all the hardships and rough living associated with those so-called “holidays”.

Fr. Stephen was also priest-in-charge of the Brothers of the Little Oratory. In those days, they had the use of the ground floor of St. Philip’s Hall with games facilities (snooker, table tennis, cards, etc.), and every evening there was a good gathering of Brothers with Fr. Stephen in attendance. His quiet, pleasant presence was always appreciated, even by those who slipped out about 9.00 o’clock – after the prayer – to go to the Ivy Bush!

It came as a shock to me when he announced that he was leaving the Congregation in 1949 to become a Carthusian monk. He invited me to help myself to his books, and several volumes of the English Poets are still on my shelves inscribed “Charles J. Dessain, Senior Norfolk 1923”.

It was, therefore, a great pleasure to welcome him back to the Oratory in 1954, when he set about the enormous task which has made his name famous all over the world, namely the editing of the letters of John Henry Newman. This tremendous undertaking occupied him completely for the rest of his life, and when he died in May 1976, Fr. Stephen had published twenty large volumes containing the Cardinal’s correspondence. John Henry was a prolific letter-writer, and a considerable amount of work still remains to be done before the project is complete.

There is little doubt that this great literary achievement means that Fr. Stephen’s name will be remembered by many who did not know him personally, but those of us who did will always be grateful for his kind, happy, generous help. He was certainly a priest who gave his whole life to God, and I am only one of many who will never forget him.