Our School Motto: Avita pro Fide


By Fr Stephen Morrison O.Praem.

Avita pro Fide: what does it actually mean?

Mottos in Latin are often confusing, because word order in Latin is a flexible thing! Let’s put the words in an order we would recognise in English: Pro Avita Fide. This means, literally, “For Ancestral Faith.” This implies a few words which are not specifically there, and which we could add to give the sense: “We stand up for the Faith of our Ancestors.”

To understand this motto, we need to look at its history. It was the motto for St Edmund’s College, Ware (Herts.). Now a school, it used to be a Seminary, a college to train priests for work in English parishes. St Edmund’s, as an institution, was (like its sister college, Ushaw, Co. Durham) the continuation of the College in Douai (France) which trained priests for the English mission during the penal times. Our patron Saint, St John Payne, was himself a student at Douai, and came to work in England when the Mass, being a Catholic, and being a priest, were all still illegal. He met his destiny here in Chelmsford, where he was martyred for the Faith on 2nd April, 1582, much admired by the people of this city for his heroism and gentle nature.

The “Douai Martyrs” were particularly remembered at St Edmund’s, and at Ushaw, as being the heroes of the Catholic Church in England during those difficult years following the Reformation. The seminary moved from Ware to London in 1975, where it is now still situated, and re-named Allen Hall, after William Cardinal Allen who had founded the English College at Douai in 1568. St John Payne is among the alumni of Douai still commemorated at Allen Hall on huge commemorational plaques hanging in the seminary, along with many other of his companions, known together as the “Douai Martyrs,” just as they were remembered at St Edmund’s College, Ware. Interestingly, St John Payne is mentioned by name in the frescoes of the Venerable English College in Rome, which also gave us many famous martyrs of the same period, including St Ralph Sherwin and St Edmund Campion.

The decision to name our school after St John Payne, our only “local” martyr, dates from 1955, when Bishop Beck indicated to the architect, a Mr Boxall, the intended name of the new school. St John Payne had not yet been canonised (that would take place in 1970, when Pope Paul VI canonised the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales), and so the earlier name was “Blessed John Payne” as many of our first generation of students will still remember.

It was the choice of Monsignor Canon Michael Wilson, then parish priest of Our Lady Immaculate Chelmsford who was the “founding priest” of the school when it opened in 1959, to give the school named after John Payne the same motto as the seminary he himself had attended, St Edmund’s, to carry on the Douai connection here in Chelmsford. It is believed that Monsignor Wilson wanted very much to establish a link between St Edmund’s and the new secondary school of Chelmsford, but it would remain more or less a “homage” to his own roots and to the life of St John Payne as a student of the College at Douai.

So why did St Edmund’s College and St John Payne School share this unusual motto, Avita pro Fide? “For our ancestral Faith” is an obvious proud statement that we as Catholics try to live out our faith in fidelity to the Tradition which we have received and in turn pass on. There was also a desire to remind our fellow compatriots that, until the reign of King Henry VIII (despite a brief re-appearance in the reign of Queen Mary), England had been Catholic. We famously remember the arrival of the Christian Faith to these shores at the hands of St Augustine of Canterbury, but even long before, during Roman times, our Protomartyr (or First Martyr) St Alban is the most notable example of a nascent Catholic community which grew throughout the Celtic and British peoples for many centuries before St Augustine.

In the context of martyrdom and struggle, the way all this rich history was celebrated most famously was in a hymn written by the great 19th century priest, Fr Faber. We still sing a lot of his hymns today, and one in particular rings in the ear with its catchy melody, and its proud chorus:

“Faith of our Fathers, Holy Faith,
We will be true to thee ’til death.”

This really is a translation of Avita pro Fide: For the Faith of our Fathers.

Since Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in 1850, the latter part of the 19th century was a time of great converts to the Faith (including Blessed Cardinal Newman, and Fr Faber himself, both of whom had been Anglican clergymen), and it was also a time of great renewal. The Catholic community wanted to rediscover and reappraise the sacrifice of the martyrs, now that they were free to do so. Many people, known and unknown, had paid the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for their Catholic Faith. Nobody wanted the memory of such bravery and witness to go forgotten.

A hundred or so years since the Restoration of the hierarchy, our school is very much in that same tradition. In other words, as a Catholic school proud of its history and the witness of brave men and women like St John Payne, St Anne Line, St John Houghton, and so many others, we stand up for the Faith which those before us held to so tenaciously, and gave their lives to defend.

Now for the controversy over the motto…. Our first Headteacher, Mr Butt, is on record as having quoted Mgr Wilson translating the motto of his alma mater as “Stand up for the Faith.” This, however, is probably a gloss, rather than an accurate translation. It could also stem from a misunderstanding of the word “avitus” which could be confused for “avidus” (meaning desirous of, or longing for). The motto, it seems to me, does not mean “for an avid/zealous faith.” Although the clear message of the motto, properly understood, is definitely that of zeal and courage, of “standing up” for the Faith of our Fathers in a world that increasingly seems to want to ignore God and his Church.

Although the hymn “Faith of our Fathers” is still very much known and loved, in our own age with its trend for gender-inclusive language, we might alternatively translate our motto as “For our Ancestral Faith” or, “For the Faith of our Forebears.” At any rate, we are reminded that our Faith is “ever ancient, ever new” and that the blood of the Martyrs is what gives it fresh life and growth in every century. The ancient Christian author Tertullian is often quoted as having said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Thanks to Bishop Beck, Canon Wilson, and Mr Butt, that seed has been sown in Chelmsford for many years now, and has produced a rich harvest.

Now, it is down to us to learn our Faith, practise our Faith, and live our Faith, with courage and zeal! For it is the “Faith of our Fathers,” the holy Catholic Faith that we have received, and the world needs our witness today, just as it did in 1582 when our brave patron Saint gave his life in this city out of love for Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said, “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

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