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Arthur Walter Hughes: he spent himself for Africa.

Stories of poor boys rising to rub shoulders with royalty are likely to involve a measure of ruthlessness and of conveniently forgetting one's roots. Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes did not take himself seriously enough to fall for these temptations. He died aged forty-six as papal internuncio to the Kingdom of Egypt, beloved for his openness to Christians, Jews, and Muslims and his desire to be of service to all.

Arthur Hughes was born in 1902 in Clapton in East London, an area with many poor residents, including a sizable Jewish community. His parents, migrants from Wales and Ireland, were not churchgoers. England then provided free elementary education to the age of fourteen, but the more academic grammar schools were fee-paying and beyond the family's means. Arthur therefore left school at fourteen and took a job in a newspaper office, but he pursued wide-ranging studies in the local free library. His reading convinced him of the claims of the Catholic Church. After being received in the church, he applied to the archbishop of Westminster to train as a priest.

Cardinal Bourne, wary that a convert's zeal might not last, asked him to use the next two years to discern his vocation. When Arthur duly returned, still eager, he was dispatched to Bishop's Waltham in Hampshire, where Fr. Pierre-Marie Travers ran the junior seminary of the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers. This boarding school then housed French and English boys. Arthur's time was devoted to learning French and Latin, subjects not taught in elementary schools but required for his continuing studies in France and North Africa.

Small classes helped Arthur's gifts blossom. He gained mastery of both languages, earning himself the nickname of "professor." He once accepted a challenge to speak on any given topic in French for an hour, and he successfully held forth on cheese. Later, it was said that his Latin replies were more fluent than the lectures of the seminary staff who used it to teach in Carthage. Once at lunchtime, a salad was sent up dressed in paraffin rather than olive oil. Priests and pupils pushed it away as uneatable, only to see Arthur chewing away, apparently quite happily.

His sense of humor had already been manifest in Hampshire, but the staff in Carthage were less sure about his punning in three languages and misquoting Scripture, fearing he was not serious. Eventually, they were convinced that he was possessed of a joyful spirit rather than empty levity, and they recommended him for ordination in 1927 despite some concern for his health. Disappointment followed when Hughes found himself "in exile from Africa," back at Bishop's Waltham. Short and stout, he was a popular teacher despite having no sporting talent--other than an encyclopedic memory for cricketing statistics.

This posting did not last long, as the society had agreed to run a parish in Heston, West London. From this base Hughes could readily travel to speaking engagements around the United

Kingdom. On one occasion he arrived starving and thoroughly wet on a Scottish priest's doorstep, mistaken at first for a gentleman of the road. Nearer to home, he addressed a distinguished audience, including the colonial secretary, speaking for an hour without notes on the slave trade but giving copious and accurate references from his preparatory studies.

In Uganda, 1933-42

In 1933 Hughes received his longed-for appointment to Uganda. His superior, Vicar Apostolic Bishop Michaud, was impressed when Hughes greeted him in the local language, Luganda, which he had studied in London before departure. Michaud gave him responsibility for education, where he answered to another English convert, former headmaster Archbishop Arthur Hinsley, the apostolic delegate, who was determined to see church schools in East Africa offer a good all-round education. His brief covered institutions ranging from village schools to seminaries and the teacher training college, which Hughes called his "nine choirs of angels." (1) He had responsibility for Catholic students at the national university being set up in Makerere. In 1937 he insisted to the governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, that outside England the Catholic Church had the same rights as the Anglican to set up a chaplaincy: "Your Excellency, you can not honestly deprive the many believers in Jesus-Eucharist [sic] of his presence in their midst. He is their bosom friend, their inspiration, their safeguard, their strength. Without Him their life becomes wasted, bare, dull, and aimless." (2)

Church schools in Uganda received grants from the Protectorate Government, although never enough to meet all needs. When Hughes asked for more money, he was told that he belonged to one of the richest organizations in the world. "The Church was founded on a rock, and has been on the rocks ever since," Hughes replied, and won the increase. (3) Like Hinsley, an early ecumenist, he cooperated with other churches to achieve benefits for all. His respect for other Christians led to his praying with a Protestant school inspector whose wife was ill, an unlooked-for gesture in those days.

This was a time of rapid change for the church in Uganda, as the vicariate was divided from 1934, leading to a major reshuffle of personnel, with one area handed over to Ugandan clergy, in preparation for the time, in 1939, when Joseph Kiwanuka would became the eagerly anticipated first Uganda-born bishop. All this meant extra work for Hughes, though he still found time to care for boy scouts and other young people.

When the Second World War came, Uganda was not far enough from Europe to avoid the conflict. When Italy declared hostilities in 1940, the Italian missionaries in the northern Vicariate of Gulu were interned as enemy aliens. At the same time, as the town was close to Italian-held Ethiopia, the British army requisitioned the main vicariate buildings to provide barracks for troops to counter any Italian aggression from the north. Hughes was dispatched to take charge, overseeing the evacuation of buildings so effectively that no losses were reported.

That his was a temporary responsibility did not tempt Hughes to go easy. He began by writing a sermon and having it translated into each of the four local languages, so that he could preach from memory as he visited each mission. When he eventually left this responsibility, the vicariate's work had doubled in size.

In Ethiopia and Egypt, 1942-49

Hughes was sent to Ethiopia in 1942 to resolve difficulties for the church following the Italian expulsion, and then on to Egypt after a few months. The apostolic delegate there was an Italian, unacceptable to the British, occupiers in all but name. Hughes's appointment was seen as a minor success by British diplomatic and propaganda services; his close but critical cooperation with the authorities in Uganda may have led them to believe he would be useful, if not docile, in Egypt.

Earlier in the year the British had parked their tanks outside the palace to intimidate King Farouk into changing a government seen as favorable to Italy and Germany. Hughes was well aware of the outrage this action had caused. From the outset he asserted his independence from the British. When the embassy offered to effect an introduction to the twenty-two-year-old king, Hughes declined, saying that he did not represent the king of England, but the Prince of Peace. (4) On this point he was following the injunction of Pope Benedict XV, who had warned in Maximum illud (1919) of the dangers to Christian witness of missionaries being identified with their home nation.



Determined not to be "dust on the hem of Egypt," (5) Arthur Hughes found ways to succeed in the many ministries open before him. His task was to represent the pope to the Catholic Church in Egypt, a delicate task in which he succeeded, bringing together the six sometimes mistrustful rites, each with its own traditions. They still work together today. When Hughes was made bishop, his ring was presented by the Greek Catholics, his pectoral cross by the Coptic Catholics. Most Egyptian Christians were Coptic or Greek Orthodox, and Hughes worked toward unity with them, most notably by the unheard-of step of attending festivals and praying with them. (6) He also established cordial relations with the country's Islamic and Jewish leaders. This was possible only because he was a true missionary, a man of God before he was an Englishman.

Hughes established clinics and schools, open to all, in the poverty-stricken villages of the Delta and Upper Egypt, supported by his contacts at home. It is a tribute to the wisdom of Hughes and the Egyptian Church that the schools remained open throughout the Suez crisis and to this day; one of them is named in his honor. They were regarded as Egyptian schools, not British. Such enterprises needed government blessing. Having established his credentials as independent of the British government so forcefully on his arrival in Egypt, Hughes won the ear of the young king. (Farouk, notorious for his sensuality, respected Hughes enough not to bring on the dancing girls till Hughes had left his company.)

Hughes also had a ministry to foreign Catholics in Egypt, mainly troops, including Italian and German prisoners of war. Although the British Army supplied a staff car for his use, he insisted on flying the Vatican flag rather than that of the British. He continued to pray with clergy of other denominations, endearing himself to the army chaplains by insisting on meeting their wives before an official reception. He once disappeared from dinner with the chief of staff to make his way to the kitchen, where he delighted the Maltese cooks by thanking them for the meal. In the POW camp he helped set up a seminary for Germans who had sensed a call to ministry or, in the expression of the Roman Catholic Church, who sought to try their vocations.

As the war drew to a close in 1945, Hughes was confirmed in his position as apostolic delegate and ordained bishop, but Egypt now sought full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the first Muslim-majority state to do so. In 1947 Arthur Hughes was named the first internuncio to Egypt and became archbishop. He still lived in community rather than the style his position might have afforded. His hard work continued unabated, despite concerns for his health among those close to him. Well aware that he was spied upon and that the diplomatic bag was tampered with, he would post confidential letters himself at the local mailbox. On a journey to Jerusalem he allowed the spies following him from Cairo to steal his suitcase, while walking away with the important papers on his person. Another visit to the Holy City found him among the many who were caught up in the turbulence surrounding a terrorist bomb outrage.

Final Days and Summary

In 1949 Hughes was due to take a home visit. He said Mass below decks onboard his steamship for crew members, finding himself briefly "a missionary again." Visits to the junior seminary and other White Father houses showed his confreres how exhausted he was; he once slept for thirty hours straight. He had remained close to his family, despite his rise to fame. The society treasured the story of a visitor scandalized to encounter an archbishop drying the dishes as his mother washed them. When at home, he would rise first and light the fire before leaving to say Mass at the local church. Hughes only reluctantly agreed to see a doctor--but he never kept the appointment; on July 12 he died at home of a massive heart attack in the arms of his brother.


Hughes's burial was another homecoming, for he was laid to rest beside Father Travers, "who had first fostered his missionary vocation and guided him to the altar." (7) The Egyptian Embassy attended in force, bringing a wreath from King Farouk, while another came from the British armed forces.

Amid the tensions of the Middle East, the schools and hospitals he founded are still Egyptian and still open to all. The Egyptian Catholic Church remains small but bears witness to God's love "without directly speaking about Christ," in the words of one bishop.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, M.Afr., today's Vatican nuncio, attended the same school in Hampshire as Arthur Hughes and continues his predecessor's work of friendship, supporting a church with roots in apostolic times.

Hughes's motto--Licet plus diligens minus diligar--was drawn from 2 Corinthians 12:15: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for you. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?" Arthur Hughes spent himself, for he loved greatly, and was greatly loved by those whose lives he touched. (8)

Annotated Bibliography

Ayrout, Henry Habib. "Panegyrique prononce par le Reverend Pere H. Ayrout S.J. en L'Eglise S. Joseph au Caire le 19 Juillet 1949." Available from the Missionaries of Africa, London. Father Ayrout, an Egyptian Jesuit, worked with Hughes in developing poor Christian villages in Egypt. Translated by the present writer, 2007.

Cavalli, Dimitri. "The Good Samaritan: Jewish Praise for Pope Pius XII." In Inside the Vatican, October 2000, pp. 72-77. Available at Cavalli seeks to vindicate Pius XII's record in the Second World War. He mentions Hughes in connection with his meeting an official of the Jewish Agency in Turkey.

"Christianity in the United Arab Republic." Tablet, September 6, 1955, p. 181. From a correspondent writing about Catholic communities and their schools during the Suez crisis.

Finn, Peter. History of the Priory Bishop's Waltham. Winchester, Eng.: Hedera Books, 1999. Finn compiled the history of the White Fathers' junior seminary in Hampshire, where Hughes studied and taught. He had access to oral tradition no longer available.

Holmes-Siedle, James. "Memories o f a Year at the Priory (1926-1927)." Pelican, Summer 1962. Bishop Holmes-Siedle studied under Hughes.

Howell, Arthur E. Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes of the White Fathers, Apostolic Internuncio to Egypt. London: Samuel Walker, n.d. [between 1949 and 1952]. A confrere of Hughes who drew on material from the White Fathers, memories of Egypt from John Ramsay-Fairfax, and an unidentified contemporary newspaper.

Kittler, Glenn D. The White Fathers. New York: Harper, 1957. An American who traveled through Africa researching his portrait of the Society; he also tapped oral tradition no longer available.

Marchant, Leonard [?]. "A History of the White Fathers in Scotland." N.d.; available at

McGuire, Manus, and Michael Goodstadt. "The Late Archbishop Hughes." Columban, Christmas 1952. These schoolboys based their work primarily on Howell, Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes, and on recent oral tradition.

"Obituary: Archbishop Hughes--Apostolic Internuncio to Egypt." Times, July 13, 1949, p. 7. A useful picture of Hughes from a secular source.

Payeur, Francois. "The Story of Saint Augustine Catholic Chapel at Makerere." Missionaries of Africa Archives, Uganda, n.d.

Petit Echo, 1949, pp. 193-96. The White Fathers' in-house newsletter recorded Hughes's life and death. Translated from the French by the present writer.

Stark, Freya. Dust in the Lion's Paw: Autobiography, 1939-1946. London: John Murray, 1961; repr., London: Century, 1995. Stark, in her account of working in British intelligence and diplomacy in wartime in the Middle East, refers to Hughes's appointment as a minor victory for her service.


(1.) Arthur E. Howell, Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes of the White Fathers, Apostolic Internuncio to Egypt (London: Samuel Walker, n.d. [between 1949 and 1952]).

(2.) Francois Payeur, "The Story of Saint Augustine Catholic Chapel at Makerere"; Missionaries of Africa Archives, Uganda, n.d.

(3.) Howell, Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes of the White Fathers.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Henry Habib Ayrout, "Panegyrique prononce par le Reverend Pere H. Ayrout S.J. en L'Eglise S. Joseph au Caire le 19 Juillet 1949"; Missionaries of Africa Archives, London.

(6.) In London, Arthur Hinsley had been rebuked by his fellow bishops for "praying with heretics" when asked by the Anglican bishop of Chichester to lead the Lord's Prayer at the Albert Hall after the Blitz of May 10, 1942. See Adrian Hastings, A History of English Christianity, 1920-1985 (London: Collins, 1986), p. 395.

(7.) Petit Echo, 1949.

(8.) Many thanks to Christopher Wallbank, M.Afr., and Aloysius Beebwa, M.Afr., who kindly provided copies of primary sources, and to Paul West, webmaster of, a site for friends of the White Fathers, or Missionaries of Africa. Three items in the bibliography (articles by Holmes-Siedle, by McGuire and Goodstadt, and by Marchant) appear on this Web site.

Maurice Billingsley, who studied with the Missionaries of Africa at school and senior seminary, teaches disaffected young people and has taken an M.A. in theology at the Franciscan International Study Centre, Canterbury, England.
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Author:Billingsley, Maurice
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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