Memories of a WM minister's daughter in Rome circa 1905

The following is an extract from my mother’s memoires. She was the daughter of Rev William Burgesss. He had been a missionary in South India, finally called to serve the WM church in Rome, effectively Italy. He was also one of the legal hundred and required to be in England annually for Conference.
My mother writes:
“La figlia del Presidente”
My first memories are of Rome. I was born [Dec.1899] in a four storied house in Finsbury Park North London and I am sure my mother was delighted when my father accepted the appointment as Chairman of the Italian District of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, for she was always a great traveler. In Italy he was known as the President of the W.M. Church and I was known as “La figlia del Presidente” which I am sure gave me an exalted view of my position. We lived in a ten roomed flat, plus a large kitchen, storeroom etc. My recollections are that our dining room, my father’s study and our nursery were very large rooms. I know that one is apt to exaggerate size when one is a child but we had some full size parallel bars and a trapeze at one end of the nursery and they didn’t at all get in the way of the room being used for other purposes. I had a desk at which I did my homework and carried on a voluminous correspondence. When one summer we had a villa at Le Roselier near St. Brieuc I had got hold of a children’s magazine know as La Semaine de Suzette and through it I got in touch with numerous pen friends all over France and North Africa. I think at one time I had nearly 30 correspondents and I even had a couple in the name of my small brother, Elmo, who was much too young to write letters himself, I chose Puck as his pseudonym. Mine was Pearl.

When the Rev. H. Piggott, my father’s predecessor, entered Rome soon after it was taken over by the Italian Government from the Pope, he wasn’t able to buy any land on which to build a church, so he purchased a big block of flats which, in the Italian fashion, were built round a large centre courtyard and in this courtyard he build his church. The church had no windows but was lighted by a large glass cupola which rose up in the middle of our terrace and I could amuse myself looking down at the people seated in church. All the flats above ours looked down on this dome but none of them could stand beside it and see in. Besides this small terrace [ 2 ] which wasn’t much use for playing on, we had private access to a large part of the roof, by a winding staircase which was pitch black as it led up through the walls and had no windows of any sort. How we got up and down safely I wouldn’t know but at that age I didn’t worry, save about spiders which might be in the cobwebs. When we reached the roof it was lovely for there was plenty of room to play unimpeded.

There were boxes of flowers at intervals round the edge and we even had a summer house. On a slightly lower level the other tenants has a their share of the roof which they could reach by the main staircase.[ 2A ] On the opposite side of the road was the Palace of the Cardinale Vicario. It must have been very galling for him to have a Methodist Church on his doorstep, for while Rome was a Papal State people weren’t even allowed to bring in Bibles. The places where his coat of arms had been were still left as they had been when they were torn down in 1870 and my Father used to say the holes weren’t mended because they still hoped to be able to put them, the coat of arms, back. Of course people who became converted had a very thin time. My father found work for one priest as assistant in a jeweller’s shop in the Corso – one of Rome’s poshest streets. He was there for a short while and then sacked without notice. When Daddy went to enquire what he had done wrong, the shopkeeper said he could find no fault with him but he had been warned by members of the Black Aristocracy, and those were the people with money, that unless he got rid of the man he would lose his custom, so what else could he do but sack him? There was the case of a returned emigrant from the States, where he had become converted to Protestantism, being shot at because he had started to build an Evangelical Church in some remote village in the Abruzzi. Luckily the bullet passed through the top of his hat and the church was built and my Father was able to send an Evangelist to minister to the people. But I grew up in such an atmosphere as this so it really wasn’t astonishing that only recently I became converted to Ecumenism. The Roman Church too has changed a lot since those days, though I still doubt whether it has changed so much in Italy as it has here and in England. When I was a child I was sent to Sunday School twice each Sunday. On Sunday mornings I used to go to the Italian Sunday School and in the afternoon I was taken to a Sunday school held by an elderly Scotswoman in her flat overlooking the Spanish Steps. The only thing I remember about that was that there were two very Scottish boys there whose grandfather was a well known Hymn writer – Dr Bonar. We have hymns by him in our Hymn Book.

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