Blessed Francis Bell – Heavenly Patron of West Grinstead

Alongside Our Lady, another great heavenly patron of the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation at West Grinstead is Blessed Francis Bell, a Franciscan priest and martyr. Although for obvious reasons records of the priests who served this Mission through the dark days of recusancy are few and far between, nevertheless it is believed that he spent some considerable time here. This would explain why West Grinstead came to possess a number of relics, including one of the last letters of this great man. In life Blessed Francis had a great devotion to Our Lady; and we have no doubt that he continues to plead with her from his exalted place in heaven for the needs of our beloved Shrine and its patrons.

- a biography by Alan Frost

Blessed Francis Bell

The name of Francis Bell may not be one of the more well-known of the many inspiring martyrs of Tyburn, but at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation at West Grinstead, his memory is revered. Mass is still said there in the former secret chapel where he himself offered Mass in penal times, risking his life to do so. The daily sacrifice is celebrated in his memory and in memory of all those who braved capture and martyrdom to keep the Faith alive in those dark days of persecution.

Born in 1590 in Temple Broughton Manor near Worcester, he was actually christened ‘Arthur’, and it was his elder brother who was called Francis. He had another brother, William and a sister, Marguerite. He adopted the name Francis later, after his ordination. His father William was a considerable scholar, an Oxford don and a man generous enough to endow two Balliol scholarships for students from Worcester. He died when Arthur was only eight, though money had been provided for the boy to have a tutor until he was 13. In his will among the things he left were numerous musical instruments, including his ‘best lute’ to Arthur; and to each of his children “a joyned bed-steed with a feather pillow”.

In 1603 Arthur went to stay with his uncle, Francis Daniel, the brother of his mother Dorothy, in Suffolk. He was a wealthy and devout man who would ensure his nephew’s education and at whose house Arthur lived until he was 24. Though when he was 15 he spent some time back at his mother’s house for safety during the intense persecution of Catholics following the Gunpowder Plot, but his own faith was never threatened. Indeed it grew in intensity and in 1614 he went to study at the English College in St. Omer with the intention of becoming a priest.

From St. Omer he went in 1615 to Valladolid in Spain (St. Alban’s College) and studied with the Jesuits for a while. But after his ordination in Salamanca on 14th April 1618 and celebrating his first Mass eight days later in Valladolid, he took the Franciscan habit in August that year in Segovia. In deference to the Order’s founder he took the name Francis, most likely also in honour of his uncle and his brother. The following year he was made assistant to the Provincial Superior, Fr John Gennings, brother of the martyr Edmund, to help him restore the English Province at Douai.

His duties were extended to include from 1622-3 the role of Confessor to the English Poor Clares in Gravelines (a community founded by Mary Ward in 1608 and who later founded the Institute of Mary). In 1623 he was transferred to Brussels to undertake a similar role at the new Convent of St. Elizabeth for Third Order Franciscan nuns. Communication was not a problem as he followed in his father’s scholarly footsteps and became a master of numerous languages. He used to say his Rosary and daily Office of Our Lady (he had a great attachment to Our Lady, a prefigurement of the West Grinstead connection) in Latin one day, Hebrew, the next, then in Greek, Spanish, French, Flemish and English. His skill with languages led to his translating into English from the Spanish The Life of Sister Joanna of the Cross, the beatified abbess of the Convent of the Third Order of St. Francis in Toledo (published St. Omer 1625). He also translated from the Spanish, in 1624, Fr. Andres a Soto’s book How We Should Hear Mass.

He worked with the nuns in Brussels for seven years and became “loved and venerated by the community as its true father and founder (Franciscan Martyrs in England, Mrs. Hope) particularly much later when they had to move their base to Taunton in England. Indeed a miniature of him and other Tyburn martyrs was kept by Mary Gifford, who became a nun and entered the Carmelite Convent at Antwerp in 1681. Her father painted them when in prison with Fr Bell. She passed them on to nuns in England and they are kept to this day by the Sisters at St. Helens. At Brussels Fr. Bell produced for the nuns a book of the Rule, ending with a dedication that the new community might endure until “Jesus Christ comes to judge the world’. His work here would begin to announce his name to a hostile English government. In a 1629 book The English Spanish Pilgrim, a Protestant antagonist, James Wadsworth refers to “a nunnery of the Third Order of St. Francis which is governed by one Fr Bell, a friar of the same Order”.

During 1630-1 several developments took place. He was appointed a Definitor (part of the Governing Council of the regional Order) as well as Guardian of the Convent of St. Bonaventure. He also became Professor of Hebrew and Sacred Languages to the Franciscan novices and newly ordained priests. One of these, a convert from Lancashire, Bd. John Woodcock, received the habit from Br. Henry Heath in 1631 and was professed by Francis Bell in 1632. All three would be martyrs to the faith and be given the same feast day, 3rd May, with two other beatified Friars Minor martyrs, Thomas Bullaker and Walter Colman.

These appointments were very popular with his confreres, for he was much loved “as the light of their eyes”, in the words of a contemporary Franciscan and biographer of Bell and other English Franciscan Martyrs. The words come from Certamen Seraphicum Provinciae Angliae, published in Douai in 1649 by Fr Angelus (born Richard Mason in Wiltshire), who was himself delighted to have been professed by Fr, Bell. Two things about this book are worth noting: it is a chief source for the limited studies of Bd. Francis Bell, including that in Bishop Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests; also, in its harrowing accounts of The martyrs’ excruciating deaths, we are reminded of the Calvaries ordinary people suffered in order that the flame of The Catholic faith in Britain should never be extinguished.

However, in 1632 he was transferred to become First Provincial for the Scottish Franciscans. This certainly involved his being in Spain for a time in 1633, but there are conflicting accounts of whether he actually went to Scotland. For safety, records would probably have been destroyed, though many coded messages of martyrs and priests in cognito have been preserved. However, in 1634 the Commissary-General who transferred him, Fr. Joseph Bergaigne (later Archbishop of Cambrai), recalled him for a major mission which Francis Bell welcomed. It was to England, with the position of Guardian of London and Definitor. And the prospect, which he sincerely wished, of dying for the Faith.

It would seem the secrecy over records of work-in-the-field was particularly effective in Fr Bell’s first few years in England, though a Spanish Capuchin, Jose Maria de Elizondo (Fray Francisco Bel, Donostia 1923) describes Francis Bell leaving Lisbon for Flanders in September 1633 and ‘disembarking’ at Dover on 7th December, whence he headed for London.

He is reported at his mother’s house in Acton, Suffolk in July 1634. In May 1635 he is in Weston at the house of a Mr. Morgan, and in July 1636 he flees “the plague in London” and takes shelter with Lord Petre at Cranham Hall, Essex. Of great interest here is the fact that Catherine Petre of Cranham Hall married John Caryll in 1625. They had three sons, John, Richard and Phillip, and the Caryll connection with West Grinstead is of immense importance. The priest’s house at the West Grinstead Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation today was built in 1640 on the estate of the Carylls. Members of the family over generations would have worshipped at the secret chapel in the hayloft at the top of the house, which was endowed in 1671 and has had a priest there ever since.

Fr. Bell continued his clandestine work as Guardian and priest, though some of his letters of the time survive, such as one (1641) to the abbess of the English Tertiaries at Nieuport (Flanders), until 1643 when he received an instruction from the Pope, Urban VIII, via Archbishop Bergaigne. It was for him to contribute to a report on the causes and manner of deaths of the martyrs, which were causing a great sensation throughout Europe. His brief was to report on the deaths of Franciscan priests, which necessitated visits to Newgate Prison. On one occasion Fr. Bullaker was being led out to his execution and Francis Bell asked why he, professed after Bell, was going to his martyrdom before him. Bullaker replied it was the will of God, “but you will follow”.

Fr Bullaker was right. Stopped in Stevenage in November there were tell-tale details on a scrap of paper in his pocket. He readily admitted to being an English priest. He was condemned on 9th December 1643 “for being a popish priest”, evidence of this including “having said Mass at West Grinstead at one time”. Before his trial he wrote several letters from prison, one to the Benedictine nuns at Brussels describing his capture and ending with the words “for myself the worst they can doe to mee is the best and most desired. God’s holye will bee done.” Later, full knowing the awful pain and death to come, he told well-meaning officials from the Spanish Embassy not to plead on his behalf lest they denied him the reward of his martyrdom. On December 11th, proclaiming he was “astonished that God should have pleased to honour me with the crown of martyrdom”, he went bravely to his death. He was hung, disembowelled whilst still alive, beheaded and his body quartered. The executioner burnt his heart and intestines, but could not prevent his admirers obtaining relics, several of which were treasured by the high-born and royalty including the Queen-Regent of France and the wife of Charles I, the Queen of England.

Some of his relics also found their way to West Grinstead where they are to be seen and venerated today, along with a discovered priest-hole and the last letter that he ever wrote. It was from Newgate Prison on 22nd November 1643, apologising for the fact that he would not be able to help Fr Richard Angelus at Douai ‘due to the impediment’ of his being in Newgate Prison awaiting trial and probable execution: “my Lord Jesus Christ knows that I am prepared to go with Him to the Cross and to death.” To his joy, in the manner of Christ on the Cross, he restored a thief’s belief in God just as he was about to be dragged to the gallows with him. The cause for his beatification was put forward in 1900, and in 1987 Pope John Paul II honoured him as Blessed Francis Arthur Bell.

Bishop Richard Challonner, DD; Bishop of Debra and Vicar Apostolic.

ARTHUR BELL, who in religion was called Father Francis, was born August 13, 1590, at Temple Broughton, the seat of his father, in the parish of Hanbury, six miles from Worcester. His parents were both virtuous, and of good families, his mother being sister to Francis Daniel, Esq. of Acton Place, near Long Melford, in Suffolk. He was brought up in the fear of God, and in grammar learning, privately at home in his mother’s house, who was left a widow when he was eight years of age ; afterwards he lived for some years with his uncle Daniel in Suffolk. At the age of twenty-four, he went over to the English College of St. Omers, where he employed a year in the study of rhetoric, and then was sent by the Fathers of the Society to the English College of St. Alban the Martyr in Valladolid, where he studied his philosophy and some part of his divinity, and was made priest, and not long after took the habit of St. Francis in the convent of Segobia, August 9, 1618; and having very much edified the whole community during the year of his probation, he was by the unanimous votes of all admitted to his solemn vows and profession, September 8, 1619. Not long after, Father Gennings, being about the restoring of the English Franciscan province, and having authority from the General to call to him for this purpose the English friars, wherever they were to be found, sent for Father Bell from Spain to the English Convent newly erected at Doway, where he employed two years more in the study of divinity and then was made confessor, first of the poor Clares at Graveline, and afterwards of the nuns of the Third Order of St. Francis, at that time residing in Brussels, till about the year 1630, when he was chosen guardian for the first time of the Convent of the English Franciscans at Doway, and made definitor of the province, discharging at the same time the office of lector or professor of the Hebrew tongue. But before he had gone through the usual term of his guardianship, he was called to Brussels by Father Joseph Bergaigne, the Commissary General of the order (afterwards Archbishop of Cambray), and for the restoring the province of Scotland, was appointed its first provincial, and sent in that quality to the general chapter then held in Spain. After his return he was sent by the same Commissary General upon the English mission, where he arrived September 8, 1634. He laboured with great zeal for nine years in the mission in converting souls to Christ, and then received the crown of martyrdom for his reward, which for the space of twenty years he had earnestly prayed for.

He was apprehended on the 6th of November, 1643, at Stevenage in Hertfordshire, by the Parliament soldiers, upon suspicion of his being a spy; who, upon a strict search, found in his bags some papers, in which he had written out the lessons of the office of the Blessed Sacrament and a form of blessing the cord of the Confraternity of St. Francis, which, after sending for the schoolmaster of the town to interpret them, appeared (not only to these military men, but afterwards to the committee of the Parliament) dangerous matters, especially the form of blessing the cord, which they imagined to be some spell or conjuration. That day, and the following night he passed under the guard of four soldiers, and the next morning was searched again, when they found about him a letter in Spanish, addressed to, or designed for the Spanish ambassador, then residing in London, in which was made mention of his being of the Order of St. Francis; so that now they resolve to secure him, no longer as a spy, but as a suspected priest. This drew many officers and others to the place where he was detained. One of them asked him what religion he was of. He readily answered, I am a Catholic. ‘What!’ said the other, ‘a Roman Catholic?’ ‘How do you mean a Roman?’ said Father Bell. ‘I am an Englishman. There is but one Catholic Church, and of that I am a member.’ They all said he was in the right to own his religion. ‘That’, said he, ‘I will do, with the grace of God, to my last breath’. Another asked him if he believed the Pope to be the head of the Catholic Church? He answered in the affirmative; upon which there arose a dispute concerning the Church and the Pope, but in a confused manner, as is usual to this kind of disputants, who are ever running from one point to another. They brought their Bibles to confute him, but in vain; for he showed them that they had shamefully corrupted even their very Scriptures. In conclusion he told them their arguing against Church authority and infallibility, and grounding all things in religion upon the weak and uncertain bottom of private judgment and private interpretation of the Scriptures (liable, as they acknowledged, to error), was not a way to invite him to their religion, for that it would be a very unequal change to part with a Church (which he was assured was an infallible guide, by the divine promises, as recorded in Scripture) for a religion which owned itself liable to error, and could give no assurance to its followers that it was not leading them on in the broad way of eternal damnation. ‘Such an exchange as this’, said he, ‘would be like that which your soldiers have obliged me to make, who have taken away my clothes that were whole, and given me nothing but rags in their place’. In fine, at parting, he told them plainly and sincerely that no salvation could be hoped for out of the Catholic Church, and that he wished them all to be even as he was, excepting his present state of confinement.

From Stevenage he was carried before the committee then sitting in Hertfordshire, to whom all his papers were delivered; with a particular caution to look well to him, for that he had a spell amongst his papers, by means of which he could get out of any prison or dungeon; for such they supposed to be that form of the benediction of the cord of St. Francis, which was found amongst his papers. Here he was examined, whether he had ever been beyond the seas? He answered, ‘Yes’. Whether he had taken holy orders there? He answered, that as this was by their laws deemed a crime, he was not to be his own accuser. Upon this he was given over to Jones the City Marshal, to be by him conducted the next day to town; who stripped him of what the soldiers had left, and set him on horseback, half naked as he was, in his rags, and so carried him to London, making him a subject of mockery to the people, in all the towns and villages through which they passed; whilst Father Bell, as appears by his own written relation, so far from taking this in evil part, thought this cavalcade of his too great a pomp for one whose profession obligeth him to take up his cross every day, and follow Christ. When they were arrived in town, the Marshal (who before in searching him had found the key of his trunk) found means to get the trunk itself into his hands, and seized upon it, and all its contents as a lawful prize. ‘Tis true the Committee of the Parliament, by whom Father Bell was shortly after examined, upon hearing the case, ordered the Marshal to return his goods; for as he was not yet convicted he had certainly a right to keep what was his. But the Marshal, though he promised to return them, never did it. ‘I shall never hear any more’, says Father Bell, ‘of my goods, till the day of judgment; and then I fear I shall be blamed for transgressing holy poverty, by having so many goods to lose; for I firmly believe these men were appointed by God to put me in mind of my vocation. Thanks be to God for it.’ Such were the dispositions of this holy man.

In his examination before the Committee of the Parliament, being questioned concerning the Spanish letter that was found about him, he acknowledged that he was a poor penitent of the Order of St. Francis, but would not satisfy them as to the point of his priesthood; so he was committed to Newgate in order to take his trial at the next sessions. But before these things were transacted, his brethren had made choice of him to be, for the second time, guardian or superior of their convent at Doway, which office had been vacant ever since the martyrdom of Father Heath, who was actually guardian when he came over into England, where he so quickly met with the crown he sought. Father Bell had not been full four-and-twenty hours in Newgate when his Provincial’s letter was brought to him, requiring of him in virtue of obedience to fill up the vacancy; and not long after he received the patents for that office from Father Marchant, the Commissary General. His answers both to the one and the other are worthy to be recorded. To his Provincial he writes as follows:

I received your command with all humility and readiness at the very time that I was putting it in execution; for I took possession of Father Paul’s place in Newgate about twenty hours before yours came to my knowledge. As to what remains, I beg your prayers that I may persevere to the end; and I beg of all Christians, with St. Andrew, that they would not hinder my suffering. Your poor Brother, FATHER BELL.”

To the Commissary General he returned the following answer:

“Most REVEREND FATHER, obedience and reverence. I received the command of your most reverend paternity with humility, and am disposed with all possible readiness to put it in execution as soon as this present impediment which stands in the way shall be removed. Now the impediment is this. On the 6th of November, O.S., I was apprehended on my way to London, by the Parliamentary soldiers, and being examined, and found to be a Catholic, I was put under the custody of four soldiers night and day. And after I had been stript of all things, sword, money, clothes, and even my very shirt, and clad in an old tattered coat of some poor soldier, I was brought before the Parliament at London, where being again examined, I was found out by certain arguments to be a friar minor, which I did not deny; and being withal suspected to be a priest according to the order of the Roman Church, I was for this reason committed to the prison of Newgate. I am to be tried on the 5th of December, what will then be done with me my Lord Jesus Christ knows, with whom I am ready to go to the cross, and to death, if His mercy will vouchsafe to extend itself so far as to be willing to accept of the sacrifice of such and so great a sinner; but if I am still necessary to His people, the will of our Lord be done. I have begged death for Christ. This will I continue to beg for. My sinful life has been a long time hateful to me. Pardon me, I know what is for my profit; to die is my gain. I humbly beg your prayers, and those of my brethren, that if (as I wish) it be my lot to die, I may depart with obedience in the grace of Christ; and with St. Andrew I beseech all Christian people not to be a hindrance to my death. If I shall not be condemned to die, I will labour by all lawful means to procure my liberty, that I may be able to obey, as it is my duty, the command I have received. God preserve your reverence.”

Newgate, November 22, 1643.

Father Bell was not tried on the 5th of December as he expected, but on the 7th of that month. The witnesses that appeared against him were Wadsworth, Mayo, and Thomas Gage, all apostates from the Catholic religion, and the last also from his religious vows. Wadsworth deposed that he knew him twenty years before at Brussels, in the habit of St. Francis, and that he was esteemed by all as an honest plain friar. Mayo declared that he knew him at Graveline, in the monastery of the poor Clares, and that he was one of the priests of that monastery, and that he also knew him at the convent of the English Franciscans at Doway. Gage made oath, that the prisoner lived for some time at London, with a lady, a near relation of his, where he had often heard him say Mass; and that he remembered his complaining to him of his kinswoman’s rising so late, that he could seldom begin Mass before twelve o’clock. Father Bell excepted against all the witnesses as infamous apostates, who having broken their faith to God, deserved none with men. And as to the jury, he said, he hoped they were Christians; that he was certainly not a priest of the Levitical order of Aaron; and that ‘it would not be wisdom, if anyone had a call from God to the priesthood to neglect the fountain-head, and to take up with troubled water.’ The Recorder told him, he spoke mysteriously; and asked if he had anything else to say. He answered, ‘No’. Upon which the jury going out, after a short deliberation, pronounced him guilty; for which verdict the holy man returned them thanks.

In the afternoon he was brought again to the bar, and asked what he had to say why sentence should not pass upon him. Upon which occasion he expressed himself in the following manner: ‘My accusers have given in their depositions against me, and my jury has pronounced me guilty; I return them my most hearty thanks, for I shall most willingly, and with the greatest joy, die with Christ and His apostles and martyrs, my cause being the same as theirs. And since I am going to speak of a matter of equal or greater importance than was that of which the prophets spoke of old, let me invoke heaven and earth with them; Be astonished, O ye heavens! And be thou covered with confusion, O earth! to see a Christian state, at least that pretends to profess Christ and His Gospel, to make that priesthood high treason which was founded and established by Christ and His Gospel; that priesthood, I say, which supports the Gospel, and is supported by it. It was for this reason I asked in the morning whether the gentlemen of the jury were Christians, intimating that Christians might perhaps condemn the priests of the order of Aaron, but not those of the institution of Christ; as on the other hand Jews would condemn Christian priests but not their own. What before appeared to you mysterious, I now explain. Whoever has a call from God to the priesthood, let him seek it there, where there is a certain and undoubted succession never interrupted from Christ’s time, viz., in the Roman communion; and not there, where the succession is called in question or rather where without all question it has certainly failed, as it has amongst Protestants; for it is certain there is no true priesthood in the Protestant Church.’

Thus far they heard him with patience, but here one of the bench interrupted him, telling him that the laws under which a man is born are to be obeyed. It is true, said Father Bell, and if I had been born among Pagans I should have obeyed their laws, if they were not contrary to the law of God. But as for these unchristian laws, by which priests are put to death, know for certain that the makers of them have long since received their just rewards; and let all such look to themselves in time, and to their own consciences, who are, or shall hereafter by reason of their office, be in the occasion of putting them in execution. Sergeant Green, the Recorder, pronounced sentence in the usual form, at which Father Bell is said to have joyfully intoned the Te Deum, and to have returned hearty thanks to the Court; who also on their part seemed to pity his case, and exhorted him to conformity. He told them he had much more reason to pity their case, and that he begged of God’s mercy they might not have far more grievous torments to suffer in the next world, than those he was to endure in this.

During the three days which Father Bell remained in prison, between the sentence of death and the execution, he was visited by great numbers of Catholics, as well English as foreigners; some coming to beg his blessing, others to get something of him, which they might keep as a relic, &c., all admiring the cheerfulness and joy which appeared in his words and countenance. Amongst the rest, the imperial envoy came more than once to see him; to whom the man of God declared that he would not exchange his present condition for that of the emperor his master. The French ambassador also sent to him to desire his prayers; and he being one whom the Parliament at that time had great regard to, Monsieur Charles Marchant, his chief chaplain, was in great hopes by this means to have put a stop to the execution; but Father Bell frankly told this good priest, when he spoke to him in prison upon that subject, that instead of a friend, as he had hitherto esteemed him, he should look upon him as his capital enemy, if by his means he should be deprived of the crown which he had so long desired; and therefore conjured him to lay aside all thoughts of hindering his death, which would be to him the gate of life.

On the 11th of December, the holy man was brought out of prison, laid upon a hurdle, and drawn by four horses to Tyburn, the serenity and sweetness of his countenance speaking all the way the interior disposition of his soul. When he came to the place of execution, he said, ‘Now I see verified in me, what was foretold me by happy Thomas Bullaker’. Who, it seems, when Father Bell was complaining to him in prison, that as he was the elder brother in religious profession, he ought rather to have gone before him, replied God will have me to go first, but you shall soon follow me. Then being put up into the cart, and having leave of the Sheriff (who treated him with a great deal of humanity) to speak to the people, he delivered himself to them in these, or the like words: ‘Dear countrymen, give ear to me, and as you desire to be delivered from your present miseries, put an end to your sins; for, without all doubt, your enormous crimes are the cause of the calamities under which you groan. But above all, I exhort you to renounce heresy, in which you have been so long engaged; for this (with grief I speak it) has cut you off like putrid members from the true body of Christ, and like dead branches from the tree of His Church. But if you resolve to persist in loving darkness more than light, long afflictions will attend you; and, certainly, many calamities and miseries threaten this city, and the whole kingdom, unless they desist from persecuting priests and Catholics. See and consider, I beseech you, the afflictions with which God has begun visibly to punish you; and be assured that all those punishments are tokens of His love, and a manifest testimony that He would not destroy you but as it were by constraint. I say it again, all these chastisements, civil wars, and calamities are inflicted upon you by Him to the end, that He may at length, from shipwreck, bring you into the haven of the Catholic Church. Abuse then no longer His goodness and mercy; do not force Him to destroy you by continuing to provoke His divine justice by obstinacy in your evils.

Here being interrupted by the Sheriff, he said no more, but turning himself to one of the malefactors who were to suffer with him, he spoke to him some words of exhortation and comfort, and had the satisfaction to see him resolved to die a member of the Catholic Church. He also addressed himself to the hangman with a cheerful countenance; and embracing him, gave him wholesome advice for the salvation of his soul; with which, and many other things he spoke, the people being much moved, the officers hastened the execution, and ordered the cart to be drawn away. He hanged for the space of one Miserere, and then was cut down, dismembered, bowelled and quartered. In stripping him, they found under his secular coat the habit of his order, which, it seems, he was accustomed to wear; upon which occasion, the people cried out with astonishment, ‘See what mortified men these are, who so much despise the pleasures of the world!’ Guards were appointed to hinder the Catholics from carrying off anything by way of relics; yet this did not prevent some from dipping their handkerchiefs or other things in his blood.

He suffered, December 11, 1643, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, the twenty-fifth of his religious profession, and ninth of his mission.

Blessed Francis Bell
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