Shall I Ever See Littlemore Again?

Author: Sr Mary-Birgit Dechant, FSO

Shall I Ever See Littlemore Again?

Sr Mary-Birgit Dechant, FSO

The following are excerpts of a presentation given at the conference of the Newman Association of America.

“Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members”. These words of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium can rightly and easily be applied to the work and life of Blessed John Henry Newman and especially to his work among the poor of Littlemore. Using Newman’s Letters and Diaries this article will present Newman’s association with Littlemore: how he exercised his pastoral duties in this poor hamlet outside Oxford, and how the people of this place remained dear to his heart.

Littlemore became part of Newman’s life when he was appointed Vicar of St Mary the Virgin in 1828. For centuries, Oriel College had provided one of its own fellows as Vicar of St Mary the Virgin. As Littlemore was an outlying village in the parish of St Mary’s, Newman became Vicar of this small hamlet, too.

Newman took his duties as Vicar very seriously. He was true to the insight he had received after his ordination to the diaconate in 1824: “I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death”. He started to visit his parish two to three times a week. This was an unusual undertaking for an Oxford don and presumably no vicar before him had dedicated so much time and love to his parishioners outside of town.

As early as 1828, he asked for permission from Oriel College to build a church at Littlemore. His request was refused. Littlemore seemed too poor to support a church and a Vicar of its own. So, he rented a room where his congregation could meet. He began to catechize the children and to explain to the servants St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He taught in the house of a Mrs Birmingham.

In 1830, his mother, also called Jemima, and his two surviving sisters, Harriett and Jemima, moved to Rose Hill, close to Littlemore. They were happy to be near John Henry. They soon got involved in the various parish duties at Littlemore. Newman had a set of rooms in their house and it served as a kind of vicarage for Littlemore. His sisters gathered the children of Littlemore and ran a rudimentary school. They and their mother visited the sick and elderly.

One thing was certain: the people of Littlemore were very grateful for all the Newman family did for them. Forty years later, Anne Mozley, Newman’s sister-in-law, found the memory of both the rector and his family alive in the parish.

In April 1835, Newman’s sisters collected signatures for a petition to Oriel College to build a church: practically all the inhabitants of Littlemore signed it.

Newman decided that the church should have St Mary and St Nicholas as its patrons, as he wanted to keep the link to the life of the Church at the time of the Littlemore Mynchery. On 22 September 1836, the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Bagot, consecrated the church, and the graveyard around the church was blessed. It was a day of great joy for Newman, his parishioners and friends. The children, of whom Newman was always fond, were given buns. Newman wrote to Keble: “Everything has been happy and pleasant”. In the succeeding years, Newman always made the anniversary of the dedication into an impressive feast.

Littlemore now had a church. From that time onwards, it also received a hard working curate, as Newman could not give as much time to the village as he found necessary. John Bloxam, a fellow of Magdalen College, moved to Littlemore, where he resided at the house of a Mr and Mrs Barnes, and did his best to improve the situation of the village. In 1838, a school was built. This school was quite simple and small, but it served its purpose. It is another sign of Newman’s great conccrn for his parishioners.

Newman took Bloxam’s room with Mr and Mrs Barnes and dedicated his time to looking after things in the school. At the same time, he set for himself a strict Lenten programme: reciting the Breviary, fasting from food and from his books, which he had left in Oriel. He gave catechism classes on Sunday afternoons, for which he prepared the children during the week. He found an old violin, tuned it, and used it to teach the children to sing hymns in church. He practiced with them, often twice a week. He wrote to his Aunt, “I am passing a most happy time. I came up here as a sort of penance during Lent; but though without friends or books, I have as yet had nothing but pleasure. So that it seems a shame to spend Lent so happily”.

Newman thought much about the possibility of erecting a hovq. He wrote down his hopes for this Monastic house (which had to be big enough to host his extensive library) in a Memorandum and admitted to Pusey: “I am sanguine that if we could once get one set up at Littlemore, it would set the example both in great towns and for female societies. Again, perhaps it might serve as a place to train up men for great towns. Again, it should be an open place, where friends might come for a time if they needed a retreat, or if they wished to see what it was like”.

After the happy Lent in 1840, Newman returned to his rooms in Oriel College. However, he continued to make plans for his future residence at Littlemore. On 20th May 1840, he bought 10 acres of land at Littlemore and soon planted various trees. However, before he could develop his future ‘monastery’, Newman felt compelled to leave Oxford more quickly than anticipated. The publication of Tract 90 in February 1841 had roused such a great controversy, that he took the lease of the ‘Cottages’ in College Lane at Littlemore. This consisted of a stable previously used for the Oxford-to-Cambridge coach service, which had been linked to some adjoining cottages. The former stable was big enough to accommodate his extensive and valuable library. The cottages could serve for him and for friends, Oxford students, and possibly, for candidates for the ministry in the Anglican Church who would like to share his life for a shorter or longer period. During the winter, the necessary work of conversion, which Newman supervised, was undertaken. He lived, partly, in St George’s, a house close to the Cottages. In Lent, his books were transported to Littlemore. Soon afterwards, John Dobrée Dalgairns moved in to Littlemore. Together they drew up a schedule for their day.

Newman was happy to spend his time in prayer, in studies, in companionship with his friends and of course in the pastoral duties of Littlemore. He now really had established a parsonage and had become even closer to his parishioners who meant so much to him.

In summer 1843 William Lockhart, one of Newman’s friends who was sharing his semi-monastic life at Littlemore, decided to be received into the Catholic Church. Newman was shocked. He had not expected this. At the same time, his own doubts about the legitimacy of the Anglican Church were growing stronger and stronger. Newman decided to resign his appointment as Vicar of St Mary the Virgin and, therefore, of Littlemore as well. On 25 September 1843, the day on which the anniversary of the consecration of Littlemore Church was celebrated with great solemnity, he preached his famous farewell sermon ‘The Parting of Friends’. Newman gave frocks and bonnets to all the children as a parting gift.

Rev. Charles Page Eden was appointed as the new vicar. He had decidedly different ideas to Newman, and it was a great trial for Newman to have Eden as his successor.

‘The Cottages’ were no longer a parsonage. They were only a place where a group of men prayed, studied and sought the Lord’s will and His truth. Newman’s conviction, that the Church of Rome was the Church of antiquity, continued to grow in him.

On 24 June 1844, a visitor arrived at what Newman and his companions now referred to as ‘The College’. The Passionist Priest, Dominic Barberi, came to pay a visit to his friend John Dalgairns, one of the young men living with Newman at Littlemore. Barberi and Dalgairns went to Newman’s cottage to see the chapel where they prayed together and to talk with the famous Oxford preacher. In Newman’s Diaries of that day, we read only the following words: “Father Dominic called”. However, these few terse words belie the profound impact this visitor was to have. In a famous letter to his friend Bloxam, Newman had written on 23 February 1841 concerning Roman Catholics: “If they want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people, like St Francis Xavier, let them be pelted and trampled on — and I will own that they can do what we cannot; I will confess that they are our betters far — I will (though I could not on that ground join them) I would gladly incur their reproach. This is to be Catholics, this is to secure a triumph. Let them use the proper arms of the Church, and they will prove that they are the Church by using them”. Barberi lived exactly what Newman had envisaged as an ideal. When Newman saw his ideas made real in the life and person of a Catholic priest, his bias against the Catholic Church began to dissipate. Barberi played a great part in Newman’s coming into full communion with the Catholic Church. Barberi had not only vowed poverty as a Passionist, but he lived poverty and he loved to serve the poor. Newman, who had served the poor at Littlemore, was won over to the Catholic Church by this living example of love for the poor.

It is worthwhile mentioning that Barberi himself was impressed by the way of life of those who lived at ‘The College’. He noted that the place breathed “an air of the strictest poverty, such as I have never witnessed in any religious house in Italy or France, or in any other country where I have been. A Capuchin monastery would appear a great palace when compared with Littlemore.

In September 1845, Newman sent his book ‘An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine’ to the publisher. On 3 October, he resigned his fellowship at Oriel College. Barberi arrived at Littlemore on 8 October about an hour before midnight, soaking wet from the heavy rain all day long. The events of that evening and of the next day, when Newman was received into the Church, are well known. Newman entered a Church that he knew was rich and abundant in grace, but that in England at least was made up mostly of poor immigrants. It was the Church he had come to love. It was the Church he wanted to serve as he had served the poor of his parish.

The last night Newman spent at Littlemore was the night of 21 February (his birthday) 1846. On Sunday, 22 February, he went to Mass at St Clement’s for the last time. Newman had to tear himself away from Littlemore. In a letter to Henry Wilberforce he put the question: “Shall I ever see Littlemore again?". He saw it only twice more.

Newman kept contact with some of his former parishioners even if he did not visit them. On 10 September 1878, he returned to Littlemore once more but only for a few hours.

Blessed John Henry Newman put into practice what Pope Francis calls us to do. This is obvious from his concern for the people of Littlemore, which sprang from his faith and his surrender to God and his fidelity to the Gospel.

John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman was born in London on 21 February 1801, the eldest son of a London banker. His family were members of the Church of England but without any strong religious commitment. The young John Henry learned at an early age to love the Bible and enjoyed reading it. In 1808 he was sent to Ealing School and it was there at the age of 15 that he underwent a profound religious conversion to what can fairly be described as evangelical Christianity with a strong anti-Catholic bias.

In 1817 at the age of 16 he entered Trinity College, Oxford, as an undergraduate. Five years later he was elected to a Fellowship at Oriel College. Thereafter, he was ordained as an Anglican clergyman and worked first as a curate in the Oxford parish of St Clement’s, and later became vicar of the Oxford university church of St Mary the Virgin. There he had substantial spiritual influence on parishioners and members of the university, especially through his preaching.

When studying the history of the early Church Fathers, Newman was dismayed to discover that the doctrinal position of the Anglican Church in his own day bore a close resemblance to some of the heretical currents that had emerged in the theological controversies of the early centuries. He was even further disturbed a few years later when a number of Anglican bishops and scholars denounced some of his own writings. He began to question his membership in the Church of England and his leadership of its Oxford Movement.

He withdrew from Oxford in order to think and pray. Together with a few companions he moved to modest lodgings in the village of Littlemore just outside Oxford. He lived there for three years, praying for guidance. By 1845 his mind was clear, and on 9 October that year he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Father (now Blessed) Dominic Barberi.

He went to Rome to study for the priesthood and to discern his future. He was attracted to the Oratory of St Philip Neri, a Congregation of priests and brothers founded by that Saint in Rome in the 16th century. Newman became an Oratorian and in 1848 he established the first English Oratory at Maryvale near Birmingham, moving soon afterwards to Alcester Street near the town centre, where he converted a defunct gin distillery into a chapel. Three years later the new Oratorian community moved to its present home in Edgbaston. When Newman returned to England his life was not easy. He faced many misunderstandings. He was sometimes the object of resentment, and was even suspected of doctrinal unorthodoxy.

During his old age he continued to live quietly in the Birmingham Oratory which he had founded, devoting his time to preaching, writing, and spiritual direction. In 1879 when Fr Newman was 78, Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. He had endured many personal sleights and had been the object of rash judgements during the years since his conversion. Thus, the news that he was to be a Cardinal came as a conclusive vindication of his orthodoxy and loyalty to the Catholic Church, and he declared that ‘the cloud is lifted for ever'. He died in the Birmingham Oratory of pneumonia on 11 August 1890.

On 22 January 1991, John Henry Newman was proclaimed ‘Venerable’ in a decree by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints under Pope John Paul II. On 19 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified him at Cofton Park in Birmingham.

L'Osservatore Romano
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26 August 2016, page 8

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