John Henry Newman was born on 21st February. By the time of his death in 1890 he had become one of the most eminent churchmen of his day. As a priest (and later Cardinal), writer, preacher and poet, he influenced many Victorians clerics and lay people to examine their understanding of Christianity. In particular as an Anglican priest he emphasised the development of the Anglican Church from the early Christian Church and the Catholic element as opposed to the Protestant nature of the Church. After opposition within the Church of England and the development of his thinking, he came to realise that the Catholic Church was the true modern development from the early Church and he consequently became a Catholic at Oxford on 9th October 1845 by the Passionist priest, Fr. Dominic Barberi.
This inevitably resulted in the alienation of many of his friends and family. The Oxford Movement of High Churchmen at the time included Dr E. B. Pusey, Hurrell Froude, Walter Palmer, John Keble, William Ward and his life long friend, Ambrose St. John. Many in this movement followed Newman into the Catholic Church. However, Newman was not the first to convert at this time. Here in Ryde, we find the Anglican pastor of St. James’s proprietary church in Lind Street, Rev. Richard Waldo Sibthorpe, converting in 1841. Among his congregation at St. James’s was Elizabeth, Countess of Clare, who converted a few months earlier and founded St. Mary’s Church in Ryde in 1844. Sibthorpe sought the guidance of Newman, among others, as he went to Oscott Seminary in Birmingham. Newman’s advice was that “he should be careful not to stay there too long”. Ironically and despite this cautionary advice, Newman converted four years later. It was the writings and sermons / speeches of Newman and others from the Oxford Movement that were the catalyst for many Anglicans to take a closer look at their Church, its teachings and traditions with the result that Catholicism gained many converts such as Henry Manning, Archdeacon of Chicester who became a Catholic in 1850 and within 15 years had become Archbishop of Westminster and later a Cardinal.
William Ward was another significant convert and a contemporary of Newman. Ward left the Church of England in September 1845. Five years later he became professor of moral philosophy at St Edmund’s College, Ware, and was appointed to the chair of dogmatic theology in 1852. After retiring he inherited property on the Isle of Wight where he had inherited property at Northwood and later started the mission at Totland. Although not always in agreement on church matters, Ward’s friendship with Newman was partly responsible for him visiting the Island on two occasions. He also had other friends such as Sir John Simeon of Swainton, MP for the Island who resigned on becoming a Catholic but was nevertheless re-elected. As there was a General election in 1865 it was in Simeon’s interest for prominent secular and churchmen to visit him at his home and this partly explains Newman’s visit to the Island in 1865. Alfred (Lord) Tennyson lived at Farringford and dined with Newman and Simeon on several occasions.
Newman also had friends at Ventnor and he celebrated Mass there in 1861 in a temporary chapel before St. Wilfrid’s Church was built. In the same weeks Cardinal Wiseman was also on the Island, as was William Gladstone, the famous Prime Minister and they both stayed at the house of Gladstone’s sister at St. Helen’s. She was a Catholic and had a private chapel at her house. Newman called on them at St. Helen’s during their stay.
In 1865 he was back on the Island. As well as visiting his friends William Ward, Lord Tennyson and Sir John Simeon he stayed for several days at St. Mary’s, Ryde; at that time one of the principal churches in the south of England thanks to the generosity of the Countess of Clare who met Newman and offered him use of her private chapel above the sacristy at St. Mary’s to say his office. He celebrated Mass in the Church and preached from the same pulpit that is used today. As there is no mention of his visit in the local press or even the old church notice books, it appears evident that this was a low key visit. (It is only from his diaries that we know of the visit). It was difficult for Newman to escape from a crowd. Everyone wanted to see or hear him. Here on the Island, he hoped for a private retreat.
At the time of this visit in 1865 Newman was at the height of his fame. He has just published his most famous work “Apologia pro Vita Sua” which answered his critics in the Anglican Church and clearly laid out his beliefs and how he came to the Catholic Church. At the time he was working on another famous book, “The Dream of Gerontius” which was poems and hymns based on the Requiem offices. As this was published within a year of his visit to Ryde, there is the tendency to think that it was partly written whilst he was here, but we have no evidence for this. His stay in Ryde at the time was welcome as the Parish Priest Fr. John Telford was ill and lasted only another six weeks. The Church at Ryde during the time of his visit was slightly different to today:- there was no convent next door. The only way into the Countess’s Chapel was up a spiral staircase, through the sacristy. There were no stained glass windows; there was no Lady Chapel or Sacred Heart altar.
It is often helpful to understand the national and local situation at the time of Newman’s visits. Ryde at this time was only a small ferry port with horse drawn traffic the principal means of transport. The High St was lined with small, individual shops which people lived over. The railway had only just started on the Island. There was no All Saints Parish Church. In fact St. Mary’s with its prominent position in the High St. was (arguably) architecturally superior to other Christian churches in the town. There were two other Catholic churches on the Island, at Newport and Cowes and a few scattered private chapels owned by wealthy and influential Catholics. St. Dominic’s Priory was being built at Carisbrooke, and this was to become the first monastic institution to be established on the Island in them Post-Reformation period.
Osborne House had been built by Prince Albert and there were many royal visitors to the Island. It grew rapidly as a holiday resort. Lord Palmerston was the Prime Minister of the day and Pius IX had been Pope since 1846. The Hierarchy in England had been restored in 1850. Nicholas Wiseman was Archbishop of Westminster and Thomas Grant was Bishop of Southwark. There was no Portsmouth Diocese at the time. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were in the Southwark Diocese until 1882. Ryde was the southern base for the Bishop when journeying around such a large Diocese was a difficult task. Yet at the time of Newman’s visit to Ryde in 1865, the Church had already been consecrated and part of Ryde cemetery set aside for the use of Catholics. Fr. Telford was to be buried there six weeks after Newman’s visit.
In the 1860s Catholicism made great progress in England. Catholics could now join the army and enter Parliament and they began to play a more prominent role in public life. As a result of Newman and his sermons and writings people began to take notice of Catholic teaching. Marian devotions were not well known at this time in England but the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (pronounced in 1854) and the subsequent apparition at Lourdes in 1858 began to change this. Vespers was sung in most Catholic churches. Newman sang Vespers at St. Mary’s. Whilst in Ryde, he spent most of his time in prayer and meditation in the little private chapel belonging to the Countess of Clare, above the sacristy. At the time of his visit to Ryde in 1865, Henry Manning had succeeded Cardinal Wiseman and become Archbishop of Westminster. Fifteen years before he had been an Anglican pastor. Now he was the Primate of the Catholic Church in England. Such a meteoric rise persuaded many Anglican clerics that clerical promotion within the Catholic Church depended purely on one’s ability as a churchman. The awarding of the Cardinal’s hat both to Manning (1875) and to Newman (1879) convinced many that there was a welcome and a spiritual home within the Catholic Church for former Anglicans.
Newman spent his latter years quietly at Oxford in writing and preaching. Among his well known hymns are:- “Firmly I believe and truly“, “Praise to the Holiest” and “Lead kindly light“. His greatest achievements had been the growth of Catholic life in England in Victorian times, his sermons and writings outlining his views and beliefs especially that salvation is to be obtained primarily through the Catholic Church.
To celebrate the bi-centenary of Newman’s birth in 2001, over 100 Christians of most denominations attended a Service of Commemoration at St. Mary’s Church, Ryde. The prayers were read by the Parish Priest, Fr. David Buckley and the address was given by Sister Mary, MA FSO of the “Order of the Sisters of the Spiritual Family of the Work“. Sister Mary had worked in the Newman Centre in Rome and had travelled from Oxford especially for the Service. She had recently been appointed as the Guardian of the Newman Centre at Littlemore, Oxford, where Cardinal Newman had his home and private chapel. She outlined Newman’s life and achievements. She spoke about his life of prayer and spirituality, while Fr. Buckley emphasised Newman’s connection with the Island from two visits that he made to the Island. At the Service all the hymns and prayers were written by Newman himself. Afterwards the congregation was shown the private chapel of the Church’s Foundress, the Countess of Clare. Newman’s picture hangs on the wall here as a reminder of his visit.
Newman was beatified by His Holiness Pope Benedict on 19th September 2010 at Birmingham. An event attended by several people from Ryde. It is rare for a Pope to beatify someone himself in their own country, and in this case, city. This is evidence of the high regard the His Holiness has for Newman and his work.