Catholic Oxford

Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires, is famous the world over for its university and place in history. For over 800 years, it has been a home to royalty and scholars, and since the 9th century an established town, although people are known to have lived in the area for thousands of years. My wife Gill and I spent a few days in the city in March. Among the places that we visited was the Oxford Oratory

The first Oratory in England was founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1848 in Birmingham. The London Oratory started soon after, and quickly gained independence. For almost 150 years, these were the only two Oratories in England. However, Newman had always wanted to establish a house in Oxford, and had indeed considered no fewer than three sites in the city for the purpose; at the time, though, his ideas came to nothing. In 1990, the Archbishop of Birmingham, Maurice Couve de Murville, asked the Birmingham Oratory if it could spare some of its members to take over the running of the Church of St Aloysius in Oxford. Two priests arrived soon afterwards. Numbers increased sufficiently that in 1993, the Oxford Oratory was established as an independent Congregation in its own right. Its priests are involved in a variety of works, including the running of the parish, and school, hospital, and prison chaplaincy.

St Aloysius’ Catholic Church was built in 1875 to serve the population of Oxford and the surrounding district. As the Catholic population of the area increased, eight further parishes were formed in outlying areas, reducing the parish of St Aloysius to its present area, encompassing the historic centre of Oxford. For the first 100 or so years of its existence, St Aloysius was served by the Jesuit Fathers, successors of those who had kept the Catholic faith alive in Oxford during the long years of persecution. After the Jesuits left in 1981, priests of the Archdiocese of Birmingham looked after the parish until 1990, when Cardinal Newman’s dream was at last fulfilled and the parish was entrusted to the Fathers of the Oratory, two of whom moved from Birmingham to take over the church. Numbers in the community soon increased, and in 1993, the Oxford Oratory was formally established as an independent house.

Bishop Crispian Hollis was briefly based at the Oratory prior to his appointment as Bishop of Portsmouth in 1989. Fr. Anthony Glaysher was a curate a few miles south at Abingdon. Father, as many will know, has a strong affiliation with the Oratorians.

Co-incidentally, the church was designed, by Joseph Hansom, the architect of St. Mary’s Church in Ryde. Arundel Cathedral and the Holy Name church in Manchester are among his best known churches, but it is St. Mary’s (built in 1846) that was one of the first churches designed by this versatile Victorian church architect, who based many of his designs on the owrks of Pugin.

In the centre of the city we visited the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where Newman delivered his famous “parting of friends” sermon prior to his resignation from the Church of England. In an ecumenical gesture of reconciliation, the church contains a list of both Catholics as well as Protestant martyrs from the Reformation period. Following Newman’s beatification last year, a plaque was installed near the pulpit marking the event.

Not far from this church is Brasenose College. Founded in 1512, it celebrates its 500th anniversary later this year. One famous churchman who attended the college was Robert Runcie (former Archbishop of Canterbury). Better known to us here on the Island however, are Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden, – Isle of Wight martyrs who were hung, drawn and quartered here on the Island in 1586. These two childhood friends from Lancashire, studied Theology and Philosophy at the College in the 1570s, before their departure for Douai (Rheims), where they were ordained for the English mission. Sadly, they never had the opportunity of offering Mass on English soil, as they were captured following a storm on their return in February, 1586.

From Oxford we travelled a few miles south to Littlemore. This was Newman’s retreat in his Anglican days and it was to Littlemore that he withdrew whilst he pondered on his conversion to the Catholic Church. It was here that the famous Passionist missionary, Fr. Dominic Barberi received Newman into the Church on 8th October, 1845 (this date is now Newman’s feast day). We visited his rooms, including the tiny chapel, and his library, with its neatly stacked row of religious and devotional books. His complete set of diaries required inspection. It confirmed that from Sept 13th to Sept. 19th 1865, he was in Ryde. How providential that almost 150 years later, he would be one of the patrons of the Ordinariate group, (one of which is based in Ryde), who are travelling the same spiritual journey that Newman himself travelled.