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Newman in Birmingham
In the autumn of 1845 John Henry Newman decided to become a Catholic. He later wrote in Apologia of his ‘desire for a firmer ground of religious certainty, and a clearer view of revealed truth.’ He was received into the Catholic church at Littlemore near Oxford, ‘it was like coming into port after a rough sea.’
Birmingham – Oscott and the Oratory
From February 1846 Newman stayed at Oscott just to the north of Birmingham. Oscott had long been a place of Catholic study and at times a refuge. From 1838 there was a new college presided over by Bishop Wiseman nearby at New Oscott. In September 1846 Newman went to Rome, where he studied the teachings of St. Philip Neri. St. Philip had founded a group of secular priests, who lived together ‘with no bond but that of love’, in the sixteenth century. He had a vision of the Virgin Mary; one of his sayings was: ‘Let us think of Mary… she conceived and brought forth Him whom the width of the heavens cannot contain within itself.’ Pope Pius XI gave Newman the authority to set up Oratories according to St. Philip’s rule in England. When Newman and friends stayed at Old Oscott again in 1848 they renamed it Maryvale.
The Oratory in Birmingham
Early in 1849 Newman set up the first house of the Oratory in England, in Alcester Street in central Birmingham. It was a poor district, the original church was in a disused distillery. St. Anne’s, the present church there, was opened in 1884. Newman worked among the poor; many had come to Birmingham from Ireland, driven by the Famine. He gave lectures on Catholicism in the centre of Birmingham. The artist Edward Burne-Jones, then a pupil at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, wrote: ‘… in an age of materialism he taught me to venture all on the unseen…’
In 1852 Newman moved the community of the Oratory to Edgbaston, a pleasant suburb to the west of the centre of Birmingham. The Pope had told him that he should work with educated people, as well as with the very poor. Here on the Hagley Road the Oratory house and a simple church were built. During the 1850s Newman was involved in a libel case; Catholics from across the world raised money for his defence. With the surplus money he purchased land near Rednal, partly as a retreat, partly as a burial ground. It is now known as the Oratory Retreat. In 1859 he founded the Oratory school in Edgbaston so that boys could have a good Catholic education. Hilaire Belloc was a pupil there in the 1880s.
During all his life Newman wrote about the beliefs of Catholicism, and Christianuty. He also wrote poetry, for example The Dream of Gerontius. This is the story of the spiritual journey Gerontius makes after death. The poem was dear to General Gordon who died at Khartoum in 1884, an annotated copy was found amongst his belongings. This copy was given to Edward Elgar at his wedding in 1889 and he then set the poem to music. The first performance was at the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in 1900. The original score is held at the Oratory. There is also a newscutting about General Gordon in Africa in 1884 which Cardinal Newman had pinned to a bookcase in his room.
In 1879 Newman was anointed a Cardinal. He died in August 1890, his grave was at the Retreat near Rednal. From 1903 to 1906 the Oratory Church was rebuilt as a beautiful memorial to him, it was consecrated in 1909. In 2010 September Pope Benedict XVI visited Birmingham for the beatification of John Henry Newman. The Beatification Mass was held in Cofton Park, near the Oratory Retreat at Rednal. The Pope also visited the Oratory in Edgbaston, and Oscott College.
Lines from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ 1865:
Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depths be praise
In all his works most wonderful; most sure in all his ways.