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John Henry Newman

 Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman was born in London in February 1801, the first of a family of six children. He was a pupil at Ealing School from 1808, then in 1817 became a student at Oxford. There he was appointed a Fellow of Oriel College in 1822, then a tutor in 1826. He was also the Vicar of St. Mary's, the University Church. In 1833 whilst in Sicily he was severely ill; he later felt this time formed a critical stage in his religious development. When he returned to England he played an important role in the Oxford Movement, which sought to reform the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England.

During the next few years as he worked and studied in the Anglican church he realised that he was convinced by many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1845 he resigned from the living at St. Mary's, preaching his last sermon there in September. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and then confirmed at Oscott near Birmingham. He went to Rome to study for the priesthood. At that time there was much prejudice against Catholicism in England; an effigy of the Pope was still burned on Bonfire Night - to be replaced later by an effigy of Guy Fawkes.

He was attracted by the teachings of St. Philip Neri, writing of him: 'He would be but an ordinary individual priest as others: and his weapons should be but unaffected humility and unpretending love.' In accordance Newman wished to set up a house of the Oratory, a congregation of priests, somewhere in a town in England. In 1845 he had thought this might be in London, but then decided it should be in Birmingham. He stayed first at Oscott College. In 1848 he assisted at St. Chad's, then moved to Alcester Street in Birmingham and started to work and preach amongst the poor there. Edward Burne-Jones, then at King Edward's School in Birmingham, wrote in praise of Newman's sermons: '... he taught me to be indifferent to comfort; and in an age of materialism he taught me to venture all on the unseen...'

 side altar in the Oratory Church, Edgbaston

One of the side-altars at the Oratory

In 1852 Newman moved the Birmingham Oratory from Alcester Street to the Hagley Road, Edgbaston. He was confirmed as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland - now University College, Dublin - in 1854. However he was spending much of his time in Birmingham so resigned in 1858. After this he founded the Oratory School in Birmingham. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a teacher there 1867-68 and Hilaire Belloc was later a pupil. Another author, J. R. R. Tolkien, attended the Oratory Church with his family; after his mother died Father Francis Morgan of the Oratory was his guardian.

Through his life Newman preached and corresponded with people about their religious concerns. He wrote books about religion; one of the best-known is probably his religious autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He wrote many poems, Elgar set one, The Dream of Gerontius, to music. His poems were light-hearted as well as serious: 'A Letter of Thanks for Cakes', begins:
Who is it that moulds and makes
Round and crisp, and fragrant cakes?
Makes them with a kind intent,
As a welcome compliment...
He continued by writing that he would pray for his friend, that she might be as sweet, complete, and perfect as her cakes.

In 1879 Newman was made a Cardinal and travelled to Rome to have an audience with Pope Leo XIII. Two small rooms set up for him at the Oratory, with a small altar, have been kept as they were when he used them. He died at the Oratory in August 1890. After his death it was decided to rebuild the church as a memorial to him. The original church had been sparse and utilitarian. When it was rebuilt from 1903 to 1906 gifts came from Catholics all over Britain and Europe. The marble pillars were transported by sea and canal from Italy, and one boy remembered that they caused a major traffic-jam when they had to be turned across the Hagley Road so they could be taken into the church!

For more about Newman's time in Birmingham, and about his beatification in 2010, see Newman in Birmingham


Further reading:
The Birmingham Oratory Church A History and Guide
Dessain, C. S. John Henry Newman
Martin, Brian John Henry Newman His Life and Work

Many books about John Henry Newman are held in the Archives, Heritage and Photography section of the Library of Birmingham. The poem above is taken from a poetry anthology:
Walker, H ed. Made in Birmingham A book of verse and prose

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