Interview with custodian of Newman’s Littlemore

Sister Mary Dechant runs the College at Littlemore, where Cardinal Newman lived in the years leading up to his conversion, and where he was received into the Catholic Church in 1845.  Many thanks to the Newman Cause for sending us this interview.

’What was the original connection between John Henry Newman and Littlemore?

 Newman was appointed Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the University Church Oxford, in 1828. Littlemore, on the outskirts of Oxford, had been part of the parish of St Mary’s for many centuries. So Newman became Vicar of Littlemore, too. Although a celebrated intellectual with a weighty load of teaching, he loved to take care of his parishioners, and visited the small and hitherto rather neglected hamlet of Littlemore several times a week. He built a church for the village, St Mary and St Nicholas, in 1835-6 and a school in 1838. He remained Vicar of St Mary’s and of Littlemore until September 1843 when he resigned his ministry as his doubts about the validity of the church of England had become too strong.

When did he move there permanently? Why?
Newman moved to Littlemore in April 1842 to create a place of prayer and study. In 1841 he had published Tract 90 in which, in a series of scholarly arguments, he tried to reconcile the 39 articles of the church of England with Catholic Christianity. The result was intense conflict both in the University and among the Anglican bishops. Newman realised that he had to find an answer to the pressing question: was his position wrong or was the church of England in schism? So at Littlemore he rented the ‘Cottages’ in College Lane which had been a stage post for coaches. He  converted the buildings for his needs. The former stable was transformed into his library and the granary into several cottages where he and some friends could share a life of study, prayer and penance. He called the building ‘the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Littlemore’.

It is well known that it was at Littlemore that Newman converted to the Catholic Church. Tell us more about that.

Newman and his friends at Littlemore shared one desire: to find the truth so as to serve God better. They had all been brought up in the Church of England but had become less and less convinced that it was the true Church of Christ. For Newman this process was particularly difficult considering the great intellectual and spiritual influence he had exercised in the church of England. He knew that a decision to leave Anglicanism would have consequences for many other people. After years of prayer, fasting and study he saw clearly that the Roman Catholic Church was the same Church as  the Church of the apostles and the early Christians. He knew in conscience that he had to join it if he wanted to be saved. God’s Providence helped by sending him the Passionist Blessed Dominic Barberi. The two had met him  briefly in 1844 and Newman had been impressed by his holiness.

When Newman had made up his mind to be received into the Church in October 1845 he heard that Blessed Dominic would be travelling through Oxford. Via their mutual friend John Dobrée Dalgairns Newman asked the Passionist priest to call in at Littlemore. When Dominic Barberi arrived late in the evening of 8th October, soaking wet from his journey, Newman did not hesitate one moment, knelt down in front of him, and asked him for reception into the Church. He then began his general confession which he had prepared in the previous days and which lasted for several hours. The rite of reception, including conditional baptism, took place in the chapel next to Newman’s private room on the evening of 9th October. Two of his friends, Richard Stanton and E S Bowles, were received at the same time. Newman never regretted his decision. Not only in the Apologia, but also in many letters, he witnesses to the interior peace that always accompanied him as a Catholic, despite the well known fact that he was not spared difficulties not only from outside the Church but also within it.
Tell us about your Spiritual Family of The Work and how it came to be involved with Newman and Littlemore.
The Spiritual Family of The Work began in Belgium in 1938. Mother Julia Verhaeghe, our Foundress, was inspired by the letters of St Paul. She was  God’s instrument in bringing a new charism to the Church. Her foundation received Papal Recognition as a ‘Family of Consecrated Life’ in 2001. Our first task is to grow in unity with the Triune God and with each other, to live in trusting faith, firm hope and sincere love in the strength of the sacraments and a life of prayer. We are called to reflect the beauty of the Church as the Family of God. We are ready lovingly to serve the Church  in the ways God’s Providence leads us. We do not have a specific apostolate and exclude none.

Mother Julia did not know about Newman when the community started. In the 1960s a priest advised her to read a Newman anthology. She was very impressed by it and recognised in Newman a kindred spirit. In the early 1970s she asked our Sr Lutgart Govaert to do her doctorate on Newman’s Mariology. Step by step Mother Julia recognized that it was God’s will that The Work should help to make the special gift of John Henry Newman’s  love for Christ and his truth fruitful for the Church in our times. In the Holy Year 1975 The Work organised a Newman Symposium.

In preparation, we made personal contact with The Oratory, with many Newman scholars internationally, with the Hierarchy of the Church, and with students and scholars of the universities and seminaries of Rome. At that time Newman was almost forgotten in academic circles in Rome, something which is hard to imagine today. The Symposium helped to inspire students at the Roman Pontifical Universities to study him and it helped to banish the prejudice that Newman was not valued in Rome. As a follow up to the Symposium, the Pope requested a Newman Centre to be set up at our Roman house on the Via  Aurelia. Gradually students and scholars started to frequent the quickly growing library; a lively correspondence developed with scholars and friends of Newman all over the world, and the Centre became a place of meeting and Christian fellowship. In 1976, Sr Lutgart was sent to England, where she worked at the Birmingham Oratory for five years and helped to set up the Friends of Cardinal Newman. So far five doctoral dissertations and five licentiate and Masters dissertations have been written by priests and Sisters of Spiritual Family of The Work.

Newman’s life and writings have been an extraordinary gift to Christianity. The theologian, philosopher and teacher penetrated the mysteries of our faith, explored its relations to human reason and presented with unequalled force the obligations it lays upon us in our lives.

In 1986 the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory asked if Sisters of our Family could come to live at Littlemore to help run The College and welcome its visitors. Since then much has developed on the spot which was so dear to Newman. Littlemore has become again a place of prayer and study. Together with Littlemore, The Work has also set up Newman Centres in Bregenz (Austria) and Budapest (Hungary), with specialised Newman libraries containing rare items not easily found elsewhere. Students and scholars from all continents have been assisted in their researches into Newman. In Littlemore we offer Newman scholars and friends accommodation in our guest rooms.

We have published various books on Newman and have given many talks on his life and writings; two of our Sisters taught courses Newman at the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome. Every year we produce a Newman Newsletter and send it out in four languages.  We have a website with a continually updated Newman bibliography which is frequently visited by Newman scholars and friends.

Newman’s scholarship was always intimately linked to his life of prayer. From the very beginning of our Newman work, scholars studying in the Newman library in Rome have loved to join the prayer of the community. Wherever we are and by worldwide communication, we encourage people to turn to Newman for his intercession for their intentions and to join the many who pray to God for Newman’s Canonisation.

What kinds of visitors do you get at Littlemore today?
At Littlemore we experience how much Newman is loved and known all over the world. Visitors come from the five continents. Many of them are Catholics, but not exclusively. Newman appeals deeply to non-Catholic Christians as well. The visitors come alone or in groups. We offer them a guided tour in the former library, which now – besides the excellent collection of books, gathered with the help of many Newman Friends – contains a permanent Newman exhibition, offering us the opportunity to narrate Newman’s life. A high point is the visit to Newman’s bedroom and to his chapel in which the Eucharistic Lord has been present since 1990. Smaller groups often have the privilege of celebrating Mass in the chapel.

We are willing to show visitors the Anglican parish church, St Mary and St  Nicholas, built by Newman, and other sites at Littlemore of Newman interest. If groups wish, we guide them to the main sites associated with  Newman in Oxford: St Mary’s, and Newman’s two colleges, Trinity and Oriel.

At Littlemore eight rooms are available for guests coming for private retreats, for study or simply to gain new strength from being in this place of peace.

We aim to live up to Newman’s motto cor ad cor loquitur, be it in our daily care for Littlemore and its gardens, in the upkeep of this place whch is so important in the history of Christianity in England, or in our  welcome to those who come to pray, to visit or to stay. In the same spirit  we also offer special events throughout the year, for example the on the evening of 8th to 9th October, organised together with the Oxford Oratory, Forty Hours of Prayer before Lent etc. For almost two decades the  Cor ad Cor group has met monthly for an evening of reading and discussionand for Eucharistic Adoration in Newman’s chapel. We are also involved in  the local Catholic parish in all kinds of ways (catechesis, musical help with liturgical celebrations, organisation of days of prayer, visiting the  elderly at home etc.) and keep in contact with people from many different backgrounds whom we seek to help in their lives of faith. We are privileged to be able to be the guardians of this place of grace, where Newman “found an answer to his prayers” (Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman  Vol 11, p. 133) on behalf of the Birmingham Oratory.
What, in the end, is the message of Littlemore?
Above all, Littlemore helps us to understand the profound connections in Newman’s life between study, prayer and love for the people of God. This is the key to understanding his conversion. Nowadays, many people desire to separate charity from truth. Newman, by contrast, teaches us the intimate connection between the Christian life of the mind, pastoral charity and friendship with each other and with God. To divorce his intellectual work from his life, both as an Anglican clergyman and then as  a Catholic priest, is to misunderstand the unity of his personality, perfected by grace, and his profound importance for our times.

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