The final destination of the Newman pilgrimage which my husband and I undertook this summer was fittingly to visit Birmingham, England, and The Birmingham Oratory where St. John Henry Newman lived and worked for the majority of his life as a Catholic, until his death on August 11, 1890. Newman was the founder of the Birmingham Oratory, after his conversion to the Catholic Church, when he was seeking a way of life to live out his vocation. He felt drawn to the way of life of the community founded by St. Philip Neri in Italy in the 16th century. When Newman went to Rome in 1846 to be ordained a Catholic priest, he was charged by Pope Pius IX to establish a community of the Oratory in England.
Returning to England in 1847, Newman gathered his fellow converts ordained priests with him in Rome. They initially established a home in Birmingham at a former gin factory on Alcester Street, which in 1849 became the Church of St. Anne and the first house of an Oratorian community in England. A more suitable location on Hagley Road in Birmingham was located, and construction was begun of a residence and church. The Oratorian community relocated there in 1850.
We were more prepared for our visit to Birmingham, since we knew that Birmingham is a big city. Unlike the first two stops in our pilgrimage, Oxford and Littlemore, where our imaginations had led us to picture something slightly different than the modern reality, we had a better idea of what the modern city of Birmingham might be like. It is the second-largest city in the United Kingdom with a population of 1.1 million in the city proper, 2.9 million in the West Midlands metropolitan county, and approximately 4.3 million in the wider metropolitan area. It is the largest UK metropolitan area outside of London. Since we were without a car, we planned our various stops so that we could be walking or bus riding distance from our destinations. It was easy to find a hotel close to the Oratory and we could see our location was on a major multi-lane highway within only a few blocks easily traversed on foot. Ironically, it was in this huge metropolitan setting that we, after entering into the grounds of the Oratory, would be the most dramatically transported back in time to be with Newman.
Although the current church was constructed between 1907 and 1910 in the Baroque style to replace the original structure as a memorial to Newman, part of the original church remains which has been renovated into his public shrine, but the living quarters, his library, and his room are original.
We arrived in Birmingham on a Sunday afternoon in enough time to check into the hotel and walk to the Oratory for Sunday evensong. Part of the reason that made this leg of our pilgrimage so satisfying is that the Oratorians are still living their vocations in this same location in an unbroken chain of giving glory to God by means of music, education, and worship as they were in Newman’s time. We dodged pedestrians and cars and waited for the crosswalk to transverse the busy highway, and once we reached Hagley Road and spied the original Plough and Harrow Inn, where visitors stayed in Newman’s time, we crossed over to the impressive courtyard of the church, and entered into this Baroque masterpiece. We found our way to the pews inside the church beside a statue of Newman, and took in the beauty all around as evensong began. The sung Latin and the beautiful vestments and the surroundings truly lifted the earthly veil for those minutes and gave a glimpse into the heavenly city. It was very easy to imagine Newman praying here, even if the original Church is gone. After evensong, we met with Daniel Joyce, the archivist for the Newman Museum and Shrine, and firmed up our appointment for the following day. Before we departed, he showed us the newly renovated shrine which was built with material from the original church. There a wooden urn holds a small bit of remains that were found when St. John Henry Newman’s casket was opened. In the shrine are other framed items from the gravesite and holy objects pertaining to Newman. Daniel left us to pray, and we bid our farewell till the next day.
The next morning we were met again by Daniel, who showed us into the recently completed museum. He has done an exceptional job of organizing and selecting items from Newman’s life, including pictures, personal effects, books, letters, Newman’s Cardinal regalia and shoes, his chalice, etc. The tour began with a masterfully crafted documentary on Newman’s life and the Oratory, which I hope one day is made available for the public to view online. Daniel is knowledgeable and congenial and added to the experience of this visit immensely.
The next place we were shown was Newman’s library, which contains over 13,000 volumes, collected by him and still arranged as he had them, in a library of his design, loosely based on the senior library at Oriel College. The library was one of the areas that needed renovations as the roof was decaying along with one of the main supports. Thankfully, with donated money, necessary repairs have been done and are ongoing. The lantern roof has been entirely rebuilt, matching the original exactly in appearance. Other repairs were made as well to a large part of the roof of the Oratory House. This important work necessitated all the books to be removed and stored for the duration of the project. During this time, the books were carefully cleaned by specialist conservators. The cleaned books were replaced in their original spots, and a visitor walking in would not know how much work has been done to ensure this incredible library will exist for other pilgrims to view for years to come. Standing in Newman’s library surrounded by Newman’s books, close to Newman’s room, is an experience that’s hard to describe — the sheer number of the volumes and their orderly arrangement is like a small peek into his gifted mind.
But the best was yet to come! We were given a rare privilege – a visit inside St. John Henry Newman’s own room where he spent the last 38 years of his life. The spacious hallway with tall ceilings leading to his room are all original. One steps from this hallway into both the library and Newman’s room. The floors of the hallway retain the original flooring, worn by time and footsteps, but adding to the experience of Newman’s presence. Entering his room can only be described as other worldly despite the appearance of a simple room full of books and other items used by a scholar. After his death, his Oratorian contemporaries honored him by closing the door to his room leaving it undisturbed. This room is where he lived, prayed, read, wrote his volumes of letters, composed his sermons, managed the Oratory, and eventually said his private masses. It is the room where he slept until he was made a Cardinal, when the area was then converted into his private chapel, and he was given another room to sleep next door.
Whereas the other rooms bear the marks of being more public areas, this room FEELS like a private room. All the very human things that we all do … placing mementos of daily life, small treasures that have been gifted or collected – a catchall drawer – all these things are present and just like Newman left them. It’s as if he might stride back in at any moment! The books here are the ones he used most often and include the Roman breviary given to him by Hurrell Froude. His chair, his worn-out quills, his desk … it almost feels as though one is invading a private space, but all the more moving because of it.
At his altar are the most touching things of all: he had hung or even pinned to the wall photographs and mementoes of departed friends for whom he prayed each day. It’s very similar to how we might pin pictures of family friends on a bulletin board in our own personal spaces. As this room has been untouched since Newman’s death (except for careful dusting of exposed items) everything is as Newman left them on the last day of his life. A small dehumidifier has been added but other than that, the room contains no electricity for lighting or heating. To enter into this room is to leave time behind and step into the past. It’s one of the most moving experiences this writer has ever had. It wasn’t until later reflection that I realized that every object in this room would be a second-class relic. It’s overwhelming.
Because of the age of the room, there were necessary restoration projects that had to be done and are likewise ongoing. However, everything is done with expert supervision, for example mending the deteriorating fabric of baldacchino above the altar and fixing the peeling wallpaper, etc. The final privilege was to be allowed to sit at Newman’s desk, in his chair. I have never felt so close to someone from the past as this visit to Newman’s room allowed. Knowing that he is a saint in heaven and reading over my shoulder as I write this adds to the feeling of joy.
As our farewell treat, we were greeted and had a visit with Fr. Ignatius Harrison, provost of the Birmingham Oratory. His gracious welcome and our chat with him left us with a deep satisfaction that Newman has a most worthy successor. Our pilgrimage to Newman’s England had done more that we could have imagined! We had become more intimately acquainted with the daily life, prayer, and study of Newman, the simple yet pleasant home where he and his Oratorian brothers lived. It has brought renewed enthusiasm to make this great saint’s life and work more known. St. John Henry Newman, pray for us!