In the first portion of our summer’s Newman pilgrimage, my husband and I visited Oxford University (as described in Part One of this series); we found ourselves in the modern lively urban centre of the city of Oxford, where the various colleges of Oxford University are located. With a bit of mental readjustment to make imagination fit reality, we were able to discover Newman’s Oxford of the early 19th century. Perhaps a little known fact is that Oxford and Oxfordshire are located in the area considered one of the most beautiful in England called the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds refer to this 787 square mile region in central-southwest England, along a range of rolling hills. The area is defined by the distinctive golden colored limestone quarried there which was and is still used to build the postcard beautiful thatched cottages found in the little bucolic villages. These villages also boast stately homes with gardens. The larger cities, like Oxford and Evesham, although with modern buildings and modern commerce, still contain those structures built with this yellow stone, especially Oxford University itself. As a designated “Area of Natural Beauty” by the British government, the Cotswolds have become a famous tourist destination because of the well-preserved smaller villages in the countryside, surrounded by grassy pastures dotted with sheep. Both Beatrix Potter’s gardens and Tolkien’s Shire were inspired by the sheer loveliness of the Cotswolds villages, which still today seem off the pages of a story book.
When Newman became Vicar of the University Church at Oxford, he discovered that its benefice included Littlemore, at that time an undeveloped rural and rather impoverished area around 2.5 miles from Oxford University. Littlemore had no church of its own. Newman, who loved to walk, began to take outings there regularly, visiting its farm workers and arranging schooling for the children of the area. Even his mother and sister helped with pastoral care. In 1835 he secured permission and funding for a church. Built to Newman’s personal design, the Anglican Littlemore Church soon became a model for small elegant places of worship throughout England. Newman understood that beautiful buildings themselves can lead worshipers to the transcendent, “which will suggest to you many good thoughts of God and heaven”. He also planted trees and soon built a school. By 1840 he was staying at Littlemore regularly and began planning a sort of monastic retreat or ‘college’. He insisted, however, that it was not a monastery. In 1843 he moved permanently into “The College”, which was a converted granary and stables.
“The College” had a courtyard and along with his own modest room, a few private rooms as well as a chapel and a library for study. Newman added a few other dwellings for visitors. Soon other like-minded men joined him there, as they each contemplated their paths forward. It was at Littlemore, after much discernment and prayer two years after resigning his Anglican duties, that Newman “made his submission to Rome.” He was received into the Roman Catholic church by Blessed Dominic Barberi, a traveling Passionist missionary from Italy. The future saint knelt by the fireplace in his room on that stormy night of 8th October, 1845, and began a lengthy confession. He continued his confession on 9th October and was received into the Church. On the following day he, made his first Catholic Communion.
Knowing the background of Newman’s retreat to Littlemore and its location in the Cotswolds, one can’t be blamed for forming a very romantic vision of his converted cow barn outside of Oxford. The image of Newman’s lean frame walking the grassy fields, visiting with farmers and the less fortunate of the area, after giving up his prestigious position at Oxford University, all the while contemplating the state of his soul, one conjures a dramatic figure, with the conflicted Newman raising his eyes to the heavens asking God for guidance. But the reality of today’s Littlemore was far from this romantic idyll. In the early 20th century, the Littlemore area began urbanizing and was incorporated into the city, and in the 1950s, the progress accelerated. We soon realized that we were to have another reality check as we boarded a city bus in Oxford city centre – the first sign being that Littlemore is a labeled bus stop on busy Cowley Road. And far from leaving behind the city, on the contrary, the route leads past an empty car factory, down an increasingly unlovely street with unattractive modern developments, before turning down what is left of the main street of the hamlet of Littlemore. There, on a corner plot, one can see the back of the low-slung building which is “The College.” Most jarring of all is the Church across the street dedicated to the Blessed Dominic Barberi, built in the unfortunate architectural period of the 1960s, in a style that would make Newman shudder.
With spirits drooping along with the rainy afternoon, we got off the bus and made our way to “The College.” We passed the unattractive church and saw the small sign indicating we were in the right place. After a bit of sleuthing, we found a call box and wrang for entrance. We had checked earlier and knew that the site was opened for visitors. Soon we were greeted by a friendly Austrian sister, who took us through the gate, away from the disappointing surroundings, and we walked into Newman’s Littlemore. There in front of us was a small but lovely garden filled with flowers. Directly in the middle stands a very nice statue of Newman. Though the whole place is compact, still, there is a covered walkway which links all the bedrooms, with Newman’s room next door to the chapel. The library is at the other end of the walkway from his bedroom.
Pausing for a moment while the sister checked on the seminar which was taking place in the library, a bit of mind over matter took place and we were brought into the proper state. THIS IS WHERE IT HAPPENED, RIGHT HERE. With the human scale of the place, the rough stone of the walls, the realization that the windows look out onto the garden and not the street, one can then mentally join Newman, walking with him from his room to the other places within paces of each other. When the sister returned, we were shown into his bedroom. The first thing one notices is its small size. Most of the original furniture is gone, but some remains. There is a single bed which is similar to the one he had, along with a small reading desk overlooking the garden.There are mementos on the wall, letters and a few pictures. The floor, a dark red brick, is original, and most importantly, the fireplace! With the meager belongings of the room, the fireplace takes center stage. Though the chilly rain was still falling, all the disappointment of the surrounding area evaporated, and the vision of St. John Henry Newman humbly kneeling on that very floor on such a rainy evening fills one with emotion. It is a visceral response.
In the chapel with walls adjacent to Newman’s bedroom, still bearing the red brocade of Newman’s day, the sisters preserve his rosary. The sister who was showing us around invited us to hold the rosary, and we prayed a decade before the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. One can feel Newman’s presence strongly, especially with the knowledge that his very hands held the rosary. After that moving experience, we were only able to have a quick glance in the booklined library because the seminar was still taking place. But it didn’t matter. We had met Newman there in Littlemore, felt his presence, and literally walked in his footsteps, but most wonderfully of all, we had prayed with him.
John Henry Newman left Littlemore and Oxford on 23rd February 1846 for Oscott College (St. Mary’s College) which he named “Maryvale.” This was the first house Newman established near Birmingham where the Birmingham Oratory would be established. Birmingham was the final destination in our Newman pilgrimage.