Friday, October 9, 2015

Blessed John Henry Newman and St. Anne's in Birmingham

In this sermon from last year's celebration of Newman's feast at the Oxford Oratory, I found this teasing comment from Fr Paul Keane, Vice-Rector of St Mary's College, Oscott: "Once a month, I go with a group of seminarians to work in a parish in central Birmingham: St Anne’s, Digbeth. If you haven’t heard of it, well, it was founded by Newman after his ordination. The first thing he did. The parish continues strong today."

Remembering that Newman's feast was chosen for this date because he became a Catholic on October 9, 1845 (August 11, the date of his death in 1890, is already "taken" by the great Saint Clare of Assisi), it seems appropriate to note how Oratorian Father John Henry Newman returned to England after his study and ordination to the priesthood in Rome to serve the people of Birmingham. From the history page of the Church of St. Anne's:

Saint Anne's is one of the oldest Missions in Birmingham. Founded in 1849 it was given into the charge of the Oratorian Fathers, with John Henry Newman (later Cardinal) as the first parish priest. . . .
On 24th September 1842 John Henry Newman preached his last sermon as vicar of St. Mary's Oxford. He spoke on the 'Parting of Friends' and went into retirement. His companions spent their time in prayer and study. From 1843 to 1845, Newman lived in Littlemore near Oxford. The picture of Newman above is dated 1845, four years before he arrived in Alcester Street [at St. Anne's].

Nicolas Patrick Wiseman had become a Bishop and was now rector at Oscott in Birmingham. On 9th October 1845, quietly and without any fuss, John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church by Father Dominic Barberi who was visiting Littlemore.. He was confirmed in the Oscott Chapel on 1st November 1845 by Bishop Wiseman. He was ordained a priest in Rome in May 1847 by Cardinal Franzoni and celebrated his Christmas Mass in London. Soon after Christmas Day he left London for Kingstanding, Birmingham. There, he established his Oratory at Old Oscott, which he renamed Maryvale. Since it should be near crowded centres of population and Maryvale was not even a hamlet, just a cluster of buildings amid some farms, it was closed at the end of 1848.

The community and John Henry Newman took up temporary residence at St. Wilfrid's. This later became Cotton College, in North Staffordshire. On leaving St. Wilfrid's, Newman arrived in Alcester Street on Friday 26th January 1849. On 2nd February 1849 John Henry Newman preached at the opening of the new Oratory in Alcester Street which was to be his home for the next three years. Fr. Newman spent some of his time in parish work, but most of his time was spent giving sermons and lectures in Birmingham and elsewhere. This Oratory was a large building in Alcester Street. Formerly a gin distillery, it was bought and fitted up as a Chapel to accommodate five hundred people. It was in this building that John Henry Newman delivered some of his famous sermons on Anglican questions.

The failure of the Potato Crop in Ireland, caused the great famine of 1847. Thousands of Irish men and women were forced to leave their native land, in search of work and food in England. Many of them settled in Birmingham and particularly in Deritend. They became the Congregation of John Henry Newman, when he set up his church in the disused Gin Distillery. To this day even though very few dwellings exist around the Church - the majority of the hundreds of Worshippers, are Irish or of Irish descent. St. Anne's Church is totally surrounded by factories, warehouses and office blocks. It still continues (as it has since the famine times) to be a spiritual haven for the Irish.

Remember what Pope Benedict said in 2010 at Newman's beatification Mass:

While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: “Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3). He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here. One hundred and twenty years later, great crowds have assembled once again to rejoice in the Church’s solemn recognition of the outstanding holiness of this much-loved father of souls.

Note that the city of Birmingham has posted a map of locations connected with Newman's life and service there.

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!

Image source (under a Creative Commons license).

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