It had always been John Henry Newman’s dream to establish an oratory in Oxford. The Oratorians are a religious order founded by St. Philip Neri in Rome in the 16th century; the order was established in Britain by Newman in the 19th century.
When he became a Catholic in 1845, Newman was living in Littlemore, a village some distance from the city itself. As Anglican vicar there, he had done a great deal for the local people, many of whom lived in poverty. He built a church and organized a school as well as provided practical help for the sick and housebound. But with his conversion came a dramatic change — he and his companions had to travel into the city and attend Mass at a small church in the district of St. Clements.
Newman left Oxford for his new life with the oratory and never saw the city again — “save for its spires, as they are seen from the railway.” There is an ache in that poignant little phrase from his writings. He was never able to realize his dream of serving the city he loved with an oratory community. Yet, it is precisely the Oratorian style that suits Oxford so well — an emphasis on beautiful liturgy and good scholarship and a vigorous parish team that works hard in a modern, busy city with its hospitals, schools and even a prison.
Later, after his ordination as a Catholic priest and the foundation of The Oratory at Birmingham, the notion of one in Oxford came up again and again. At one stage, land was acquired, and everything looked set for the plan to become a reality — but the final permission from the Church was not given. There was considerable opposition from those, both in Britain and in Rome, who believed that Oxford University was so irrevocably bound up with the Anglican establishment that it would be wrong to do anything that might encourage Catholics to go there.
But now, more than 150 years later and in an utterly different Britain, there is a thriving oratory in Oxford, with plans for expansion. The Oratorians finally came to Oxford in the 1990s, taking over the church of St. Aloysius on Woodstock Road, built by the Jesuits in the 1870s, and run first by them for many years and then by priests from the Diocese of Birmingham. Extraordinarily, when the Oratorians were finally established here, it was in the centenary year of Newman’s death.
The church occupies a site of historic interest next to the former John Radcliffe Hospital. It is everything for which Newman prayed. It plays a major role in the life of this university city. While there is a Catholic center — also well-attended — serving the specific needs of Catholics at the university, many also come to St. Aloysius.
The Oratory has thrived. The church is known, in the Oratorian tradition, for its splendid liturgy. There is a busy parish life, with many families attending. A group went from the parish to World Youth Day. The Oratorians work in schools, hospitals and prisons locally, and also at The Oratory School — founded by Newman — near Reading. There are processions through the town on important feasts and good attendance at weekday Mass and the thriving Sunday Masses.
The Oratorians in Oxford are young and bring enthusiasm to their tasks. With a large and expanding team in Oxford, there will, in due course, be Oratorian communities elsewhere — Catholics in other cities will look at some of their large, old Victorian churches and wonder about the possibilities.
Now the Oratorians have more recruits than they can handle. More rooms are needed. The house needs rearranging to make better use of the available space; the church is in need of repair and redecoration. The plans for renovation and expansion are extensive. Already, work has been done to strip back paint that was applied in the 1950s to reveal fine original marbling. The sanctuary has been restored with its original gilding. There are plans to create a side chapel and baptistery that will also be a shrine to Newman, honoring his beatification, which is hoped to take place this year. A small cloister and garden area will also be created. The whole concept has been carefully designed to make the best possible use of what is actually a rather limited space. At present, ancillary offices and halls are attached in an uncoordinated way to the church, and these will be rearranged to create a unified whole — and give to the city of Oxford a pleasing and interesting place that will be valuable to everyone.
In order to realize the plans that have been made, funds are badly needed. There is a need for the work to go ahead as soon as possible, as many visitors and pilgrims will be coming to honor Newman in the years ahead.
To get a flavor of the Oxford Oratory, it is good to attend the 11 a.m. Mass on a Sunday. Arrive in plenty of time, as it gets very crowded. There is good congregational singing in Latin for the parts of the Mass. Mass is celebrated with great dignity. Extra benches and seats have had to be placed in the side aisles to accommodate the numbers of attendees. Afterwards, the crowds mill out into nearby Woodstock Road, families lingering to talk, visitors drifting off towards Oxford’s various pubs and cafés.
The sanctuary gleams with candles and looks magnificent; behind the altar are rows of statues of saints in niches, all recently cleaned and restored, conveying a message of unity with the Church down the ages and around the world. Confessions are heard frequently.
When you explore the church, you can take a closer look and see which saints you can recognize — there are so many here, including great English saints such as Frideswide (patron of the city of Oxford), Edward the Confessor, Edmund of Abingdon, Bede, Hilda, Hugh of Lincoln, Thomas of Canterbury, Cuthbert, John Fisher and Thomas More.
The side chapels are worth a visit, notably the one dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Look for the painting depicting Newman and his hopes for The Oratory — he kneels in submission, accepting the will of God through all his disappointments, while St. Philip Neri looks on with a hint of the promise to be fulfilled. The Oxford spires, about which Newman wrote so touchingly, are seen in the distance.
John Henry Newman would feel at home here.
Joanna Bogle writes
25 Woodstock Rd.
Oxford OX2 6HA
Take the train from London’s Paddington station to Oxford (the journey takes about an hour). There are also buses that depart from London’s Victoria Bus Station (ask for the “Oxford Tube”) and buses direct from Heathrow Airport (approximately one hour) and from Stanstead Airport (allow three hours). From Oxford’s city center, walk down Woodstock Road. St. Aloysius Church is opposite St. Giles Anglican church, near the war memorial and the Eagle and Child pub.
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Mass is offered on Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. and Sundays at 8 a.m. (Latin 1962 Missal), 9:30 and 11 a.m., as well as 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday there is a Mass at 10 a.m., and Monday through Friday there are Masses at 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Vespers is sung in Latin on Sundays at 5:30 p.m., followed by Benediction. Confessions are heard 10 minutes before Mass and on Saturdays from 10:30-11 a.m. and 5-6:30 p.m. There is a blessing with a relic of St. Philip after the 6 p.m. Mass on Mondays.