Littlemore: The End of the Beginning in John Henry Newman’s Spiritual Journey
The sacred place where Newman became Catholic.
“There it has been, that I have both been taught my way and received an answer to my prayers.”
— John Henry Newman
Passionist Father (now Blessed) Dominic Berberi traveled through the night on the top of a stagecoach, as the rain and wind howled all around. He arrived at “The College,” as it was called, soaked to the skin, Oct. 8, 1845. While he was standing in the library, drying off before a roaring fire, a door opened and his host entered. It was John Henry Newman, the nationally renowned Oxford academic and Anglican preacher. John Henry proceeded to kneel before the Catholic priest — and humbly asked to be received into the Catholic Church.
This occurred a few miles from Oxford, England, in the village of Littlemore. It was there in 1845 that Newman became Catholic.
Today, moving through non-descript modern housing, it is a relief to enter Newman’s beautiful Littlemore home. Lying beyond the high walls of this house is a collection of other beautiful buildings known as “The College.” It was here that Newman first rented “The Cottages,” formerly used as a coaching stage post comprised of old stables and coaching houses that were turned into a semi-monastic retreat. Newman turned the stables into a library and the granary into several rooms where he and some friends could live a shared life of study, prayer and penance. He called the new buildings “the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Littlemore.”
Newman had first visited Littlemore village in 1828 as Anglican vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, the university church at Oxford. However, as his doubts persisted over the claims of the Church of England, he resigned his ministry in 1843 and withdrew to Littlemore, a benefice attached to St. Mary’s. In Newman’s case, the journey would be life-changing.
What remains today of The College forms a set of compact, well-preserved 19th-century structures that are — remarkably — much as Newman would have known them. They comprise a chapel, as modest as it is prayerful, and a number of simple “cells,” where guests today may stay, including Newman’s room. This ascetic accommodation is ideal for serious retreatants who wish to pray and think, while drawing inspiration from an Englishman who did so decades previously, hoping that the light of the Holy Spirit would dispel the spiritual darkness he was experiencing at the time.
Unassuming in appearance, The College has a spiritual intimacy and immediacy, as Newman’s reception into the Church took place here, tended by the care of those who look after it today: The Spiritual Family “The Work.” Founded in Belgium in 1938, this “Community of Consecrated Life” is known as the FSO (after its official Latin name, Familia Spiritualis Opus). Learn more at NewmanFriendsInternational.org/en.
Speaking to the Register, Sister Ingrid Swinnen explained why visitors continue to come to The College: “They are attracted by the atmosphere of the place, the peace, the silence, the spirit of prayer — it is like an oasis of peace in the midst of the busy world.” She added that visitors have a variety of motivations for coming. There are students and scholars with an interest in Church history, those who are in need of healing, converts to the Catholic faith, seekers in search of silence, and, not least, the curious who wonder “what is hidden behind these walls.” For many, Newman’s canonization will make The College’s spiritual history and sense of calm even more attractive in the months and years ahead. As Sister Ingrid notes: “There surely was an increase of pilgrims around the date of the beatification [in 2010]. Now we already notice more requests of parish groups who want to come and visit.”
Understandably, the FSO community, who care for both the pilgrimage site and pilgrims, are thrilled by Newman’s sainthood. The news did not take the sisters by surprise, however: “We expected it, waited for it to come sooner or later,” Sister Ingrid told the Register. “The big surprise was in fact the announcement in February [the approval of the miracle]. [Then] we knew a miracle had happened and that Rome had investigated it.” Sister Ingrid was “very happy and excited,” detailing plans for the canonization ahead of the blessed day: Two sisters planned to be in Rome, with the rest awaiting pilgrims in Littlemore. The romance of the ancient university town of Oxford is often summed up in the frequently repeated description of the town’s “dreaming spires.” An even greater romance, arguably, is to be found at Littlemore. For it was here that two dreamers of a much greater reality met: St. John Henry Newman and Blessed Dominic Barberi.
The story of Newman, his life and mission, but most of all his conversion, is incomplete without Blessed Dominic. The Italian Passionist priest had come to England with one desire: to convert England back to the Catholic faith. His belief in divine help in his mission was great; upon his arrival in England, he spoke little English.
Yet, in the end, it was Blessed Dominic who would receive the most celebrated English Catholic convert into the faith, at Littlemore.
Newman wrote to friends: “I am this night expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist, who, from his youth, has been led to have distinct and direct thoughts, first of the countries of the North, then of England. After 30 years’ (almost) waiting, he was without his own act sent here. … I saw him here for a few minutes on St. John Baptist’s day last year. He does not know of my intention; but I mean to ask of him admission into the one Fold of Christ.”
Blessed Dominic’s nocturnal arrival was to prove the end of Newman’s spiritual darkness.
That night, for many hours, Newman made a general confession. Lives turn upon such moments, for good or ill, and when a visitor stands in The College’s library, surrounded by Newman memorabilia (prints, etchings, photographs, sculptures and original letters), it is impossible not to be moved at the significance of that nightly encounter between a holy priest and layman in search of truth. In hindsight, it has proved as momentous an encounter for Catholic England as it was for Newman.
A short walk from the library is the chapel. This is where Newman was conditionally baptized and then received into the Catholic Church on the evening of Oct. 9, 1845. Still in use today for Holy Mass and for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, it is here as well that Newman prayed for light to see the path ahead. In the chapel on that October evening in 1845, the right path was clear: Littlemore would mark the end of the beginning in Newman’s spiritual journey.
Two years later, Newman became a priest. For the rest of his long life — he died in 1890 — he worked ceaselessly to establish the Congregation of the Oratory in England and to defend, minister to and suffer for the Catholic Church.
As the shadows lengthen, it is time to leave Littlemore, a place to which the “kindly Light” led Newman “amidst th’encircling gloom,” as we sing in the hymn he first composed a dozen years before his conversion as a poem of faith. That same kindly light has led him to the altars of the Church. The “little” with which Newman came to Littlemore has indeed become “more” — much more.
K.V. Turley writes