Walking in Newman’s Footsteps

Littlemore procession recaps pivotal moments in the convert-cardinal’s life, from study to conversion.

A past 'Newman Walk'
A past 'Newman Walk' (photo: Courtesy of the Littlemore sisters)

Every October, pilgrims honoring the memory of Blessed John Henry Newman make their way through Oxford on a “Night Walk.”

It commemorates the night of Oct. 9, 1845, when Blessed Dominic Barberi, arriving soaking wet in a rainstorm at Littlemore on the outskirts of Oxford, received Newman into the Catholic Church. Oct. 9 is now Blessed John Henry Newman’s feast day — he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain in 2010. (This year’s Night Walk will take place Oct. 8, the eve of his feast day.)

Father Barberi was a Passionist priest from Italy who had a deep conviction about the need to evangelize in England, despite poor knowledge of the language and a recognition of being humiliated and misunderstood at a time when the Catholic Church was still seen by many British people as a sinister and alien force.

The Night Walk is organized by the Sisters of The Work at Littlemore, together with the Oxford Oratory parish. The Work, founded by Mother Julia Verhaege in the 1930s, is an international religious order comprising priests and consecrated religious sisters and brothers: Cardinal Newman’s old rooms at Littlemore are in the care of the sisters, and they run retreats and conferences there, as well as welcoming Newman scholars from across the world who make use of the extensive library of books and manuscripts by and about Newman.

The sisters are known for the bridal robes and veils that they wear when in choir, a special feature of their order.

The “Night Walk” sometimes takes place in rain — just as Dominic Barberi experienced when he arrived by stagecoach in the 19th century. It begins at the Oxford Oratory, the Church of St. Aloysius on the Woodstock Road. This church, built for the Jesuits, was given to the care of the Oratorians in 1990. It had always been Cardinal Newman’s hope to establish an oratory in Oxford; it was not accomplished during his lifetime, but became a reality exactly 100 years after his death. Today, it is a flourishing parish, with many young families and university students.

The walkers — Newman devotees from London and elsewhere, plus students from Oxford University, parishioners of the oratory and other local residents — gather at the oratory, as dusk falls, to begin the “Night Walk” with prayers.

Their route then takes them through the city, pausing at places associated with Newman, where there are readings, a talk and prayers. The first stops are at Trinity College and at Oriel College, where he was a student and fellow. This is followed by the University Church — St. Mary’s — where he preached to packed congregations, influencing a generation of undergraduates and becoming a national figure.

Littlemore is some way out of Oxford, and in Cardinal Newman’s day, it was a very poor rural area. It was part of his parish of St. Clement’s, but had no church of its own. Cardinal Newman raised funds and built one, his mother laying the foundation stone, although she died before the church was completed. He also established a school — there was no compulsory education in Britain at that time — with the help of his sisters, who instructed the local children not only in reading and writing, but in skills such as sewing and mending.

A stop is always made outside the house at Rose Hill, where the family lived: Here, Blessed Newman carried out mission work among the local poor, his mother and sisters helping him, especially during a local cholera epidemic. He also did much of his writing on Christian doctrine during his years here, and his sisters arranged for a room to be reordered for him as a study with a wide window and attractive view.

“There is something very real about this walk — you have a sense of being very close to Newman, of being spiritually united with him,” said Father Christopher Pearson of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, who first took part in the walk shortly after coming into full communion with the Catholic Church. Blessed John Henry Newman is patron of the ordinariate, and there is a shrine dedicated to him at Father Pearson’s church at London Bridge.

A veteran walker is Amanda Hill, who takes part every year. “I would hate to miss it — even though it means a longish drive back to London late in the evening,” she said. “It’s well worth it — something special every time.”

The final part of the walk is candle-lit, the sisters distributing candles as people approach the church of Blessed Dominic Barberi, where there is Benediction and a Holy Hour. This church was built in the 1970s as the parish church for local Catholics. A short walk leads to The College, the name given to the small set of buildings that Blessed Newman acquired when he left the Anglican ministry to pray and ponder about the Church. His library was in part of this old stable block, and it was here where Father Barberi arrived and was drying himself by the fire when then-Anglican Father Newman entered the room, knelt and asked to be admitted into the Catholic Church. A painting of the scene now occupies the old fireplace, and a nearby room where Newman prayed is now a chapel.

As the walk ends, the sisters serve hot drinks and snacks in the library before people make their way home.

“We are glad to make people welcome and to show that the message of Blessed John Henry Newman’s life still holds so much for us today,” said Sister Tatjana of The Work.

The cause for Newman’s canonization is now in its final stages in Rome, and expectations are high that a date for his elevation as a saint will be announced within the next two years. Already there are schools and organizations across Britain named after him, and the Oratorian order is flourishing, with oratories in London, Birmingham, York and Bournemouth, in addition to the one in Oxford.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Blessed John Henry Newman’s feast day is Oct. 8. It is actually Oct. 9, the anniversary of his conversion.