Previous Catholic Chaplains
Pope Leo XIII, in the bull that established the Oxford Chaplaincy, had ruled that the chaplains be appointed by the English bishops as a body. The first chaplain appointed was Canon Kennard, a graduate of University College and an ex-Anglican priest, noted for his past prowess at cricket and golf. He moved to the Wolsey’s Almshouses opposite Christ Church.
The series of obligatory lectures delivered after Sunday Mass were given not by the chaplain, but by men like ‘Sligger’ Urqhart of Balliol, the first Catholic fellow in Oxford since the time of James II, other dons, various Benedictines and some members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) like the Rev. Joseph Rickaby.
The object of these lectures, Rickaby insisted, “was to foster in the undergraduates the growth of a Catholic mind.” In his private journal, he wrote that “narrowness is no part of such a mind, and if the mind of English Catholics has been narrowed, it has been by the accidents of persecution, proscription and poverty.” These things, by the end of the nineteenth century, had largely passed, and Rickaby preached hoping that young Catholic minds at Oxford were, as he said, “opening out”, certainly not by the abandonment of Catholic principles, but instead by their continued development and application.
Often, in Rickabys day, these lectures were delivered in the domestic chapel at the house of the Newman Club’s (later named the Newman Society) founding member, Hartwell Grissell, since the Catholic Chaplaincy was just getting underway, and the diocese was searching for a more permanent housing arrangement. The Jesuit’s lectures were combined with Sunday Mass, said by the then newly appointed Catholic chaplain Canon Charles Henry Kennard, P.P., and indeed all Catholic students, particularly members of the Newman Club, were expected to attend.
After Mass, tea was served, and then Rickaby would deliver his thoughts quite straightforwardly, dressed in a worn-out cassock and hobnail boots. He offered the educated Catholic’s opinion on such issues as the “Historical Beliefs Held Against the Church in England,” the “Relations of Church and State”, the “Extension of Salvation,” the “Virtuous Life,” the “Study of Sacred Scripture,” the difference between faith and reason, the “Traps of Reason” in a faith-filled life, the problems of “Private Judgement,” the benefit of hope, “Charity and Asceticism,” and the importance of dogmatic religion, always keeping in mind the young men’s particular struggles as Oxonians. “We forgot the boots and the general instability of his superstructure,” one student remembers, “and were instead locked in the grip of his words.”.
In 1911 Cannon Kennard was succeeded by Fr Algernon Lang, another convert, and a graduate of St John’s. He was a scholar and a wealthy man who was able to pay the £300 a year required for the rent of Wolsey’s Hospital. About 80 men attended the weekly Mass and lectures. However he was not a success, and he was asked to resign in 1913.
After Fr Lang’s resignation, the Board appointed Father Basil Maturin, an Irishman, who had spent most of his adult life as a member of the Anglican order of the Cowley Fathers, the Society of St John the Evangelist. When he converted, he became a Jesuit, and continued to be a very successful preacher and spiritual writer. He had travelled in Africa and in America, and when the Duke of Norfolk offered a site for a new Chaplaincy in St Cross Road, Fr Maturin decided to go on a fund-raising tour to the United States to be able to build it. Unfortunately he returned on the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by the Germans, and he died heroically, having helped to save an abandoned child.
Monsignor Arthur Barnes, chaplain in Cambridge since 1902, asked in 1915 to be transferred to Oxford where he played an important role in the development of the Chaplaincy till leaving in 1926. Yet another convert Anglican clergyman and graduate of University College, he agreed with ‘Sligger’ Urquhart that the St Cross Road site was unsuitable and sought a building to house the Chaplaincy near Wolsey Hospital in St Aldate’s. A historian, Mgr Barnes persuaded the Board that Bishop King’s Old Palace would be most suitable. The Newman Trustees and the Duke of Norfolk’s gift enabled them to raise the necessary price of £3,000 and to restore the Old Palace for a further £2,500.
Mgr Barnes took possession of the restored Old Palace in 1920. He turned the weekly conference into a sermon in the middle of Sunday Mass though he knew this was a very unpopular step. However, by 1920 there were about 140 Catholic junior members of the University. Mgr Barnes turned the large panelled room on the second floor, with its four handsome wooden pillars, into the chapel. It is now the Chaplain’s private quarters.
The Funds for the running of the Chaplaincy were meagre and in 1924 the first of many meetings was held to try to remedy the situation. Mgr Barnes was loath to spend more of his own money at this late stage of his life. He was an Oxford character with a breadth of experience and knowledge and an affable manner. In Ronald Knox’s words he had brought the chaplaincy ‘out of the catacombs’, since at that time the Anglican chaplains had nothing to do with the Catholic chaplain and viewed him with some suspicion.
At the same time Catholic women students from the newly founded female Colleges were treated warily by their male counterparts. They were kept away from participating in the Chaplaincy until the Second World War. The women were housed in Cherwell Edge, on the other side of town, where they were looked after by the Holy Child and Sacred Heart sisters, and various distinguished Jesuits.
‘Mugger’ Barnes was succeeded by yet another convert Anglican clergyman, Mgr Ronald Knox, who had been labelled at one point as ‘the wittiest young man in England.’ Many of his friends had died in the trenches, and he possessed rather melancholy traits alongside his wit and humour. A man of exceptional gifts he was renowned in Oxford and a frequent speaker in the Union. He assisted the financing of the Chaplaincy by writing detective stories during the holidays.
Fr Ronald Arbuthnott Knox
Mgr Knox oversaw the opening of a new building in 1931 to accommodate larger number of undergraduates, both in the upper room which became the chapel and the ground floor, which was called the Newman Room. He invited a wide variety of distinguished speakers to deliver the required conferences. Hilaire Belloc gave the first paper in the new room to an audience of 180. Ronald Knox enjoyed receiving such speakers and students who understood his reserved and bookish wit, but underestimated his own achievements, and was often a lonely figure in the Chaplaincy.
He gave great importance to personal contact, and would hold three dinner parties a week through the year, though he always insisted that everyone was out by ten o’clock. However, he was more at ease addressing a congregation or the Union or Societies than talking to individuals. As the 1930s drew to a close, after the deaths of his close friends ‘Sligger’ Urquhart and Cardinal Bourne, both great friends of the Chaplaincy, he began to feel that it was time to resign.
Mgr Knox resigned in 1939, and Fr Alfonso de Zulueta was appointed to succeed him. In 1941 the Foreign Office suggested to Cardinal Hinsley that he be removed, as he was not a British subject. Thirty years later Fr de Zulueta revealed that he was removed because he was mixing with to many non-Catholics and making conversions, but his earlier support for General Franco was made the pretext for his sacking.
Fr de Zulueta’s successor was Mgr Vernon Johnson, another ex-Anglican priest famous for his preaching. He was converted after a spiritual experience at Lisieux and became known for his devotion to St Therese about whom he wrote and preached. He impressed people by his gentleness, spirituality and accessibility. He brought men and women undergraduates together into one Chaplaincy. In 1946, the year before he left, he reported to the Board that 27 countries were represented in the Chaplaincy which now numbered 250 undergraduates.
After Mgr Johnson’s retirement, Mgr Valentine Elwes was appointed chaplain. He was educated at Downside, the Royal Naval College, the Battle of Jutland and Christ Church College, and had served as a chaplain in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. A man of great charm and kindness he brought a diverse experience of the world and the Church to his work. During his time as chaplain, a survey identified 354 Catholic men and 83 women among the students of the University. Mgr Elwes oversaw the building of a Nissen hut next to the Newman Rooms, which would serve as a chapel large enough to seat 400. During his time many Catholic groups burst into life and in 1948 he noted that 21 freshmen had been converted. The number of converts and vocations were high at this period.
In 1951 the ground floor shops were removed and the Old Palace given new but appropriate windows, and the Newman Bookshop moved to the corner of Rose Place Fr Val was not always very well and he welcomed the assistance of a Belgian priest, Pere Yves Nolet who joined him in 1954.This priest was a man of wide learning and was able to support himself as he came from a rich family. He introduced the undergraduates to new ideas on liturgy, ecumenism, and the Third World. In 1957, Fr Val reported that in the previous ten years 19 members of his flock had been ordained priests. In 1958 Fr Val was given further help when members of the Teresian Association, a Spanish secular institute of women, assumed the care of the Old Palace and developed a wider ministry to the students
In 1959 the number of undergraduates was 613 and Fr Elwes resigned. He was succeeded by Fr Michael Hollings, who had been educated at Beaumont and St Catherine’s Society (now St Catherine’s College). During the War he had fought with the Coldstream Guards and reached the rank of major, winning the Military cross at Monte Cassino. He came to the Chaplaincy during the first year of the reign of Pope John XXIII, and was here throughout the time of the Vatican Council and its aftermath.
Fr Michael Hollings presided over a period of profound change within Oxford University as more and more undergraduates arrived from State Schools. He welcomed them into an Oxford, not just of privilege but one in which they were exposed to the underprivileged. He made the Chaplaincy a bail hostel, and welcomed into the life of the Chaplaincy tramps, ex-prisoners, and residents of Cowley, alongside students and the wives and children of Dons.
There was much discussion and paper reading, as well as missionary outreach. He founded the St Thomas More Housing Association to help overseas students, and instituted an annual working pilgrimage to Lourdes which still continues. The expanded activities and changed circumstances meant that the existing buildings were no longer adequate.
Over the years Fr Hollings had been astutely purchasing adjoining properties, and with the help of the City Council who were planning to redevelop the area behind the Chaplaincy, a large plot of land was pieced together. The Newman Trust, the owners of the Chaplaincy, commissioned the architects, Ahrends, Burton and Koralek to design the new building. Their plans involved the destruction of the ‘Nissen-hut’ as well as the Newman Room and original Chapel put up by Mgr Knox. Fr Hollings oversaw the planning and beginnings of this new building, doing an enormous amount of fund-raising himself. He left Oxford in 1969 but returned for the opening of the new premises in 1972 that were the result of his energy and vision.
The New Building has its critics, who claim it is soulless. Certainly many of the architectural features of the time, such as in-situ cast concrete, brown carpet and exposed brickwork, might seem rather dated. However, money during construction was extremely tight, and the building has many good facets, with more than adequate public spaces and rooms for students. The use of the Newman Room for public events, and rents from student rooms all contribute to the running costs of the Chaplaincy
Fr Michael’s financial acumen, as well as a recent appeal, has helped the Chaplaincy to continue to function in very different circumstances. No longer does the Chaplain have to be a man of independent means. The Chaplaincy does not receive any funding from the Bishops and relies entirely on its own sources of income. A constant eye has to be kept to ensure the continuing financial well-being of the Chaplaincy. Fr Hollings brought down from Harrogate, to act as Administrator, Frank Ashby, a larger than life figure, who with his wife, Mary, was a regular fixture of the Chaplaincy community through the next 30 years. In the late 1980s, Mr Ashby was followed by Peter Vaughan-Fowler, who served here for six years and coordinated the Chaplaincy’s centenary appeal. He in turn was succeeded firstly by Sydney Boag, 1997 by John Prangley and latterly (since 2006) Mrs. Susana Lee.
Fr Holling’s ‘modus operandi’ continued relatively unchanged till the end of the 1980s. All the Chaplains of this period, Fr Crispian Hollis, Fr Walter Drumm, and Fr Roderick Strange continued with the policy of ‘open house’ to one and all. The Teresians continued their pastoral work with the undergraduates, while the Newman Society acted as the Catholic Society for junior members. Many former students speak very fondly of their time at the Chaplaincy, the kindness of the Chaplains, and the support the Chaplaincy gave them throughout their time at university. This can be explained by the dedication of those Chaplains during this period.
The English ‘post-conciliar’ consensus began to break up in the late 1970s, partly in response to changes in secular society with the election of the Conservative government in 1979, and to changes in religious sentiment in a generation that had not known life before the Council. There came a renewal of a spirituality and aesthetic oriented to the recognisably traditional and supported by the ever-present Oxford nostalgia for the golden age of the late 19th Century and the silver age of the inter-war years. As the student Newman Society’s approach to faith and worship began to diverge significantly from what the Chaplains regarded as their primary mission, the latter founded the Oxford University Catholic Society to provide them with continued student support in that mission.
In the 1990s the Oratorian Fathers, in fulfilment of Cardinal Newman’s dream, finally arrived at Oxford to take over the Parish Church of St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius had always provided an alternative Mass centre, especially for students in North Oxford and now, thanks to the Oratorians the beautiful Church architecture was complemented by splendid liturgy in traditional style, with a thriving parish community.
Blackfriars, too, offers public Masses on a Sunday, including an evening Mass with Vespers, which gives an opportunity for students and other lay-people to participate in the age-old worship of conventual religious life. This too is very popular with students and senior members.
In fact, Oxford has on one long street a variety of Catholic Churches and congregation which is comparable to that found in the cities of Catholic Europe, and students can experience every shade of Catholic liturgy from the simplicity of an early morning Mass in the spare modern beauty of the Thomas More Chapel in the Chaplaincy to the baroque splendour of High Mass at the Oratory.
Thanks to the hard work of Fr. Ian Ker, Fr. David Forrester, Fr. Peter Newby and Fr. Jeremy Fairhead, supported by Sr. Karen d’Artois and Sr. Nora Coughlan and assistant priests the Chaplaincy has learned to respond to this new and more competitive liturgical environment as well as to an overall drop in Mass attendance by young Catholics. All have in different ways developed a more sensitive aesthetic at the main 11:00 Mass, Fr. David experimenting with a Choir-style arrangement, Fr. Peter commissioning some new art to give a more religious tone to the Spartan Newman Room and Fr. Jeremy raising funds for the re-ordering of the Thomas More Chapel, as well as developing a highly professional body of altar servers. Fr. Peter and Fr. Jeremy in particular have found new ways of helping Catholic students rediscover the Chaplaincy as a place for community and support with like-minded people. Fr. Jeremy’s cooking prowess will long live in the memory of those who have experienced his hospitality. All have continued to promote the Chaplaincy as a location for art, music, drama and intellectual activity.
In 2007, the wheel turned full circle and the running of the Chaplaincy was entrusted by the Oxford Board to the Society of Jesus, with Fr John Moffatt SJ taking on the role of lead Chaplain, together with Fr. Roger Dawson SJ, while Sr. Nora Coughlan heroically stayed on to provide continuity and wisdom during the changeover. In 2010 the lead role will pass on to Fr. Simon Bishop SJ. There will doubtless be new challenges and changes, but the chaplaincy still remains a widely appreciated focus for Catholic undergraduates and graduates, spiritually, intellectually and socially. Long may it continue!