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How Newman brought God to a neglected village

John Henry Newman

Littlemore was poor and had few practicing Christians, but it received as its pastor one of the great Christian intellects

The Sisters of the Spiritual Family of The Work at The College, Littlemore, Oxford, who are dedicated to advancing the life and spirituality of Blessed John Henry Newman, have republished Newman at Littlemore by Bernard Basset SJ (Gracewing £7.99) in honour of his forthcoming canonisation.

First published in 1983 when Fr Basset, a well-known writer and retreat-giver, was living at The College in retirement, and now edited with illustrations, this modest book is a useful introduction to the future Saint’s long association with this village on the outskirts of Oxford – particularly for those drawn to retrace his steps on the journey leading to his famous conversion.

Indeed, for 17 years, from the time Newman was appointed Vicar of St Mary’s, Oxford, in March 1828, aged 27, until October 1845 when he was received into the Church at The College in a humble ceremony by Fr Dominic Barberi, a Passionist priest, the parish of Littlemore was his chief pastoral concern. A poor village, without a church and with few practising Christians, a neglected corner of the Anglican diocese of Oxford, it was destined to have as its pastor a man of intellectual genius with an earnest concern for the spiritual welfare of his flock.

Basset draws an affectionate portrait of Newman in these pages, vividly recreating the young vicar either riding his horse daily to Littlemore from the city centre or more often walking the three miles each way that it entailed. An undergraduate contemporary is quoted by Basset: “I met Newman almost daily, striding along the Oxford Road, with large head, prominent nose, tortoiseshell spectacles, emaciated by ruddy face, spare figure, whose leanness was exaggerated by the close-fitting tail-coat then worn” – clearly indifferent to the impression he made on others.

As the author relates, Newman’s widowed mother and two sisters, Harriet and Jemima, came to live at Rose Hill, Iffley, close by Littlemore. Until his mother’s death and his sisters’ marriages, they did all they could to help him catechise his parishioners and raise money for a new church, which still stands, with its memorial to Mrs Newman. She had laid the foundation stone and Basset observes, “The honour was a fitting one for her contribution to the renewal of a dying village was very great.”

He comments that “Pages could be filled with John Henry’s goings on with the children at Littlemore”. We have glimpses of the future saint playing his violin alongside the children’s choir and his concern that there was not sufficient water for the girls at the school to wash properly.

For those who plan to visit The College, Basset explains its evolution from a stable, barn and cottages into the simple, collegial living quarters established by Newman for himself and a few like-minded friends. The Sisters of The Work lovingly maintain the building, complete with a large collection of Newman’s books and memorabilia in the library, his austere small bedroom and the chapel.  The editors write that “John Henry would never have thought that his poor dwelling would be transformed in this way. However, in a hidden but real way he welcomes those who enter The College gate today “drawn by the genius and holiness of the first Vicar of Littlemore, one of the greatest churchmen of all times” in Fr Basset’s words.

Littlemore provides a very fitting early stage-post for all those pilgrims, converts and scholars drawn by his holiness and writings who want to honour the October canonisation of this great Englishman and Catholic.