There was consternation in Oxford when the news went round – like wildfire, as this sort of news invariably does – that the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Martin Williams, had written to the current students at St Benet’s Hall to say that “the University has taken the decision not to permit St Benet’s any new undergraduates in the next academic year”. To ears attuned to this sort of thing, it rang like a death knell, heralding the very real possibility that Benet’s, as the hall is always known, might have to close.
Benet’s is a Benedictine institution, in both senses; it has been one of the jewels in the crown of British Catholic education for decades. It transpired that just short of a century and a quarter after Ampleforth first founded its university offshoot, the Abbey Trust had decided to sell its valuable property portfolio in the centre of Oxford; inevitably there were labyrinthine layers of intricacy involved. The Master, Professor Richard Cooper, tactfully noted in an accompanying email that while Benet’s had hoped to be able to buy its home from the Abbey Trust, it was a “complex and sensitive situation”.
“Crisis” might have been a more accurate description. It came to a head in the middle of admissions week, when bright-eyed young hopefuls are interviewed for places. Professor Cooper explained that “in order for acceptance letters to be sent out in January, the University asked us to demonstrate that we would own our buildings next academic year, and this has not yet been possible”. It seemed a particularly cruel turn of events after the challenges of the last two years, and on the cusp of its quasquicentenary.
There was a twinge of personal sadness, too. Going to Benet’s in my student days was like popping into a friend’s parents’ house; parents, admittedly, who had somehow managed to produce 40 children, and all of them boys. That said, there never seemed to be a shortage of girls, who came for tea, or dinner, or the huge Sunday lunches; the annual Christmas party was the best in town. Although I was an Exeter man, I was asked in so often that the then-Master, the late Fr Leo Chamberlain, kindly arranged for me to be able to sign in whenever I fancied it – which was often.
I made lifelong friendships at Benet’s; it was a home from home, and not just for me. I can still see familiar rosy faces around the mismatched old tables that ran the whole length of the refectory. They were not all scions of English recusancy, although even then there was a smattering of recognisable names. All went their different ways: some into the Church, others to Whitehall, yet more to the City. One became a rabbi in New York; another was last heard of in Geneva, in his own words, “living in sin on the Rue des Confessions”.
Those days on St Giles were heady. Like everywhere else, Benet’s has changed, and even nostalgia is not what it used to be. There are fewer monks, and a lay Master; the grand piano has gone from the calefactory, and a few years ago numbers grew significantly with the admission of women and the acquisition of a second site at nearby Norham Gardens. Nevertheless, Benet’s remains unmistakably Benedictine, and continues to punch above its weight. The idea of Oxford without it was horrible to contemplate.
Mercifully, all was not lost. By the end of the same week, the Master – while cautioning against complacency – wrote encouragingly to say that there was “credible financing in place”, thanks to swift and generous benefactors and the Westminster College Trust. Relief all round, then. Now, without Ampleforth, the hall must work to build an endowment to secure its long-term future. Professor Cooper was frank that Benet’s faces “a critical period”, in which while “everyone’s efforts matter” it also needs what he called “transformational-level donors”. It can only be hoped that they will be forthcoming.
As I pondered this stay of execution, it struck me that the Westminster College Trust has its origins in a teacher-training establishment that once thrived on Harcourt Hill, just beyond the Oxford ring road. Loosely associated with the university, Westminster College was wound up at the turn of the century; its buildings were subsumed into Oxford Brookes, and its funds put into the eponymous Trust. It was a Methodist foundation, so perhaps – pace St Cyprian of Carthage – salvation sometimes comes from outside the Church, after all.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund