“I am beginning to take active steps to carry out my Oxford dreams,” the Dominican Fr Raphael Moss confided to his diary on 26 June 1904. His dream was to send a young friar to study at the university, and his choice for the “experiment” fell on an intelligent, passionate, young man from a military family, Bede Jarrett. To that dream we may trace Fr Bede’s own dream: he laboured tirelessly over many years as Provincial of the English Dominicans from 1916 to 1932, to build a priory at Oxford, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1921. Behind both dreams was the vision shared by St Dominic and the friars gathered round him in Bologna at Pentecost 1221, when they sent 13 men to make Oxford the hub of a preaching mission in the British Isles.
Within decades, the medieval friars spread out from Oxford to major towns, with support from Henry III of England, Alexander II of Scotland, bishops such as Robert Grosseteste, and many less wealthy donors. By 1300 there were 44 priories in England, five in Wales, at least a further 11 in Scotland, and 24 houses in Ireland. Their presence in the urban landscape, long since erased, is glimpsed in place names like “Blackfriars” or “Preachers Lane”. In high demand as preachers, the friars also ministered as confessors, promoted the Crusades and served as chaplains to private households. Some, like Richard Fishacre and Robert Holcot, were leading theologians. A few, like John of Darlington, became royal advisers and diplomats.
Part and parcel of urban life for 300 years, the Dominicans were suppressed like other religious orders throughout the British Isles during the Henrician and Scottish reformations. Thomas Cromwell imposed two stooges on the friars as their Provincial, John Hilsey and then Richard Ingworth. The former silenced opponents of royal supremacy, the latter facilitated the surrender of the priories. Only a newly separate Irish province survived. Some friars and nuns regrouped briefly during Mary’s reign in London and at Dartford in Kent; several other friars restored Catholic theology at Oxford University; but all was lost under Elizabeth.
For the next century, the few Englishmen drawn to the Order had to join its European houses, from where a tiny number returned to work secretly on the English mission. That changed in 1645 when a young nobleman, Philip Howard, entered the Order despite family opposition. In 1658 he acquired a monastery at Bornhem in the Low Countries which served as a focal point for English friars. Two years later, he founded a convent of English nuns at Vilvoorde, which later moved to Brussels. By the early 18th century there were some 26 nuns and 29 friars of the English Province, a third of whom were living in different parts of England. These missioners were late arrivals on the scene, and struggled to find suitable patrons or well-funded missions. At Stonecroft in Northumberland, the Dominican Peter Thompson was locked for many years in a conflict with a Franciscan for control of the local mission centre. He saw them as two horses in a race with himself as “Bloody Bones” and the Franciscan as “Spitfire”. Back at Bornhem, however, the friars ran a successful school which attracted the sons of recusant families.
Disaster struck when French troops invaded the Low Countries in 1792 and forced both friars and nuns back to England. Attempts were made to pick up the pieces: the nuns found shelter in a ramshackle house at Hartpury in Gloucestershire; the friars opened a new school at Carshalton, and reopened the school at Bornhem, but these soon had to close. As the friars dwindled in number during the first half of the 19th century, they regrouped around their priory at Hinckley and the nearby parish of Holy Cross, Leicester, while the nuns moved in 1839 to the Midland town of Atherstone. By mid-century the Province numbered just six professed friars.
The turning point in the fortunes of the Province came with the request in 1850 from a wealthy convert, William Leigh, for the friars to take on the mission previously run by the Passionists at Woodchester in Gloucestershire. With support from the Order’s Master-General, Alexandre Vincent Jandel, a small priory was built and staffed to function as a novitiate, where the liturgies and ascetic rigour stipulated by the Order’s constitutions were faithfully observed. The effect on would-be entrants was mesmeric. Arthur (later Fr Bertrand) Wilberforce, grandson of William Wilberforce, declared: “I never was so struck with any place as I was with Woodchester. I said to myself: ‘Here is the ideal; here is exactly what I have had in my mind, but never before have seen in any form that I could embrace.’” Within 50 years, rising numbers permitted the Province to take on large parishes in Newcastle, London and Manchester, building schools and churches which served poor working-class neighbourhoods with large communities of Irish immigrants.
As the 20th century dawned, a vast formation house was built at Hawkesyard in Staffordshire through the benefactions provided by two lay Dominicans, Josiah Spode and Helen Gulson. The nuns moved to a convent at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight in 1866 through the generosity of another tertiary, Elizabeth Burrell, Dowager Countess of Clare.
Much of the 20th century saw ever-widening horizons. A mission opened on Grenada in the Caribbean which later expanded to Barbados; a second missionary “front” opened in Southern Africa in 1917. Manpower was spread thin even as the Province grew in numbers. Led by Jarrett, the Province moved away from a narrowly parish-based ministry. A school re-founded at Laxton in 1924 catered for more than simply aspirants to the Order. Houses opened which engaged with non-Catholic universities and served Catholic students, not only at Oxford, but also at Edinburgh, where the friars became chaplains, at Stellenbosch in South Africa, and a little later under Jarrett’s successor, Bernard Delany, at Cambridge. Meanwhile, Jarrett had founded Blackfriars (later New Blackfriars) under Delany’s editorship as a contribution to informed debate. Thomism was promoted through two translations of major works by Aquinas, the earlier largely undertaken by Laurence Shapcote, the later translation of the Summa Theologiae under the general editorship of Thomas Gilby. The Province became known for preachers on social justice, like the distributist Vincent McNabb and the peace campaigner Simon Blake, for its ecumenists, like Henry St John, and for its theologians, like Cornelius Ernst. Vocations at Carisbrooke fed a daughter-house in 1922 at Headington, Oxford.
Vatican II inaugurated a long period of upheaval. Through its conference centre, Spode House, at Hawkesyard, the Province offered the wider Church a place for lively debate where relations between laity and clergy escaped an older clericalism. Yet few men now entered to become lay-brothers. Very few women tried their vocation as nuns. In South Africa many friars joined a newly independent Dominican vicariate. Not a few priests and many clerical students left the Order. The decades from 1970 to the millennium saw the steady withdrawal from parishes and closure of houses. The nuns’ convents at Headington and Carisbrooke closed in 1967 and 1989.
However, these decades also saw a renewal of the Province in the 21st century: studies were overhauled; community meetings and daily Masses helped to rebuild fraternal common life for a new generation; priories were adapted for new needs. An English Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe, was elected as Master of the Order. At Oxford, Blackfriars became a permanent private hall of the university. An older dream has taken on a new lease of life.
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