John Henry Newman's Maryvale

by Joanna Bogle

The old house is a funny mixture: part country-mansion, part institution; partly beautiful, partly slightly austere. And this is explained by its history. Owned by a recusant family — Catholics who had to keep their religion extremely private and who built a secret chapel in the attic — it stood on its own land in the English Midlands, some miles from Birmingham, which was then a small village. But then came Catholic Emancipation, the Industrial Revolu-tion, and much more. By the 1840s Old Oscott House was providing a welcoming home for John Henry Newman. Newly received into the Catholic Church, he was already a distinguished scholar and writer, and a man who was to influence the Christian life of his country — and the wider world — for generations.

Newman renamed Old Oscott House “Maryvale”, and it was here that he formed the small community that would eventually flourish as the Birmingham Oratorians. In the first weeks and months of staying at Oscott, Newman and his friends walked across the meadows to Mass in Birmingham — the village had by now grown into a busy industrial city and was still rapidly expanding. Later, they would found an oratory community in an old gin factory and eventually build their own beautiful oratory church in the city — it thrives today and is now a center of devotion to the new-Blessed John Henry Newman.

And what of Maryvale? The Catholic family who owned it had given it to the Church, and over the next years it became, among other things, a Catholic parish center, an orphanage, and a school. Today, it is the home of something unique, which is playing an increasingly significant part in the life of the Church in Britain: the Maryvale Institute. At Maryvale, Catholic lay men and women can study the Faith, they can obtain degrees in theology and philosophy, validated by the Open University, do post-graduate studies, work for PhDs, and more. Maryvale also trains large numbers of catechists who work in Catholic parishes across Britain and overseas; and runs courses on the Catechism, and on art and music, among other subjects.

There are no longer fields between Maryvale and Birmingham — instead traffic roars and motorways curl through suburbs and city streets. As you drive out from Birmingham city center, you pass a massive mosque, evidence of the large and growing Islamic community in the city. The streets throng with people in Islamic dress, and your taxi driver is more likely to be a devout Muslim than a Christian. On more than one visit to Maryvale I have engaged in religious discussions with the driver — not initiated by me — with the driver urging me to learn about the Prophet Muhammad.

Birmingham is all noise and traffic, and then as you turn into Old Oscott Hill you approach the gates with the Maryvale crest on them. When you draw up to the house, you feel a welcome: a statue of Mary stands by the lawn, another, all in white, on the pleasant porch that runs along one length of the frontage. Different eras mingle in this building: a beautiful chapel, with Newman’s old room adjoining it at an upper level, a tiny shrine to the Sacred Heart — the first to be established in England — beautiful old staircases that are slightly tilted, bathrooms in unexpected places, comfortable bedrooms.

John Henry Newman’s hand-written directions for the daily timetable are still preserved in the hall. Meals and all domestic arrangements are now in the capable hands of a team of Bridgittine sisters, and staff and students eat together in a pleasant refectory, part of a modern wing built on to the side of the house, matching the Georgian style of the rest of the building and looking out to the garden and to the sisters’ wing nearby. Every day begins with the sound of the sisters singing their early morning Office, and everyone then joins together for morning Mass.

Students at Maryvale work by distance-learning, studying at home and attending various courses, usually on weekends. Some parishes around the country also offer linked courses, and others make themselves available as examination centers.

Blessed John Henry Newman sought to have an educated laity, “not arrogant, not rash in speech”, but Catholics who knew their faith and were able to defend and explain it. The Second Vatican Council took up this theme, and now, in the 21st century, it is being realized at the old house that was once Newman’s home.

Students of Maryvale develop great loyalties to it: the academic quality is high, and the companionship and friendship among the students is wonderful. We relish Maryvale’s unique flavor: the irrational corridors that are evidence of centuries of adaptations and rebuilding, the beauty of the chapel and its sense of reverence, the hedges around the lawn that are heavy with blackberries in summer.

Maryvale is needed. The Britain of the 21st century is far removed from the one that John Henry Newman knew. In Queen Victoria’s day, most people in Britain would have known the Lord’s Prayer, churchgoing was something mainstream, and Christianity was part of everyday life. Today, numbers attending church are low, and ignorance of Christianity is widespread.

But we should not be too gloomy. When Pope Benedict XVI visited, he drew large crowds, and — against all the odds — favorable media coverage. People liked him, liked his message, and saw him as a figure of goodwill. Good numbers of young Catholics will be taking part in World Youth Day this summer in Madrid. The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — for Anglicans seeking to join the Catholic Church in groups, bringing their own traditions with them — has got off to a good start. Old tensions from long ago have gone: Catholic/Jewish relations are good, ecumenical relationships within Christian groups ditto. The pope met Islamic, Hindu and other leaders in a genuinely warm and friendly atmosphere. On great national occasions, such as the recent royal wedding, representatives of all faiths play a part.

This is a good time to be studying the Catholic Faith, teaching it, enthusing about it, passing it on to the next generation. The long-ago recusants who lived at Maryvale would be glad to see us working and praying in freedom. But they would know that we needed to evangelize — that the message of Jesus Christ is one that the Britain of the 21st century needs badly.

I’m in my third year of a five-year degree course at Maryvale, and loving it. When I began, I knew it would be a challenge, but what I had not imagined was how much I would relish it, and how much I would come to love the place itself, its atmosphere, its message.

“Hear O islands” is the Maryvale motto, and the islands of the British Isles will be hearing the Gospel anew for many years to come. It is something to be part of that. In the sometimes baffling world of the 21st century, I am so glad to have discovered Newman’s Maryvale.


Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.


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