Chapter 3. Littlemore and Conversion

Search for seclusion—Cloister, cells and crucifix—Disciples—
Hard fasting—The first to go—Curiosity—Father Dominic's
advent—The Reconciliation—Primi­tive confession—Final

NEWMAN had too many distractions at Oriel to be able to give full time and thought to the serious religious problems that now craved a settlement from him. Littlemore, which lies two or three miles to the south of Oxford, towards London, he had always loved. The parish was a hamlet of St. Mary the Virgin; and for many years Newman walked thither from Oxford two or three times a week. Since he had built a little church there, the sound of the stone-mason's hammer had not been heard, and he could find nothing better for his new residence than a disused range of stabling at the corner of two roads.

Nothing could be more unpromising; but Newman said it was enough, and his handy-man was there to help in the work of reconstruction—Thomas Mozley, that master builder also of words, whose Reminiscences again and again supply colour to the inevitable patchwork of these memoirs. Newman made known his needs. There must be a library, some "cells," and a cloister; the chapel was to be for future consideration. The library was to be the common workroom, and each cell was to contain {47} a sitting-room, say twelve feet by nine feet, a bedroom six feet by six feet; the height of both to be nine or ten feet. Newman bought nine acres which he proposed to plant with firs, and on which he could build, bit by bit, as money came and men. He expressed only one sentimental wish to the reconstructor—that he might be able to see from his own cell window the ruins of the Mynchery—a convent dating from Saxon times, inhabited of old by generations of Benedictine nuns, and dedicated to "Our Lady of Littlemore." Newman's decision, as he paced the cloister, or knelt before the crucifix (for he had ceased to be superstitiously afraid of crucifixes), or studied the Fathers, now was that he could go on in the University pulpit only if he was allowed to hold by the Catholic interpretation of the Anglican Articles set forth in Tract XC. He would relapse into lay life in the Church of England rather than join the Church of Rome, "while she suffered honours to be paid to the Blessed Virgin and the saints, which I thought in my conscience to be in-incompatible with the supreme, incommunicable glory of the One, Infinite and Eternal." He desired a union between the Churches on conditions; and Littlemore was his Torres Vedras, where he and his followers might advance again within the Anglican Church, as they had been forced to retire. Finally, he felt that he must keep back with all his might intending seceders to Rome. Everything indicated that he came to the village to stay—not {48} to make it, as it turned out to be, his home for only five or six years.

When all was done, the place still looked, outside, what it had always been—a range of stabling. But these were not the times for "externals"; and the cells were soon filled with men all in living earnest about "the interior life." "They were most of them," says Newman, "keenly religious men, with a true concern for their souls as the first matter of all, with a great zeal for me, but giving little certainty at the time as to which way they would ultimately turn. Some in the event have remained firm to Anglicanism, some have become Catholics, and some have found a refuge in Liberalism." Of the latter, one name comes to mind on the moment. Mark Pattison had his habitation in a sort of community house established on apostolic principles by Pusey in Oxford itself; and he was a guest, not a resident, when he stayed at Littlemore. What attracted the future Rector of Lincoln College to Tractarianism was "the interest it excited in the young in all religious practices and exercises, and in many religious questions which had been matters of indifference." Newman somewhere says that his old friends were distressed to see him surrounded in the early 'forties by "younger men of a cast of mind in no small degree uncongenial to my own." Some of this was raw material certainly, and so remained. In after life Mark Pattison wrote: "I am astonished to see what hours I wasted over religious books {49} at a time when I ought to have been devoting every moment to preparation for the Oriel examination." Of a piece with this are the reasons he gives for not joining the Catholic Church: "I must have been enveloped in the catastrophe of 1845, as were so many of those with whom I lived, but for two saving circumstances. One of these was my devotion to study. In 1843 Radford offered me a tutorship of the college. My classics had got sadly rusty. I immediately set resolutely to work and made good my lost ground. I think it was chiefly owing to this that, when the crash came in 1845, I did not follow Newman." Later on, in his Memoirs, Mark Pattison, feeling perhaps that everything still remained to be said on this subject, gave another version: "In dealing with the students I became aware that I was the possessor of a magnetic influence which soon gave me a moral ascendancy in the college. In this fact, which was very slowly making itself felt, lies the true secret of my not having followed Newman." When some one compiles that strangest of all colle6tions of inadequacies—a volume of men's "Reasons why they did not join the Church of Rome"—Mark Pattison's will still remain with Keble's among the most perplexing.

Mark Pattison kept a diary during a fortnight's visit to Newman at the close of September, 1843, and these are some of the entries showing what manner of life the men of Littlemore led: {50}

"Newman kinder, but not perfectly so [Note 1]. Vespers at eight. Compline at nine. How low, mean, selfish, my mind has been today; all my good deeds vanished; grovelling, sensual, animalist; I am not, indeed, worthy to come under this roof!

"Sunday, October 1.—St. John called me at 5:30, and at six went to Matins, which, with half Lauds and Prime, takes about an hour and a half; afterwards returned to my room and prayed, with some effect, I think. Tierce at 9, and at 11 to church—Communion. More attentive and devout than I have been for some time; 37 communicants. Returned and had breakfast. Had some discomfort at waiting for food so long. Walked up and down with St. John in the garden; Newman afterwards joined us; and at three to church; then Nones. Some unknown benefactor sent a goose. Talk of some Rosminian nuns coming to England [Note 2]; though an Order, and under the three vows, they do not renounce possessions in the world. They aim to embrace the whole Church. The Jesuits always and everywhere opposed and despised; St. Ignatius prayed for this; Wiseman opposed the Jesuits at Rome, and does so here; proof of his sincerity. {51} Vespers at eight, Compline at nine. Very sleepy, and went to bed at ten.

"October 3.—Lockhart's mother much distressed. Probably at the separation, more than at the conversion, which she must have expected some time.

"October 4.—N—— mentioned to me having just received the account of a lady who, having in conversation declared she thought the Church of Rome the true Church, had been refused the Communion by her minister, he telling her in so many words to go to Rome.

"October 5.—Coffin came today to stay. How uncomfortable have I made myself all this evening by a childish fancy that once got into my head—a weak jealousy of N—— 's good opinion! Oh, my God, take from me this petty pride! Coffin more subdued and less thoughtless than usual."

This wayward introduction of the name of Coffin will surprise those afterwards acquainted with the ascetic Provincial of the English Redemptorists, who took on himself, when at the end of his life, the burden of the Bishopric of Southwark. Other men of Littlemore, belonging to the group who became Catholics, were Frederick S. Bowles, later an Oratorian, and, at the end of a long and unobtrusive life, chaplain to the Dominican nuns at Harrow; John Bernard Dalgairns, afterwards a London Oratorian, a man of whom Mozley felt sure "he might have taken his place among the {52} most popular and instructive writers of the age, and become a household word in England"; "dear Ambrose St. John," the "link between the old life and the new," who was to live with Newman as a fellow-priest at the Birmingham Oratory, and to lie with him in one grave at Rednal; Albany Christie, a Jesuit in petto, who was studying medicine in London with as many interludes at Littlemore as he could get; Bridges, of Merton, whose brother George, and whose cousin Matthew, became Catholics; Richard Stanton, afterwards an Oratorian in London; and Lockhart, the first to go.

If Lockhart's mother was distressed [Note 3], his master was so too. Speaking of his young men, and of this young man, Newman said: "Their friends besought me to quiet them if I could. Some of them came to live with me at Littlemore. They were laymen or in the place of laymen. I kept some of them back for several years from being received into the Catholic Church. The immediate cause of my resigning St Mary's was the unexpected conversion of one of them." Lockhart, after confessing to Newman one day, had asked: "But are you sure you have the power of absolution?" "Why will you ask me that question?" replied Newman; "ask Pusey." But Lockhart did not trouble Pusey with his question. He went to Father Gentili, whom he had lately met with the De Lisles at Ward's rooms {53} in Oxford; and at the end of a three days' Retreat was a Catholic and a postulant with the Rosminians. Rosmini's Maxims of Perfection had been given to him four years earlier by a friend, afterwards famous as Sir William White, Ambassador at Constantinople; and one of the counsels on which he opened in a moment of hesitation decided him there and then that his duty was to submit to the Catholic Church, despite the promise Newman had extorted from him to linger for three years longer.

Father Lockhart, looking back at those days, said in a lecture delivered in St. Etheldreda's, Ely Place, just after Newman's death: "In speaking of Cardinal Newman and his work, he should necessarily speak of himself,, though he spoke of himself only as a type of the ordinary young Oxford man who came under the great Cardinal's influence. The first thing that Newman did for those under his care was to root in their hearts and minds a personal conviction of the living GOD. And he for one could say he never had had that feeling of GOD before he was brought into contact with Cardinal Newman. Who that had experience of it could forget Newman's majestic countenance—the meekness, the humility, the purity of a virgin heart 'in work and will,' a purity that was expressed in his eyes, his kindness, the sweetness of his voice, his winning smile, his caressing way, which had in it nothing of softness, but you felt was a communication to you of strength from a strong soul." {54} Newman was naturally very sore when Lockhart left him. Why should the young and inexperienced venture when the veteran hesitates?—it is the constantly recurring question. But almost the first thing he did when, two years later, he became a Catholic, was to pay Lockhart a visit—surely one of the happiest of mortal reunions.

After preaching his last sermon as an Anglican in September, 1843, Newman remained two years longer at Littlemore—making sure that he was not doing anything in a hurry. "It is," he says, "because the bishops still go on charging against me, though I have quite given up: it is that secret misgiving of heart which tells me that they do well, for I have neither lot nor part with them; this it is which weighs me down." And he adds a smaller grief,, but to him a real grievance: "I cannot walk into or out of my house, but curious eyes are upon me. Why will you not let me die in peace? Wounded brutes creep into some hole to die in, and no one grudges it them. Let me alone, I shall not trouble you long."

There was more curiosity than true care about "the monastery" and "the vicar," as its head was commonly called. One day, when he entered the house, he found it invaded by undergraduates. Heads of Houses walked their horses round the poor cottages; Doctors of Divinity dived into the recesses of that private tenement uninvited. When the Warden of Wadham, a flourishing Evangelical, knocked {55} one day at the door, Newman opened it himself; nothing so human as a housemaid entered its portals, and the inmates took the duty of door-opening for a week by turns. "May I see the monastery?" insinuated the visitor. "We have no monasteries here," replied Newman, and closed the door in his face. Newspapers had their paragraphs, inviting episcopal attention. So the Bishop of Oxford writes, a little timidly, to ask what it all means: is there really an intention to found—he can hardly bring himself to write the naughty word which even Archdeacon Farrar and the Evangelicals were soon to get glibly at the tongue's end—an Anglican monastery? Newman replies, "For many years, at least thirteen, I have wished to give myself to a life of greater religious regularity than I have hitherto led; but it is very unpleasant to confess such a wish even to my bishop. I feel it very cruel, though the parties in fault do not know what they are doing, that very sacred matters between me and my conscience are made a matter of public talk. As to the quotation from the newspaper, the 'cloisters' are my shed connecting the cottages. I do not understand what 'cells of dormitories' means. Of course, I can repeat your Lordship's words that 'I am not attempting a revival of the monastic Orders in anything approaching the Romanist sense of the term.'"

Rumours flew about Newman's greying head. It was whispered that he "was already in the service of the enemy"—had already been received into the {56} Catholic Church. On the other hand, among Catholics there were murmurs—could he know so much and yet in good faith remain? What a rebuke it seemed when, at the end of all, Bishop Clifford, of Clifton, recalled such rash judgements in the presence of the coffin containing all that was mortal of him! That the resignation of St. Mary's gave him a new sense of freedom is implied by the letter he wrote in April, 1845, six months before his conversion, to Cardinal Wiseman, then Vicar-Apostolic, who had accused him of past coldness in his conduct towards him: "I was at that time in charge of a ministerial office in the English Church, with persons entrusted to me, and a bishop to obey; how could I write otherwise than I did without violating sacred obligations? ... If you knew me, you would acquit me, I think, of having ever felt towards your Lordship in an unfriendly spirit, or ever having had a shadow on my mind of what might be called controversial rivalry, or desire of getting the better, or fear lest the world should think I had got the worst, or irritation of any kind. And now in like manner, pray believe, though I cannot explain it to you, that I am encompassed with responsibilities so great and so various as utterly to overcome me unless I have mercy from Him who, all through my life, has sustained and guided me, and to whom I can now submit myself though men of all parties are thinking evil of me."

The story of the life at Littlemore has to be yet {57} entirely told; and it would be impossible to glean from Newman's scanty allusions in the Apologia any idea of its primitive austerities and observances. Lent was a season of real penance for the inmates of the monastery. They had nothing to eat each day till five, and then the solitary meal was of salt fish. No wonder Dr. Wootten, the Tractarian doctor, told them they must all die in a few years if things went on so; no wonder Dalgairns had a serious illness, after which relaxations were made. A breakfast of bread-and-butter and tea was taken at noon, the monks standing up at a board—a real board, erected in the improvised refectory, and called in undertones by the fastidious Old Adam left in them a "trough." The "chapel" was hardly more pretentious than the dining-room. At one end stood a large crucifix, bought at Lima by Mr. Crawley, a merchant living at Littlemore. It was what was called "very pronounced"—with the all but barbaric realism of Spanish religious art. A table supported the base; and on the table were two candles lighted at prayer-time by Newman himself; and necessary, for Newman had veiled the window and walls with his favourite red hangings. Of an altar there was no pretence; the village church at Littlemore being Newman's own during the first years of his residence. A board ran up the centre of the chapel, and in a row on either side stood the disciples for the recitation of Divine Office; "the Vicar" standing by himself a little apart. The Days and {58} Hours of the Catholic Church were duly kept; and the only alterations made in the Office was that the saints were invoked with a modification of Newman's making—the Ora pro nobis being changed in recitation to Oret.

Among the visitors to Littlemore, the year before the visit, was Father Dominic himself. He came, passing through Oxford, and presented himself at Newman's door as one watching with keen interest Anglican development in Christian doctrine. "A little more grace was needed!" he said. An Italian, new to the language, was permitted the pun. Newman took him to Littlemore church; and there the Father fell on his knees, doubtless to pray for the happy issue of these strange workings of divine grace in the heart of Oxford—in the heart of the very flower of the University which Protestantism had appropriated, and fenced in, and planted about [Note 4].

If on the night of October 8, 1845, any dons or proctors were prying round the "monastery" (even Newman could not persist in calling it a "parsonage-house" after he had ceased to be the parson), they must have seen a strange sight—a {59} "monk" indeed! Father Dominic, the Passionist, was that night to reach the consummation of those hopes he had held almost from the days when he watched his sheep on the Apennines: those hopes that he might get to northern Europe and preach to Protestantism the full Gospel of CHRIST. The years passed, and the shepherd lad found himself a priest, and was sent to England—and to Aston in Staffordshire. And now Dalgairns, who had already been received by Father Dominic at Aston, and who had returned to find "the Vicar" at the last gasp of Anglicanism, and Ambrose St. John also reconciled to the Church by Monsignor Brindle at Prior Park, suggested that the Passionist should again visit Littlemore. He came, dripping wet from his journey through torrents of rain. "Remember the guard, sir," petitioned the streaming guard as the passenger alighted from the coach outside the "Mitre." "Yes," said the Father, much edified, "I will remember you in my Mass." Newman knelt before him. The Father bade the neophyte rise, "conscious," says one of his friends, "of a great miracle of grace."

Father Dominic, after spending some hours in Newman's "cell," visited Bowles and Stanton (a young clergyman, formerly of Brasenose, who had resigned his living to come to Littlemore), both to be received with Newman. The padre's bow to the Pietą—it was a German coloured print—as he entered Bowles's room, was a part of his pious {60} simplicity. Newman said of him he had met no one in whom so much simplicity combined with so much shrewdness—a common Italian type which he must have encountered often enough afterwards. "My dear brother," Father Dominic began to Bowles, "I am surprised that you should dwell in a Church which has no ideas." What followed is hardly remembered now; but need for controversy there was none. The watering and the planting and the grafting (a great deal of that) had been done: now came the harvesting.

One little incident may be recorded as almost comic. On the evening before their reception into the Church, Father Dominic went into the chapel with the catechumens and recited Office with them. But when they came to the record of how St. Denis, after his martyrdom, put his head under his arm and walked about, Father Dominic cried, "Stop," and skipped it over. He thought such legends might be a difficulty to beginners. But he did not know his men; for who was more familiar with miracles and the authority assigned to them than the author of those Essays which had made Macaulay exclaim, "The times require a Middleton"? [Note 5] {61}

The three neophytes, when they entered the curious chapel for their reception, stood in a line together. Function there was none; and Ritualism hid her head. The bowl of baptism was of domestic, not of ecclesiastical, pattern; and all else was of a piece.

Then Father Dominic gave a little address, saying his Nunc dimittis. Dalgairns and St. John went into Oxford, to the primitive Catholic chapel—St. Clement's—and borrowed from the old priest, Father Newsham, an altar-stone and vestments, so that Father Dominic might say Mass the next morning for the first and only time at Littlemore. At that Mass the neophytes received their First Communion. The fervour of Father Dominic, when he made his thanksgiving, greatly impressed the converts, who had not been accustomed in Anglicanism to witness emotion in public prayer.

Oakeley, one of Newman's young disciples, who subsequently exchanged the Anglican ministry for the Catholic priesthood, tells the tale of the day after: "It was a memorable day, that 9th of October, 1845. The rain came down in torrents, bringing with it the first heavy instalment of autumn's sear and yellow leaves. The wind, like a spent giant, howled forth the expiring notes of its equinoctial fury. The superstitious might have said that the very elements were on the side of Anglicanism—so copiously did they weep, so piteously bemoan the approaching departure of its great representative. {62} The bell which swung visibly in the turret of the little Gothic church at Littlemore gave that day the usual notice of morning and afternoon prayers; but it came to the ear in that buoyant, bouncing tone which is usual in a high wind, and sounded like a knell rather than a summons. The monastery was more than usually sombre and still. Egress and ingress there were none that day; for it had been given out, among friends accustomed to visit there, that Mr. Newman 'wished to remain quiet.' One of these friends who resided in the neighbourhood, had been used to attend the evening 'Office' in the oratory of the house, but he was forbidden to come 'for two or three days, for reasons which would be explained later.' The ninth of the month passed off without producing any satisfa6tion to the general curiosity. All that transpired was that a remarkable-looking man, evidently a foreigner and shabbily dressed in black, had asked his way to Mr. Newman's on the day but one before; and the rumour was that he was a Catholic priest. In the course of a day or two the friend before mentioned was readmitted to the evening Office, and found that a change had come over it. The Latin was pronounced for the first time in the Roman way, and the antiphons of our Lady, which up to that day had always been omitted, came out in their proper place. The friend in question would have asked the reason of these changes, but it was forbidden to speak to any of {63} the community after night prayers. Very soon the mystery was cleared up by Mr. Newman and his companions appearing at Mass in the public chapel at Oxford."

Father Dominic left at the end of a three days' visit. As he went back to Oxford, he must have recalled a passage in the life of the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross. It tells how he fell into a trance, at the end of which he was asked what vision he had seen, and answered, "Oh, the wonderful works of my children in England!" Confessor and penitent met once again at Maryvale. But the Passionist had done his work. In 1849 he was travelling by rail, with one companion, when his mortal illness seized him, and he died upon the platform of Reading station, blessing England with his latest breath. By some chance—little knowing they were fulfilling the holy man's prayer that he might, like his LORD, die in desolation—the people who were near, and who might have helped him, feared some infection, held aloof and refused shelter to his corse. Thus died this lover of our country, the humble apostle who reconciled to the Catholic Church him whom her Head afterwards named "the Light of England."

For four months after his conversion Newman remained at Littlemore. It was a strange period. The converts went down daily to Oxford to Mass—regarded, one cannot say as "lions," rather as donkeys. They took the path through the fields to {64} escape the public gaze. There is a fine church in Oxford now, and there are Jesuits to man it. But the old St. Clement's was almost comic in its insufficiencies. One announcement made on Sunday was: "Confessions will be heard on Saturday afternoon in the arbour." The arbour in some way communicated with the school-room; and a penitent of the party repairing thither, feeling all the first shyness of a never anything but shy proceeding, found an unexpected embarrassment. Just as the critical moment came, he heard the young barbarians stop their play to listen. "Hush," said the leader, "he's going to begin." There was at least the precedent of the early Church, when confession was publicly made. Father Newsham walked over to Littlemore, and during his call was perpetually breaking out into ripples of laughter. Newman was a little sore about it. "What did he find so funny about us?" he asked, when the visitor went. The reassuring truth leaked out: the good priest was so overjoyed, he could not contain himself. At last grace had done its work, and he had as his parishioner at St. Clement's the great Mr. Newman of St. Mary's. Other visitors came, among them the Provincial of the Jesuits with a proposition. The Society in Malta had a work in hand, and would the converts help in it?—an apostolate in Timbuctoo! Then came partings, the 'severest that ever voluntarily were; with Mr. Pattison and Mr. Lewis, one of whom followed Newman to Rome at leisure, and Mr. Church, afterwards Dean of St. Paul's. "You may think how lonely I am. We are leaving Littlemore, and it is like going on the open sea." [Note 6]

Twenty-two years later (the story is given on the authority and almost in the words of Mr. Wilfrid Wilberforce, a son of Henry, Newman's great friend), a groom in the employ of the aforesaid Mr. Crawley, to whom Newman sold his acres when he left, noticed two men standing near the lych-gate of Littlemore Church. One, the elder, wore a long overcoat, and his hat was drawn over his face as if to conceal his features. He was crying bitterly, and seemed to be in great distress. The groom instantly came to the conclusion that it was none other than Newman, and hastened with the news to his master, who was ill in bed. Mr. Crawley bade him go again to the church to make certain. The two men were in the churchyard, and, on the question being asked, "Are you a friend of Mr. Crawley?" Newman, for it was he, again burst into tears. "Mr. Crawley wishes to see you, sir," said the groom, "but he is too ill to leave his room; will you please to come {66} and see him?" "Oh no, oh no!" exclaimed Newman. His companion, Father Ambrose St. John, tried again to persuade him, but he only repeated earnestly "Oh no!" At length Father St. John told the groom to carry back word to his master that Dr. Newman would come presently; and Dr. Newman did.

Top | Contents | Biographies | Home


1. Mark Pattison, in his self-torturing sensitiveness, had supposed, "Up to 1838 the only sentiment Newman can have entertained towards me was one of antipathy."
Return to text

2. The future Rosminian, William Lockhart, was not at the dinner-table. He had gone on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Gilbert of Sempringham, and on that journey joined the Catholic Church.
Return to text

3. She shared her son's happiness in becoming a Catholic a little later.
Return to text

4. Father Dawson, O.M.I., told me he felt a little strange when, years afterwards, he found himself impelled to kneel in the same place. He did not know he was but doing what Father Dominic had done. And Mr. F. W. Grey, a grandson given by the great Lord Grey to the Faith, writes, "Silently we knelt in the deserted temple and prayed that its LORD and Master, banished for 300 years, might quickly return to it again."
Return to text

5. Four years later, when the Oratorian Series of Saints' Lives began to be published, the convert editors found themselves discountenanced in their love of legend by old Catholics; and the series was temporarily stopped by Newman after it had been accused, in Dolman's Magazine, of reducing hagiology to a string of "unmeaning puerilities." Newman himself hinted afterwards that he had been led into extravagances by "younger men."
Return to text

6. In the Apologia, written nearly twenty years later, the Cardinal speaks of spending the last two days at Littlemore "simply by myself"—a slip of memory. Father Bowles informs me that he himself was there till the end; and into his room Newman came each evening and fell asleep in his chair, worn out with the day's packing. On their last night in Oxford, Newman slept "at my dear friend's, Mr. Johnson's, at the Observatory," as also did Father Bowles. "But then," Father Bowles added, "I am nobody."
Return to text

Top | Contents | Biographies | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2004 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.