Newman's Years in Littlemore
By Sr. Bianca Feuerstein FSO
Littlemore is approximately three miles away from the city centre of Oxford and was a poor hamlet in Newman’s time. When Newman became Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1828, he accepted along with this task the pastoral care of Littlemore which had been part of the parish for many centuries. The village owes to Newman the building of the Anglican church of St Mary and St Nicholas, as well as the building of a school. In 1841 Newman chose to live at Littlemore to help him find an answer in his search for the truth. He leased a former coach staging post and transformed the long-stretched building into a house adapted to his needs. The stable was converted into a library, and the barn into cottages. This house would later be called “The College”.
There Newman and his friends lived a semi-monastic life of prayer, study and fasting. Newman himself wrote about this period of time: “… as I made Littlemore a place of retirement for myself, so did I offer it to others…” (J.H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Longmans, Green & Co, London 1908, 176f.). After an intense period of interior struggle, Newman was received into the Catholic Church by the Passionist Fr Dominic Barberi in The College on 9th October 1845.
Littlemore was crucial on Newman’s journey to sainthood. During his time as pastor of Littlemore, he learned how to serve his poor parishioners and how to show them the way to God. While living there, he understood God’s will for him and received an answer to his prayers.
Bl. Dominic Barberi, too, was crucial on this road. He was a sign for Newman that he should join the Catholic Church. On 23rd February 1841, Newman had written to his friend and curate J.R. Bloxam in a fascinating letter (which is worthwhile reading in its entirety):
“Rome must change first of all in her spirit. I must see more sanctity in her than I do at present. Alas! I see no marks of sanctity … If they want to convert England, let them go barefooted into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people like St Francis Xavier, let them be pelted and trampled on – and I will own that they can do what we cannot; I will confess that they are our betters far … Their success rests with themselves. The English never will be favourably inclined to a plotting intriguing party – but faith and holiness are irresistible.” (LD VIII, 42 f.)
When Dominic Barberi and his Passionist confreres arrived in England – their first house opened on 17 th February 1842, a year after Newman’s passionate letter to Bloxam– Newman’s wish began to become reality. Dominic Barberi suffered just what Newman described. He was “pelted” with stones, he preached in the poor industrial areas of England and suffered tremendously as an apostle. He wrote about his beginnings in England:
“Crosses and difficulties multiply so quickly and seem so endless, that I felt myself at the last extremity, and was about to go back to Italy. God has assisted me up to this, and I hope he will continue to do so. Ah! my God, my God, how much I have to suffer! Although I have been preparing myself for imaginary trials for twenty-eight years, I find that I was not half well enough prepared for the dire reality. The will of God alone keeps me up. I am here because God so willed it from eternity. Blessed be his holy name.” (The Rev. Pius Devine, Life of the Very Rev. Father Dominic of the Mother of God, Washbourne, London 1889, 160f.)
When Newman met Dominic Barberi briefly on 24 th June 1844, he encountered what he had longed to see in the Catholic Church: sanctity. In his diary, he only wrote: “Father Dominic called” (LD X, 285). But to Mrs. Bowden he wrote, on the evening of his reception into the Church:
“I have seen the Padre once, on St John Baptist’s Day last year, when I showed him the Chapel here. … He is a shrewd clever man, but as unaffected and simple as a child; and most singularly kind in his thoughts of religious persons in our communion. I wish all persons were as charitable as I know him to be. … I believe him to be a very holy man.” ( D XI, 5 f.)
One year prior to his own death, Cardinal Newman was asked to witness to the holiness of Dominic Barberi whose Cause for Sainthood had been opened. He wrote (to be precise as he was already too weak to write himself: he dictated a letter and signed it) on 2nd October 1889:
“My dear Lord Cardinal, Thank you for the interest you express in a case which is very dear to me, as is well recognised by the Passionist Fathers. Certainly Fr. Dominic of the Mother of God was a most striking missioner and preacher and he had great part in my own conversion and in that of others. His very look had a holy aspect which when his figure came in sight in my circle most singularly affected me, and his remarkable bonhomie in the midst of his sanctity was in itself a real and holy preaching. No wonder, then, I became his convert and penitent. He was a great lover of England. I grieved at his sudden death, and I thought and hoped he would receive from Rome the ‘aureola’ of a Saint as is now to be” (LD XXX, 276 f.).
These words beautifully sum up Bl. Dominic’s influence on Newman. Let us pray and hope that Newman’s Canonisation will speed Dominic Barberi on his way to becoming a canonised Saint.