28May

Newman’s pews

St. John Henry Newman is patron Saint of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. A great intellect he famously converted from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church. Part of this journey saw him wrestle with his conscience at Littlemore in Oxford. And as of today a little bit of Littlemore is housed at St. Anselm’s. Read on to discover more…its unbelievably exciting! No, it is more than that, it is miraculous and providential.

When, in 1828, Newman, as an Anglican, became Vicar of the University Church he accepted pastoral care of Littlemore, a poor hamlet some three miles from Oxford city centre. In the next few years he built there the Anglican church of St Mary and St Nicholas as well as a school.

In 1841, starting to feel a pull towards Rome, Newman withdrew from public life to live at Littlemore as he discerned God’s call. He leased an old coach house and settled into a semi-monastic life. After an intense period of interior struggle, in 1845, Newman was finally received into the Catholic Church, at Littlemore, by Blessed Dominic Barberi, whose relic is now housed in our Lady Chapel at St. Anselm’s. See how Littlemore was crucial to Newman’s journey to sainthood.

Rewind one year, and in a letter written on his 43rd birthday, Newman informed his friend John Bowden ‘We have got our new oak benches into the chapel (at Littlemore) and you cannot fancy what a great improvement it is’, he enthused. This ‘reseating’, as he called it, was the last in a series of internal changes made by Newman which raised eyebrows because they were designed in deliberate Catholic style. Unlike Protestant box pews, which mask the church, these pews were low allowing one to see the high altar at all times. They were designed by hand, commissioned, purchased and installed at Littlemore by Newman himself.

Beautifying churches, as we have done at Pembury, was important to Newman. ‘What  I shall say’, Littlemore’s congregation were told in one of his first sermons, ‘will help ‘turn this church into a living book, a holy book, which you may look at and read, and which suggest to you many good thoughts of God and heaven’. The pews were important to Newman then and they stayed in that church until this very year when they were removed as part of a modernisation project. So what happens to them next?

Well those pews, the very ones Newman designed, commissioned and placed in his Church in Littlemore, the year before he converted to Catholicism, have been given a new home. Thanks to the generosity of the Anglican parish of Littlemore, 14 of them have been given to our parish in Pembury. I can’t quite believe it; a little bit of Littlemore now resides at St. Anselm’s. God be praised! How fitting that these pews have found their way into the Ordinariate. It is providential.

Today Fr. Nicholas and I unloaded them from a lorry. They are coated in dust and debris and require restoration and cleaning. Because they were buttressed to a wall, and one end was raised up on a step, they will need the love of a carpenter to make them fit for purpose.

If you want to help us meet the cost of transportation, restoration and cleaning, and support our ongoing mission in this place, then please donate via this link. I want to end with a huge thank you to those who already have donated. Ours is a small parish ever reliant on such generosity. Like Littlemore we are a tiny English hamlet where God is doing extraordinary things…

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3 thoughts on “Newman’s pews

  1. Truly an inspiring and generous gift which will always link your church to Newman.

    On another tack, I came upon this item. The video link is about half way down the page. It is clear that those contributing come from different religious backgrounds but the message is that despite differences we can join together in prayer. I find the hymn very inspiring especially so when I learned that the opening in the original referred to ‘my two eyes’ and not ‘vision’and is asking The Lord to let us see as he would have us see.
    https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/0531/1143647-ancient-irish-hymn/

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