How Cardinal John Henry Newman came to be considered as a saint
Sep 17 2010 By Kat Keogh
Kat Keogh uncovers the story of Cardinal Newman, a humble man revered by many – and finally on the road to sainthood.
The massive pilgrimage to Birmingham is under way.
Tens of thousands of Catholics will converge on Cofton Park for the historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday.
The Pontiff’s visit will see the beatification of Cardinal Newman, the Victorian cardinal who founded the Birmingham Oratory.
Credited with curing an American clergyman of a crippling spinal disorder, the cardinal’s beatification will set him on the road to becoming the first non-martyred English saint since the Reformation.
Today schools and colleges across the region may bear his name, but to those outside the Catholic fold, the name John Henry Newman remains a mystery.
For instance, what was it that he did or said which so moved two brothers who lived and worked as servants at The Oratory House on Hagley Road?
Fr Dominic Innamorati, now parish priest of St John & Martin in Balsall Heath, regrets he was too young to ask his two uncles what was so impressive about their employer, later to become Cardinal Newman.
“When I was a small boy, growing up with my family in Stirchley, I’d hear my uncles talking, telling my family, ‘That Father Newman is a saint, a real saint.’
“Sadly, I was too young to take their words in and ask them to explain how they felt. But I grew up taking it almost for granted that Fr Newman was holy. It was one of those facts, in our family, that we took almost for granted. I’d give a lot to have my uncles back for five minutes so I could ask them what gave them that notion of Fr Newman’s goodness.”
There was always something special about the then-Fr Newman. What else could explain why a down-to-earth husband and wife, probably Protestants, took their children from their small home in Witton Road, Aston, to hear him preach a homily that would result in the whole family being received into the Catholic Church?
This couple were the great-grandparents of Dr Christina Byrne, a retired paediatrician now living in Shropshire.
“My great-grandfather was John Howell, from Wiltshire, my great-grandmother Emily Gardiner, from Somerset. From their birth dates, I guess both came to Birmingham as the Industrial Revolution swept England,” says Dr Byrne.
They had six boys and a girl. John worked as a joiner, at one stage helping to build the big Post Office in Victoria Square in Birmingham. The puzzle about the family at that stage – and we will never solve it now – was what interested a working-class family so much that they turned out to hear Fr Newman preach? What was it about him that captured their imaginations so much that they were all converted to Catholicism at a time when, generally speaking, members of the Catholic Church were seen as misguided, to say the least?
“My grandmother, John and Emily’s youngest child and only daughter, was about 12 at the time the family heard Fr Newman and couldn’t remember where he was preaching.
“Something at the back of my mind says it was in Birmingham Town Hall, but I can’t be sure of that. We’ve got to remember that, until the Catholic Church became ‘respectable’ after the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, there were few Catholic churches and no cathedrals.
“I have old photographs of Emily as a young woman in about 1887, when she was a student-teacher at St Joseph’s Catholic School in Nechells. That makes it likely her parents, her brothers and Emily looked on St Joseph’s as their parish church and were all baptised as Catholics there.”
A prized possession of Dr Byrne is Emily’s prayer book, in which she had copied down her favourite hymns and poems. As a child, Dr Byrne loved sitting beside her to leaf through this, reading the hymns. Emily married a printer, Henry John Marcussohn, in a Catholic church in Wiltshire. He wasn’t a Catholic at that stage but soon became one.
Cardinal Newman, says Dr Byrne, is regarded by many, completely erroneously, as a rather dry academic and theologian. “That disappoints me because it just can’t be right,” she says. ”My forebears felt his magnetism and they certainly weren’t intellectuals.” She says also that the cardinal was known as a very kind man as he got to know families in Ladywood – hardly a hang-out for bibliophiles and philosophers in the late 19th century.
Other mysteries abound, including rumours Cardinal Newman was a closet homosexual, claims which feature in a new biography by former seminarian John Cornwell.
In Newman’s Unquiet Grave, Cornwell, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, recounts how Cardinal Newman’s final wish was to be buried beside lifelong friend Fr Ambrose St John, prompting speculation that the two were involved in a homosexual relationship.
Weeks before his death in 1890, Cardinal Newman wrote in his will: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave ... I give this as my last, my imperative will.”
Born into a religious family in 1801, Cardinal Newman attended Great Ealing School in London, where he is said to have preferred Bible study to sport. After graduating from Trinity College, Oxford, he was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1824, but scandalised Victorian society when he defected to Rome and became a Catholic in 1845.
His lifelong friendship with Father St John began shortly before his conversion, and the pair lived and worked together for more than 30 years.
Cornwell’s book uses correspondence by Cardinal Newman to show his feelings of loss following his friend’s death in 1875. Among his many letters to friends, the cardinal wrote: “I praise God for having given me 32 years not merely an affectionate friend, but a help and stay as a guardian from above might be, making my path easy to me in difficulties, and cheering me by his sunny presence, as Raphael took the weight upon him of Tobias.
“I cannot think how I could have done anything without him, and, as knowing how timorous and utterly unready I am, therefore doubtless God gave him to me. Just when all friends Protestant and Converts were removed from me, and I had to stand alone, he came to me as Ruth to Naomi.”