FR JOHN HENRY Newman began his mission to the poorest people of Birmingham in a disused gin factory situated in Alcester Street, Birmingham, in February 1849, writes Peter Jennings.
This ministry was vividly recalled during a special evening Mass of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated at St Anne’s, Alcester Street, on April 22. The church is situated less than half a mile from the Bull Ring shopping complex.
Bishop Gilles Cazabon OMI, Emeritus Bishop of St Jerome, Quebec, Canada, was the principal celebrant.
Fr Conor Murphy OMI, Parish Priest of St Anne’s (who had recently broken his right arm and was in obvious discomfort), Fr Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and Postulator of the Newman Cause, and Fr Douglas Lamb, parish priest of St Ambrose, Kidderminster, and a member of the executive committee of the Friends of Cardinal Newman, also concelebrated. In place of a sermon, Fr Chavasse gave a historical talk on “Fr John Henry Newman’s ministry at Alcester Street, Birmingham, 1849-1852”.
The congregation listened intently.
Fr Chavasse said: “Three years out of the life of John Henry Newman is what we gather to commemorate here at St Anne’s this evening, three years during which the Oratory of St Philip Neri took root here in this great city of Birmingham.” Fr Chavasse reminded the congregation that the anniversary of the Oratory’s foundation is always kept on February 1, for at Vespers on that day at Maryvale (situated near St Mary’s College, Oscott) Fr Newman inaugurated the new community. It was exactly a year later, on February 2 1849, that he opened the chapel in Alcester Street, occupying premises which had originally been a gin distillery.
“From Sunday February 4 1849,” Fr Chavasse continued, “the first Sunday of the new mission’s life, the chapel was filled to overflowing. The poverty of the people did not prevent them coming to church – although Newman does write of the accompanying smells and bugs – and the work of the mission increased rapidly.
“In the first week the Fathers started giving instructions in the faith, some 40 children and 20 adults turned up; by the summer of 1849 over 100 children were coming to each session. Four sermons were preached every Sunday and a lecture on the faith was given each weekday evening.
“Thoughts turned to the opening of a school, but it was difficult to realise as most city children over the age of seven were at work until eight in the evening. Most of the day’s parish work was undertaken either very early in the morning or in the evening. Confessions sometimes went on until 10.30pm.” After Mass the congregation was invited to a buffet hosted by John Morris of Trident Housing Association, whose building, Cherish House, is opposite the church. During his visit to England Bishop Gilles Cazabon OMI visited the Birmingham Oratory, celebrating Mass in the chapel in Newman’s room.