Our History

The Foundation:

The Newman Society: The Oxford University Catholic Society is the University’s oldest Catholic institution and one of its oldest student societies. Founded first as the ‘Catholic Club’ in 1878, it was not until 1888 that the club was renamed the Newman Society, due to the gracious permission of Cardinal Newman himself.

Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, c. 1888. Portrait in crayon, held at the Oxford Oratory

Our founder, Hartwell de la Garde Grissell (1839-1907), also an Anglican convert, was a Papal Chamberlain and close friend of popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, and St Pius X. A loyal son of the Church, he worked hard and under considerable pressure — from both within and without the Church — to promote the Catholic faith in the ancient University, which he had attended as an undergraduate at Brasenose. He was also an avid collector and part of his relic collection resides at the Oxford Oratory.

The Society’s Lost 1893 Statue of St Peter — at once a proud and painful history — can be read here.

Meetings of the Society originally took place at the parish church of St Aloysius Gonzaga (now the Oxford Oratory) or in members’ college rooms. Speakers were frequently undergraduates and topics were wide-ranging. Quoting from surviving minute books, former University Chaplain, the late Mgr Walter Drumm notes:

The founding Committee and early members, pictured outside the Oxford Oratory, c. 1878.

N.B.: Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (second from left); Hartwell de la Garde Grissell (4th from left, standing); the inaugural president, Oliver Vassall-Philips (front seated, third from left).

“At the twenty-fourth meeting, on 2 November 1890, Mr Parry (University College) read a paper on ‘Lake Dwellings in Switzerland’. ‘A desultory discussion followed, most of the speakers professing ignorance of the subject’.

Mr Urquhart read a paper on ‘Christian Socialists in France’ and Lord Westmeath on ‘De Quincy and Opium Eating’.

Hilaire Belloc was probably the best known of the early members of the Newman; on 11 June 1893, when he was still an undergraduate at Balliol, he spoke on ‘The Church and the Republic’.”

Moving to the Chaplaincy:

When the Catholic Chaplaincy was established in 1896 — then known as the University Catholic Oratory — the Society found a natural home there, often meeting in the Chaplain’s rooms. The same year also saw the Society’s hundredth meeting on 18 June 1896. As Mgr Drumm further remarks, Bishop Ilsley of Birmingham, the Duke of Norfolk and thirty-two guests gathered at the Clarendon Hotel, which was ‘practically the whole membership’, to consume ‘at 10/- per head: lobster bisque, sole dauphinoise, poussin (method of cooking unstated), gateaux and fromage.’ The New York Times reported the dinner, observing that ‘the real point of the festivity… was not its apparent occasion. The main topic was the final settlement… of the long-contested question of the recognition by the Roman Church of the education of Catholics… at Oxford and Cambridge.’

The minutes for the period 1898 to 1907 have unfortunately been lost and the records of the Newman are very sparse until the 1940s, from which period several term-cards have survived. However, as Mgr Drumm has emphasised, what records do remain all point to the fact that the Newman was, as it remains today, central to Catholic life in Oxford:

“…we can see from the earliest records that the newly arrived undergraduate at the turn of the [20th] century would have been welcomed not only by his chaplain… but by his fellows who met at the Newman.”

The Knox Era, or the Brideshead years:

A projected Gothic chapel at the Old Palace. Drawing by H. Mullett, Architect, Cambridge, 1916. Found in Mgr Walter Drumm’s ‘The Old Palace: A history of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Oxford‘. Oscott: Veritas Publications, 1991, p. 107, ill. 125.

Following the upheaval of the First World War, during which an entire generation — and indeed many Catholic sons — was decimated, efforts to renew Chaplaincy life saw several architectural plans considered, including a magnificent Gothic chapel. Ultimately, however, due to cost and lack of interest, this design remains consigned to the archives of ‘what might have been’.

By 1926, when Fr Ronald Knox became chaplain to the University, the Society frequently attracted important figures from cultural and political life. Meetings took place in the ‘Long Room’ on the first floor of the extended section of the Old Palace, built in 1931, then known as the ‘Newman Room’. Such was the Newman’s importance that it even laid claim to some of the Old Palace’s furniture; Knox records that the Newman Room’s ‘larger sofa… was presented to the Society by Mgr Barnes, who assured me that it was the sofa on which his father proposed marriage to his mother.’

The Chapel and Newman Room constructed in 1931. Drawing by Harry Gibberd for J. Arnold Crush of Birmingham Architect, 1930. Found in Drumm, ‘The Old Palace’, p. 107, ill. 31.

During Knox’s period as Chaplain, meetings were generally held on Sunday evenings. In a description of a typical Sunday, Knox wrote:

Mgr Ronald Knox, c. 1930s.

“At five or ten minutes to seven the Newman speaker, duly washed, must be taken off to whatever club the Committee is dining at. He and the Committee must be lugged back to the Old Palace about 8.10 and given port in the chaplain’s room. The chaplain will keep a look-out to see when the members have mostly arrived (he may even send an S.O.S. to Campion to ask if a few people will turn up and conceal the sparsity of attendance); then he will take the Committee down to the Newman Room… and come to roost in a comfortable chair if he can still find one. During the five-minute interval after the paper, the chaplain invites one or two of the more distinguished people present… to come up after the meeting. During question-time he tries to keep things going… The visitors probably retire at eleven or soon after and the chaplain (unless he has the speaker to entertain) can now enjoy his own company.”

When Mgr Knox finally retired in 1939, his impact on the Newman Society and Catholic life in Oxford had been so significant that his farewell included ‘a dinner at the Randolph Hotel at which the Newman Society presented him with an early folio of the Douai Bible, a silver mug, a watercolour of the Old Palace, and £50.’ His involvement with the society was not over, however. Women had been admitted to Oxford in 1920, and became members of the Newman Society and of the congregation at the Old Palace in 1941, having previously been cared for by a separate chaplaincy, housed at what is now part of Linacre College.

Knox, who had been called on to return to Oxford but was unenthusiastic, proposed the merger of the two chaplaincies to the Archbishop of Birmingham as a solution to the unexpected vacancy he was being asked to fill; as a confidant, Evelyn Waugh, would later put it, Knox ‘was the author of the temporary amalgamation, which persists to this day’ — namely, a mixed chaplaincy.

In 1945 the Newman was sufficiently established to merit two mentions in Waugh’s own “Oxford novel”, Brideshead Revisited. The first reference comes in the course of Lady Marchmain’s comments to Charles Ryder about her son, Sebastian: ‘I want Sebastian to have all sorts of friends, not just one. Monsignor Bell tells me he never mixes with the other Catholics, never goes to the Newman, very rarely goes to Mass even. Heaven forbid that he should only know Catholics, but he must know some.’

The Postwar:

The Society participated in the refurbishing of the Chaplaincy which followed the Second World War; with Newman funds purchase was made of ‘a new wireless set and an electrically operated gramophone’. For several years, Mass was celebrated in a large corrugated-iron shed-cum-hangar.

Socially, the Newman continued to reflect the character of the Catholicism of Oxford students. Baroness Williams of Crosby has recorded that while she ‘went occasionally to the Newman Society’, she ‘was never part of the exclusive Catholic groups, usually young men and women from distinguished recusant families.’ Francis Muir has written of being introduced (by then-chaplain Mgr Valentine Elwes) to Elizabeth Jennings at a ‘Newman Society bun-fight’ during this period.

The academic year 1956-7 saw the Society hosting a disputation conducted by Oxford’s Dominicans, an event repeated to much acclaim in both Hilary and Michaelmas 2014, with a further disputation in 2019. In 1959 the Society held a dinner at which the Vice-Chancellor was represented, alongside the Archbishop of Westminster, His Eminence William Cardinal Godfrey. The latter — somewhat surprisingly — took the opportunity to announce the resignation of Mgr Elwes.

Post-conciliar days:

Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the 1970s proved a turbulent decade in the life of the Church. Karl Rahner SJ, who loomed large in the theological battles of the period, was one of several high-profile speakers at the Newman whose presence served to underline the era’s changes. The situation at the Chaplaincy, then under the authority of Fr Crispian Hollis, was bleak, as the system of catechetical Sunday sermons — established in the time of Ronald Knox for the purpose of promoting students’ doctrinal and spiritual formation — collapsed.

In the midst of widespread ignorance, doctrinal confusion, and moral rebellion, the Newman staked out its position in 1973, hosting an address by Elizabeth Anscombe titled “Contraception, Sin and Natural Law” – a philosophical defence of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on artificial birth control (Humanae Vitae). Yet the Society was not so inflexible as to refuse to accommodate some new social realities; a 1972 term-card expressed the hope ‘that activists, gnomes, ravers and potential saints will be inspired by this… term’s programme.’

By 1982 fashions had changed again, so that the year of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic voyage to Britain also saw the Newman organising a “Boaters and Bloomers” event – a prize being offered for the ‘best Brideshead dress’. The Pope’s visit was itself advertised by one enterprising president as a Newman Society event: Oxonians were informed that ‘His Holiness the Pope will address Newman Society members and others in Coventry.’

The Millennium:

H.E. George Cardinal Pell AC, delivering the inaugural revived St Thomas More Lecture, 6 March 2009. Photo credit: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

In 1990, the Newman ceased to be the University’s sole Catholic society, following the creation of the O.U. Catholic Society by the Chaplains. The Newman continued to play a significant role in Catholic life in Oxford, however, and in 1996 the Society organised a Sarum Rite Mass for the feast of the Translation of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford. Another such Mass was organised by members in 1997, for the feast of Candlemas, and video-recorded at Keble College.

Following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the Newman Society and its events appeared in the Catholic and secular press on a number of occasions. In November 2007, following Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (confirming the time-immemorial use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), the Society organised a High Mass according to the 1962 Missal to mark the centenary of co-founder Hartwell de la Garde Grissell’s death.

In March 2009, the annual St Thomas More Lecture was revived, having lain dormant for several years. The Society welcomed His Eminence George Cardinal Pell AC, to deliver a lecture on religious and secular intolerance and its implications for Christian witness in the contemporary age. This widely-publicised and well-attended talk was held at the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library. Cardinal Pell’s visit also included a formal dinner at Keble College, Solemn Vespers at Merton College, and a Votive Mass at the Oxford Oratory in intercession for Newman’s beatification, which was ultimately realised the following year during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England.

Other speakers during this period included best-selling author Piers Paul Read, Baroness Williams of Crosby, Fr Aidan Nichols O.P., Sir Anthony Kenny, Fr Thomas Weinandy O.F.M. Cap., Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk, and the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe DSG.

The Society Today:

In October 2012 Oxford’s two Catholic societies were merged, as a result of a twofold need to unite the distinguished heritage of the Newman Society with the Catholic Society, and ultimately to bring together the Catholic students of the University under one banner.

The newly-merged Society resolved to continue the St Thomas More Lecture and this is now held annually. Only weeks after its amalgamation, the Society acted as autumn host of the Catholic Societies of the Southern Universities in November 2012 and in 2013, the Society welcomed, among others, Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’s literary executor and secretary, and the Primate of All Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Rt. Rev. Eamon Martin.

More recently, the Society has welcomed HI&RH Archduke Imre of Austria, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, representatives of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Mgr John Armitage of the Walsingham Shrine, as well as Fr Manfred Deselaers of the Auschwitz Centre for Dialogue and Prayer and Lord Alton of Liverpool.

2019: The Canonisation of our Patron, St John Henry Cardinal Newman, Cong. Orat.

On 13th October 2019 in Rome, Our Holy Father Pope Francis canonised St John Henry Newman. Members of the Newman Society were privileged to be able to attend some of the events in Rome to mark this momentous occasion, including the Mass of Canonisation itself at St Peter’s Basilica, musical oratories at the Chiesa Nuova and Santa Maria Maggiore, and an exhibition on Newman’s life at the Venerable English College.

Closer to home, an all-night vigil was organised by the Society at Trinity College, where Newman was an undergraduate, on the eve of the canonisation. A series of commemorative prayer cards were also printed. Bishop Robert Barron gave a lecture entitled “Newman and the New Evangelisation” at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin organised by the Oxford Oratory and Cardinal Müller attended Evensong in thanksgiving for the canonisation at the University Church, at which the Archbishop of Birmingham preached.