Monastery of the Visitation


Ruth Gledhill      Religion Correspondent for the Times

A cache of letters hidden for more than a century and revealing a close friendship between John Henry Newman and an English nun has been unveiled just weeks before the Cardinal’s beatification by the Pope in Birmingham. The letters show a human side to the priest, who wrote thousands of letters as well as books, a novel and poetry. Up to 70,000 people will attend the Mass that represents the Anglican convert’s penultimate step before fully fledged sainthood at Cofton Park in Rednal in September.

Newman baptised Mary Bowden, the daughter of one of his best friends, John Bowden, from his Oxford days, when he was an Anglican cleric. He remained close to her as she grew up. They both became Roman Catholics, she two years after him and he one year after John Bowden’s death in 1844. He oversaw her entry into the Monastery of the Visitation, then in Westbury and now at Waldron in Sussex, and witnessed her profession as Sister Dominica. He wrote to her frequently in the monastery and was distraught when she died from tuberculosis at the age of 37, when he was provost of the Birmingham Oratory.

The Times has seen the letters, preserved by the nuns who in the past were the official restorers for historic documents held at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, Lambeth Palace, along with a signed photograph that Newman gave her.

The order of the Visitation influenced Newman throughout his life and from its co-founder, the patron saint of journalists Francis de Sales, he took his motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur or Heart Speaks to Heart.

The letters have been analysed by a member of the monastery’s congregation, Peter Biddlecombe, who reports his findings in a paper published today on The Times religion blog Articles of Faith.

“We all know he was one of the greatest letter writers of all time,” he said. “We all know that practically from childhood, he wrote no end of private, literary, religious as well as business letters. Estimates put the total at over 20,000. If they were printed, they would comprise more than 30 volumes of closely packed text.”

Newman wrote to Sister Dominica that she was “one of my most faithful friends”. Her letters, he said, were “always a pleasure to me to read”. When she died, he wrote: “She was young and I am old and she is taken before me. May I follow her and my soul be with hers!”

In his 3,000-word sermon at her profession, he said: “You, then, my dear child, I have known almost from your birth . . . I baptised you rightly — then it was long before I was a Catholic, that according to the Anglican rite, I took you in my arms and baptised you with water in the name of the Three Divine Persons and signed you with the sign of the cross. That baptism, though administered in ignorance, I believe to be fully valid — wisely and mercifully has the Church given you conditional baptism on coming to her lest there should be any chance of mistake.”

The letters, in spidery hand writing in black ink on white paper, always began “My Dear Child” and ended “John H Newman of the Oratory”. He wrote to her about the pressures of work and debt. “I didn’t want the Epiphany to run out without writing to you — but I thought never should I manage it from the vast things I have had to do. Besides the ordinary work of a Priest, I am Sacristan and then we have a school of about 70 boys and I have had to examine them and send letters to their parents.”

He asked for prayers for his plans for an Oxford Oratory, which hit problems. “There is a very bad hitch, which it may take a long time to get over and for myself I am really indifferent whether it is removed or not but anyhow the ejaculations and prayers which have been offered for us, will not be in vain.”

He also wrote: “I have had a good deal to do with Christian bills — and have had some controversial letters forced on me. And I am sadly in arrears.”

The letter obviously did the trick, Biddlecombe reported. Soon after he wrote: “How can I sufficiently thank Rev Mother and your community for so great a benefit. One can’t measure holy aspirations by s d . . . Nor must I forget to thank your novice, who was so kind as to send me her contribution, and whose pound is as much as ten pounds for the faith.”