Blue plaque unveiled for St Ignatius’ Chapel

“What better way to celebrate the Feast of St Ignatius of Loyola but by commemorating this chapel built under his patronage and in his honour!” Revd Dr Joseph Munitiz SJ opened with these words the unveiling of a blue plaque commemorating the former St Ignatius’ Chapel in Oxford.

On the 31st July, Rt Revd William Kenney, CP, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham officiated the ceremony for the presentation of the sign in Angel Court, 81 St Clement's Street, marking the First Roman Catholic Church in Oxford after the Reformation.

The modest and discreet building played a significant part in the religious, social and educational history of Oxford. Among those attending the unveiling ceremony, there was a good number of representatives of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and secular communities.

The builder of the chapel was Fr Charles Leslie SJ, a younger son of Patrick, 21st Baron of Balaquhain. He had joined the Society of Jesus, and on its suppression in 1773 continued to work as a priest under the Vicars Apostolic. He went to Oxford about 1790 and bought a house.

In 1792 the Quarter Sessions register ‘a chapel situate in the parish of Saint Clements in the Suburbs of the City of Oxford in the possession of Charles Leslie, Priest, recorded as a place for the religious worship of Roman Catholics’. This was a room in his house.

Revd Dr Joseph Munitiz SJ, Sister Marie Ann, and Rt Revd William Kenney

Needing more space he built the Chapel in the garden of his house, set well back from the road, as anti-Catholic sentiment was still strong, despite the passing of the 1791 Catholic Relief Act which had removed some restrictions for churches and schools. The building went up in 1793, financed by £1000 of Fr Charles’ own funds and the rest raised very quickly from supporters.

The chapel holds a significant place in the story of John Henry Newman too. “Fr Leslie had died in 1806 when Newman was four years old, so they would not have known one another,” reminded Rev Dr Munitiz. “However, Newman was part of that influx of converts from the University that Fr Leslie had prayed and hoped for.”

Following his entry into the Roman Catholic Church, Newman began to attend mass, and would regularly walk over from Littlemore, a three-mile walk which – unless he rode over on horse-back – would have taken about 40 minutes on foot.

In 1875, Cardinal Manning opened St Aloysius Church (the Oratory), designed by Joseph Hansom, in Woodstock Road, making the little chapel redundant. The  used as a school.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, assistant priest at St Aloysius 1878-79, spent much time at the chapel, now used as a school, teaching and ministering to the poor and infirm in that part of the city. But the Jesuits kept up services in the chapel for the benefit of the many local people, the last Mass celebrated there only in 1911.

On the day of the unveiling of the blue plaque, Rev Dr Munitiz concluded his presentation with a special mention of one of the sermon notes prepared by Hopkins in 1879 for a sermon to be held in September that year in the chapel.

“All converts agree in feeling that they are led by God’s particular will. They are bound to go, it will be sin to stay, God calls them, bids them etc. […] ‘I hear a voice you cannot hear’ […]. We who are converts have all heard that voice which others cannot, or say they cannot hear, have seen that beckoning finger which others cannot, or say they cannot, see… “

“Fr Devlin, who first edited these notes, emphasises this: Hopkins is revealing here not the logical grounds of his conversion, as he does elsewhere, but how his heart was moved. And I also feel that our hearts can be moved as we stand where he stood,”said Rev Dr Munitiz.

The front of St Ignatius’ Chapel is still standing in 81 St Clement’ Street, easy to be spotted from any bus leaving Oxford for London.