From the Archives: Fr Robert Whitty SJ

POST BY MAllen

This year, 1 September marks the 125th anniversary of the death of former Provincial of the English Province, Fr Robert Whitty SJ. The Irish priest joined the Society at the age of 40, after a successful career in the Roman Catholic church as a secular priest. Whitty was acquainted with many influential Catholics of the day including Bishop Thomas Griffiths, the first and only Vicar Apostolic of the London District, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, and influential Catholic converts, including John Henry Newman. In this blog post, the Jesuits in Britain Archives take a deeper look at his life and records.

At the time of his death, Whitty was the oldest member of the Province. The author of his obituary in Letters and Notices wrote: “He was born when the present century [19th], so near its end, was indeed young, as far back as the 7th of January, 1817, in the county and near the town of Wexford.” During his childhood, the family moved to Dublin, where he attended school. In 1830, aged 14, he entered Maynooth College. “While at Maynooth he never joined in the games and was always very quiet and amiable, characteristics which remained with him to the last.” On the eve of his ordination, Whitty was sent with a few others to England, where there was a need for an increase in the number of priests. He was ordained by Bishop Griffiths, 19 September 1840, at St Edmund’s, Ware. He soon became interested in the Oxford Movement and was quickly acquainted with its key figures, such as William George Ward, John Henry Newman, and Frederick Oakeley. Whitty’s acquaintance with Newman was to last several decades and in 1879 in a letter to Whitty, Newman called him “an old friend of 33 years standing … and you have always been a kind friend – amid all the changes of a very eventful time” (ref. NSJ/2/1/1 ff. 237-238).

In the late 1840s, Whitty was for some time chaplain to the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Hammersmith and in 1850 chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy at Queen Square. His acquaintance with Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman would then introduce him to public life, and he was repeatedly advanced from post to post, until he simultaneously filled  the three important offices of Rector of the Mission and Pro-Cathedral at Moorfields, to which he was appointed in 1852, Provost of the Metropolitan Chapter when it was erected in June of the same year, and Vicar-General of the diocese of Westminster at the end of 1850. Whitty held all these posts until he was received into the Society.

Letter from John Henry Newman to Robert Whitty congratulating him on his entry into the Society, 19 May 1857 (ref. NSJ/2/1/1 ff. 14-15

“In the year 1856 … Father Whitty’s eyes turned, not for the first time, towards the still further retirement from the world of religious life, and he made his last annual retreat, outside of the Society, under Father Tracy Clarke, at Beaumont Lodge.” In 1857, Whitty obtained leave to resign his position, and entered the Noviceship of the Society of Jesus at Verona, within the Venetian Province, and completed his Noviceship in Florence. In 1859 he was appointed Professor of Canon Law and Spiritual Father at St Beuno’s College when theological studies were resumed in the Province. He was then made Superior of the Scottish Mission, residing chiefly at Dalkeith.

He left Scotland in 1867 to make his Tertianship in Rome, and on his return was appointed Socius to the Provincial. The following year, 2 February, he took his final vows. On 19 May 1870 he was appointed Provincial and stayed in that post until 17 July 1873.  He was next sent to Preston to be head priest at St Wilfrid’s and Rector of the College of St Aloysius, where he remained for five years until he was moved to Bournemouth as Operarius. He was then successively Spiritual Father at Beaumont, Instructor of Tertian Fathers at Manresa, and the English Assistant in residence with the Father General at Fiesole, “a charge which especially showed the reliance and confidence which the Society placed in his prudence, experience, and merit.”

In 1892, Fr Whitty attended the 24th General Congregation held at Loyola for the election of a new General, and prolonged his stay due to ill-health. He returned to St Beuno’s in 1893. He died there, 1 September 1895, having lived “a life full of a truly exceptional variety of offices and duties fulfilled with the utmost fidelity and consciousness of purpose.”

Letter from Bishop James Etheridge to Fr Robert Whitty SJ i which he discusses the building of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Georgetown, Guyana (ref. MSB/36 f.253)

Most of the material relating to Fr Whitty in the archives is in the form of correspondence, including several letters written to him during his Provincialate from the Jamaica Mission and letters from Cardinal Newman dating from both before and after his entry to the Society, but there are also letters written by him.

If you are interested in Fr Whitty or the Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, please do not hesitate to contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk.

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Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist