St. Mary's College, Oscott



St Mary’s College, Oscott is the seminary of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, an area which covers the counties of the West Midlands, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire. The word ‘seminary’ comes from the Latin, ‘seminarium’ meaning a seedbed, and has been used since the sixteenth century to describe a college for the formation and training of Catholic priests.

Historical Background

As a result of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Catholicism effectively went ‘underground’; if it was to survive, priests would be essential, and for two hundred years, English Catholic priests were trained in colleges in France and the Low Countries, Spain and Portugal and in Rome. From the 1570s, harsh penalties were enacted to deter priests from entering the country, and an Act of 1585 made it treason for any priest trained abroad to be in England, or for any subject of the Queen to shelter such a priest. The penalty was the hideous death penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering, which was the fate of over 600 Catholic priests and lay people between roughly 1580 and 1680.

Nevertheless, a steady stream of young men left for the continental colleges. All faced lives of the greatest insecurity; one in four of them were either arrested at sea or at their port of entry, others died from hunger or disease in prison, or were hung, drawn and quartered. Despite heavy fines and double taxes for refusal to attend the services of the Church of England, Catholics took the risk of helping priests, until the French Revolution, beginning in 1789, brought most of the foreign colleges to a close.

While the situation on the continent deteriorated, conditions in England improved. The main legislation against Catholics was removed by the end of the eighteenth century, and they were allowed to practice their religion freely. At Old Oscott, about two miles from the present college, was the home of Andrew Bromwich, the last seminary priest condemned to death, who had escaped execution in 1679. He died in 1702, and left his home for the use of priests who would minister to “the poor Catholics of the parish of Handsworth”. Throughout the eighteenth century, a succession of priests lived in Bromwich’s house, and in 1794, Oscott College opened there, with a small group of schoolboys and three seminary students, expelled from France in the previous year.

In 1803, John Milner became Bishop of the Midland District, and drew up a distinctive programme for the church students from that of the lay boys. Under this ‘New Government’ the College was re-launched in August 1808 and dedicated to St Mary. By this date, a small but significant milestone had been passed in England’s Catholic history. On 21st December 1805 Francis Martyn was ordained. He was the first priest trained wholly in England since the 1560s.

As its numbers outgrew the site, and as Catholics emerged more prominently into national life, Bishop Thomas Walsh, Milner’s successor, decided to build a new college on a site overlooking the growing town of Birmingham. It was an ambitious project, and was only made possible through the generosity of John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury and other wealthy benefactors. The present building, completed in 1838, is a striking landmark overlooking the city of Birmingham; it is built in local red brick and designed to echo elements of an Oxford college. Built around a central quadrangle, the main structure of the college remains largely unchanged.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century Oscott could fairly claim to be the centre of England’s Catholic revival. Bishop Walsh brought here the Harvington Library, and, in 1839 he purchased the Marini Library which contained many works of Renaissance scholarship and copies of volumes in the Vatican libraries. Both added to Oscott’s academic reputation. The college became associated with leading Catholics, including famous converts to Catholicism; not only was John Henry Newman a frequent visitor, but George Ignatius Spencer, son of Lord Althorp and ancestor of Princess Diana was a benefactor and a member of staff in the 1840s. From 1840 – 1847 Nicholas Wiseman was Rector. Already well known in Catholic Europe, he was a man of wide cultural achievements and a prolific author. His reputation encouraged many of the Catholic nobility and gentry to send their sons to the school. Alongside them were the sons of the Irish politician, Daniel O’Connell, the sons of the Royal Academician J R Herbert, whose work hangs in the college, a grandson of the Emperor of Mexico, the future Cardinal Edward Howard and military heroes of British campaigns in the Crimea, India and the rest of the Empire, including Everard Lisle Phillips, awarded a posthumous VC at the age of 22. Literary figures, including the Irish novelist, George Moore, the biologist St George Mivart, the orientalist Peter le Page Renouf, the eccentric artist and novelist Frederick Rolfe, and possibly England’s least loved poet laureate, Alfred Austin, were among the students at Oscott in the nineteenth century. The eminent Cambridge historian, Lord Acton, a schoolboy in the 1840s, later commented that the international flavour of Oscott under Wiseman made Oscotians feel that, “apart from Pekin, Oscott was the centre of the world.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the financial strain of running both a school and a seminary was unsupportable and the feeling both in Rome and among the English bishops at the time, favoured a complete separation of clerical students from lay. Bishop Edward Ilsley therefore took the decision to close the school in 1889. From that date Oscott continued as a seminary only, training church students for Birmingham and other English and Welsh dioceses whose bishops chose to send their candidates here. The man who led Oscott through this transitional period and beyond the First World War into the new century was Henry Parkinson, the first president of the Catholic Social Guild, dedicated to spreading knowledge of the social teaching of the Church on issues such as a just wage, trade unions, ownership of property and the responsibilities and duties of the state.

The Catholic history of the twentieth century is divided by the watershed of the Second Vatican Council, (1961 – 65). The bishops saw that the Church needed to adapt the ways in which it presented the message of the Gospel, if it was to meet effectively the needs of contemporary society. All aspects of life in the Catholic Church would be affected by the Council, including the training of students for the priesthood; elements of Oscott life gradually changed in the following years. New methods of study were introduced, with time for private study within a more flexible timetable. Informal tutorials and seminars replaced some of the lectures, and, as at university, there was a greater expectation that students took personal responsibility for their studies.


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