We decided to go to Bournemouth for the day.
Nothing odd in that—it’s a pleasant seaside resort, known as the “jewel of Britain’s south coast,” and its website boasts that it has “golden sand, sea views, tropical gardens, outdoor adventure, and tons of festivals and events.” It attracts a good many visitors every year.
But we were going there because of the Oratory.
Catholics in Britain know about Brompton Oratory—it’s in London’s grandest shopping street in Knightsbridge, near Harrods, and is known for posh weddings and glorious music. Lesser known, but in a sense more significant from the historical point of view, is the Birmingham Oratory—founded by Cardinal (now Blessed) John Henry Newman and visited by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain in 2010. And more recent years have seen the founding of an Oxford Oratory—fulfilling Newman’s dream and establishing a popular community in St. Aloysius Church on the Woodstock Road in this university city, packed every Sunday and with lots of young people.
But Bournemouth? It somehow seemed an unlikely place for an Oratory, and there was a certain sense of “Er…are you sure?” when news of the plan was first announced. As the town’s name implies, Bournemouth stands where a small river meets the sea, and it has long had a reputation for family holidays and pleasant days on the beach. But does that fit with St. Philip Neri, Blessed John Henry Newman, and the intellectual and cultural traditions associated with the Oratory?
The answer, it seems, is definitely yes. St. Philip Neri’s ideas on evangelization—joy, friendship, an emphasis on beauty and celebration—fit in rather well with sea and sunshine. Bournemouth has a new university and the Oratory will provide a chaplaincy, fulfilling its tradition of working with young people. And the superb Church of the Sacred Heart—soaring Victorian gothic, bathed in light, a fine sanctuary, a beautiful Lady Chapel and St. Joseph’s Chapel—is right in the town center, fitting in well with the Oratory style of mission.
It’s still an Oratory-in-formation. There are two Oratorian priests: Father Dominic, who comes from the Oxford Oratory (a new Oratory cannot be started unless there is at least one already-Oratorian priest in the group), and Father Peter, who served for many years as a parish priest in Southwark diocese. There are three Oratorian brothers, who are studying for the priesthood. There is also a parish deacon, Roger Carr-Jones, who has been with the parish for some while and is now part of the new team.
There is plenty for them all to do, and they have launched some fresh initiatives. There are four Masses every Sunday including one in Polish. There is Benediction every Sunday evening. There is, of course, daily Mass, and confessions are also heard daily. There is a choir—the 10:30 am Mass on a Sunday is sung—there are bell-ringers, fellowship groups, and Bible study groups. A new season of First Communion classes is about to start. And so on.
Arriving in time for a midweek midday Mass, we found people at prayer, and—as was to be expected at an Oratory—Mass celebrated with great devotion. After Mass, there was a blessing with a relic of St. Philip Neri. As Father Peter is my former parish priest it was a great joy to greet him afterwards, and we all enjoyed a very cheery lunch—talkative, joyful, newsy. The mood is upbeat—though here is plenty that needs doing, with all the usual worries of maintenance and repairs for a large 19th-century building, and plans for much evangelistic endeavor using the Philip Neri style of hospitality, friendship, and instruction.
The visitor senses that parishioners are glad to see the church—and the massive presbytery alongside—starting a fresh chapter of life. Sacred Heart Church was built by the Jesuits and the house is designed for a good-sized group. The Oratorians are right at home here. A priest on his own in this vast building would feel bleak indeed. It is a place designed for people who live in community together.
Probably there was some apprehension when the arrival of the Oratorians was announced—but the mood seems welcoming and the emphasis has been on goodwill and continuity. There is a sense of history in the parish, but also of the realities of life. Bournemouth may have the reputation of being the ultimate English south coast seaside town, but today it has a definitely international feel—the parish choir has members from South Korea, Portugal, and Lithuania, among other places. The university has brought new changes.
The Bournemouth Oratory had its birth-pangs amid sorrow. One of the original community was Father David Hutton—like Father Peter a Southwark priest, and like him a former Anglican. He learned, shortly after the launch of the venture, that he had cancer. The cruel progress of the disease, which Father David bore with immense courage, marked the early months of the project. He died on St. David’s Day this year, and the story of his prayerful offering of his suffering, and his holy death, are bound up with the whole story of the Bournemouth Oratory.
Father Peter’s devotion to St. Philip Neri goes back to the days when, as an Anglican, he first discovered the saint and his message. St. Philip has, he says, “been knocking at my door for many years now.” At a time when, across the West, churches are closing and parishes amalgamated, Bournemouth on Britain’s south coast has a happier story. Watch this space to see how it all develops.