The parish of St. Elizabeth in Richmond, Surrey, dates back to the 1790s and the present church was completed in 1824, making it one of the oldest Catholic churches in Greater London. Five years later the Catholic Emancipation Act would bring full relief to Catholics across Britain, and a widespread building of churches, chapels, and schools would begin. Many of these would be in the gothic style favoured by the great architect of the Catholic revival, Augustus Welby Pugin. St. Elizabeth’s is therefore of note, as a 19th-century building with its roots in the pre-Victorian and pre-emancipation era.
Further along the river, about half an hour’s pleasant walk away, along the towpath, is another building of importance for Catholics. It is a large Georgian house standing by the lane that leads up from the Thames to the village of Ham. Unlike Richmond, which is a busy town teeming with traffic, Ham has a peaceful and semi-rural feel. Grey Court House is reached by walking along past the Petersham meadows, where cows still graze as they have done for centuries. It is now used as part of a school, but stands on its own, separate from the other buildings, and a blue plaque on its wall gives the reason for its significance.
This was the childhood home of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who lived here from 1804 to 1807. Lying in the nursery bedroom on the top floor, he watched candles being lit in the windows, to mark the victory of the British fleet at Trafalgar in October 1805, and would remember it all his long life.
In 2019, in ways unimaginable back in the 1800s, that small boy is the voice of Catholic England. Soon to be canonised, Newman is one of the greatest figures in the long and often troubled story of the Faith in Britain, and he links the recusant era of the 17th and 18th centuries to the Catholic revival of the 19th, and on to the Second Vatican Council of the 20th and a papal visit to beatify him in the 21st. As we await the formal announcement of the date of his canonisation, which will complete the story and seal him formally into the history of the Church and of our country, we can ponder the contribution he made.
When Newman was a small boy, the Catholics of Richmond would have seemed a strange group – a number were aristocratic refugees from France following the revolution there, and they joined members of recusant families and a few other local people to form a small parish community. The founder of St. Elizabeth’s church was Elizabeth Doughty, a rich and well-connected Catholic lady whose splendid home, Doughty House, is still a local landmark.
The huge revival of Catholicism in the 19th century, fuelled by a mix of Irish immigration, the Oxford movement, missionary efforts of heroic priests, and the faith and example of many lay faithful, steadily changed parishes like St. Elizabeth’s, and Newman was part of that change. Through his example, his sermons, his writings, and more, he showed that Catholicism was not a throne-and-altar arrangement centred on Catholic monarchy, but a matter of truth, of belonging to the Church founded by Christ and existing under a variety of political systems. He taught the necessity of seeking truth and living by it once it had been found. Wrongfully seen by Pius IX as a modernist, Newman’s understanding had a prophetic quality and of course he came into his own in the 20th century, influencing at a deep level the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As a Catholic adult—priest and in due course cardinal—Newman never had cause to revisit his childhood home and never went to St. Elizabeth’s. Ham now has its own Catholic church—dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas and housed in what was once the village school, just a short walk from Newman’s old home. In a pleasingly appropriate way, it is currently in the care of a priest from the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, established by Pope Benedict XVI for former Anglicans.
Families like mine owe a lot to Newman. My grandfather was received into the Catholic Church here at St. Elizabeth’s in the 1930s, bringing his then-teenage children along too. Reading John Henry Newman had been a large part of his spiritual journey, and a generation later his daughter, my mother, would introduce her own children to Newman’s work. As a teenage reporter on the Richmond local newspaper in the 1970s, I would often drop into St. Elizabeth’s to light a candle in my lunch-hour.
Today at St. Elizabeth’s, young families pack out the Sunday Masses, and during the week the recently refurbished crypt hosts a range of activities from adult instruction and Confirmation classes to Bible study groups and projects for the homeless. The parish children’s group, exploring the Faith, is rather delightfully called Busy Lizzies. The church is listed as being of historic interest, and the parish priest, Fr. Stephen Langridge, has launched an appeal for necessary work on the outer fabric—among other problems, the turret which is a local landmark is shedding tiles, and there is a need for major repairs.
Old and new blend easily here. Over the years, St. Elizabeth’s was something of a focus for exiled monarchy—Orleans and Braganzas lived locally, and my mother remembered her father pointing out to her, in a whisper, the exiled King Manuel of Portugal in a front pew. Today, as I arrived to lead a History Walk through Richmond and along the river to Ham, there were people quietly at prayer and a sense of timelessness. Newman’s canonisation will have a joyful resonance here.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!