Maryvale: the name conjures up lovely images of gardens, a shrine surrounded by flowers, gentle hills in the background, perhaps some people praying and singing.
Well, minus the background hills, and allowing for the bleakness of winter and a Britain in lockdown so pilgrims are distinctly absent, the picture is not entirely wrong. Maryvale is a fine old house soaked in history, with attractive gardens and a Marian shrine—plus, it is an 18th century shrine to the Sacred Heart. More famously, it was the home of St John Henry Newman at a crucial period of his life, and the place where he first established what was to become the Birmingham Oratory. The Apostolic Brief of Pope Pius IX in 1849 announced it by names: “By our authority we appoint John Henry Newman superior of his House of the Oratory at Maryvale and of the one to be erected in the city of Birmingham.”
For me and so many others it has become a place we love, our alma mater. For some forty years it has been a study centre, initially for training catechists and then developing into the Maryvale Institute providing graduate and post-graduate studies. It offers distance-learning, with on-site lectures and residentials spaced through the year.
This new academic year of 2020/2021 began with lectures offered via Zoom. I missed, and my students missed, the special atmosphere of Maryvale – sloping staircases, old paintings, and the chapel carefully designed on the side of the house so as not to attract attention in the recusant days when the practice of the Catholic Faith still carried penalties. Sitting at home in London at my own desk, teaching via my computer, didn’t feel the same. but when the topic—apologetics—got going, there was the same Maryvale buzz as we explored the thought of Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Scott Hahn, Bishop Robert Barron, and others, as well as the challenges of the 21st century. Maryvale is much more than just the house, and over the years many students—notably from the United States—have done most or all of their study from home. Zoom and other online options suit Maryvale well and are a natural flow from its earliest years of essays sent back and forth by post, followed by the later use of email.
There are new days ahead: the Birmingham archdiocese will be moving much of its administration to Maryvale in due course, and the old house will see fresh changes. Its long story goes back to penal times, when it was a Mass centre, owned by the Bromwich family in the days of savage persecution. Before the present chapel there was a more hidden one, which today holds the venerated picture of the Sacred Heart which makes Maryvale the oldest shrine in England centred on that devotion. It was Newman who gave the place—Old Oscott House—the name Maryvale and to this day there are handwritten notes from him in the hall in a glass case, setting out the daily routine of prayer and study.
Online, or with lectures on-site, or with extra lectures elsewhere (for the Church History part of the Divinity degree, there are visits to the ruined Whiteladies Priory, to the priest-holes at Harvington Hall, and to Tewkesbury Abbey among other places), Maryvale will continue to offer a deeply grounded study of the Catholic Faith. The inspiration comes from Newman’s famous words: “I want a laity…who know their religion…who know just where they stand…who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.”
There are courses for catechists as well as the degree courses including a BA in Divinity and a Bachelor of Philosophy in the Catholic Tradition. Starting in 2021 there is a 6-month Catechesis in Marriage and Family, important for any serious evangelist in the modern West. You may not be able to make a weekend stay at the old house and sleep in Newman’s room—as I did, unforgettably, on my last visit just before the Coronavirus lockdown—but you can benefit from the teaching that Maryvale offers, and be part of the fostering of committed discipleship that the Institute is all about.
Maryvale isn’t on the normal tourist route; it’s a bus ride out of (unlovely!) Birmingham via vistas of motorways, tower-blocks, a massive mosque, and no sign whatever of the fields and meadows over which Newman and his friends walked when they made their way to Mass in the city in the 1840s. But there are times when you can visit, not only as a student but also as a pilgrim, for example at the annual celebration in honour of the Sacred Heart in June, when an open-air Mass in the grounds sees the whole place at its loveliest. And the Friends of Maryvale, of which I am glad to be among the number, are planning some events too.
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!