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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Priest and poet

Photo credit: By courtesy of the Master and Community of Campion Hall, Oxford

This photograph shows a group of men sitting outside the Catholic Oratory Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga on Woodstock Road around 1875, when the church was completed. Among them is the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 –1889). Born a member of the Church of England, Hopkins converted to Roman Catholicism: a change that led to fury from his family and some of his friends. Returning to Oxford as curate of this newly built church, he became a founding member of the Oxford University Catholic Club, later renamed the Newman Society, after John Henry Newman (1801-1890), former vicar of the University Church, who had also left the Church of England for that of Rome.

Although not published till after his death, Hopkins’s experimental and vivid poetry, which meditates on faith, love, and the beauty of the natural world, evokes the Oxford of the nineteenth century. Yet, even if his poetry is unique, Hopkins’s life was not so unusual. There were several high-profile conversions to Roman Catholicism in Oxford in the Victorian period. Many contemporary Protestants were appalled to find that Oxford, intended to be a bastion of the Established Protestant Church, seemed now to encourage such change. At the same time, new Catholic communities arrived in Oxford, which led to the construction of Catholic churches including St Aloysius.  

Members of the Catholic Church were excluded from full civil rights until reforms of 1791 and 1829 gradually restored most of their freedoms. It took until 1854, though, before they – and other non-Anglicans or non-believers – could study for a degree at the University of Oxford. Fearing the influence of a Protestant education, the Pope formally banned them from joining until 1896. Even before that, however, Catholics had begun to make their presence felt, as this photograph shows.