Last week I visited St Mary's College, Oscott, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Birmingham, in order to collect some archival materials. It seemed quite a happy place and three members of the staff (including the Vice-Rector) were contemporaries of mine in Rome. The College has a fine building, designed by Pugin and with stunning views over Birmingham (particularly impressive at night, when flickering lights replace the uglier aspects of the urban sprawl).
In the Pranzorium, where the staff (and guests) have breakfast, there is a wonderful collection of portraits of past Presidents, including two of the greatest Vicars Apostolic of the Midland District.
This is Bishop John Milner (1752-1826), whom Newman called 'the English Athanasius.' He offered a new model of what an English Catholic bishop should be – confident, unafraid of controversy, keen to uphold the primacy of ecclesiastical authority and defend orthodoxy, and also truly pastoral. Many of his fiery opinions could be found in the appropriately named Orthodox Journal. Milner moved the Church away from dependence on the great Catholic families and looked towards the victory of Ultramontanism later in the nineteenth century.
This is Bishop Thomas Walsh (1777-1849), who was moved to London in the last year of his life, with the expectation that he would become the first Archbishop of Westminster after the restoration of the Hierarchy. He died and Wiseman filled his shoes. As bishop in the Midlands, what marked Walsh out was the grandeur of his vision and his openness towards new forces within the Catholic community, such as the Oxford converts and the gothis revival. At his death in 1849, The Tablet observed that ‘it is to his Episcopacy that posterity will trace the great development of ecclesiastical architecture which forms so distinctive a feature in the history of our period.’ A keen supporter of Pugin, Walsh oversaw the opening of a number of churches and institutions that were gems of the gothic revival: the future Cathedrals of Birmingham (St Chad’s) and Nottingham, New Oscott, the Trappist monastery at Mount St Bernard’s, the glorious churches at Cheadle and Derby, and the religious houses of Hanley, Ratcliffe and Aston. Many of these ambitious projects were made possible through the patronage of John Talbot, sixteenth earl of Shrewsbury, and Ambrose Phillips de Lisle.
Walsh’s vision for Oscott was to make it a centre of Catholic life and scholarship that would provide a home for many of the converts. Pugin was given the task of decorating and furnishing the chapel, using ornaments ‘executed by ancient artists in the days of faith’ but ‘torn by heretical and revolutionary violence from their original positions in the noble churches of France and Belgium,’ and restoring ‘the ample and dignified vestments which were anciently used in this land.’ Walsh bought an impressive library that had been made available in Rome and appointed converts like George Spencer to high positions.