A message from Father Nick 98

Monmouth: a peep into the archives

In his fascinating history of St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Monmouth, 1793 – 2016, Robert Derricott emphasises the key role played by Thomas Burgess Abbot, parish priest of Monmouth, 1851 – 1894. He describes him as “our seminal parish priest”.

Parish archives contain a letter sent by St John Henry Newman in reply to a letter from Father Abbot. He sends it simply from “The Oratory” (this of course would be the Birmingham Oratory – when asked to reside in Rome and give talks to visiting aristocrats Newman famously replied, “Birmingham people have souls”). His letter is dated August 30th 1875, five years after the first Vatican Council. This is the text:

My dear Sir*, I grieve most sincerely at the tidings your letter contains. I never knew Mr Marshall* well, nor indeed ever was near him, except in 1847, when he was in the college of Propaganda* at Rome with myself and the friend I have lately lost, Fr St John*. He there made acquaintance with various of the clever American students, who will lament, as I do, to hear of his death. He had many high qualities – great warmth of heart, great religious earnestness, and various intellectual gifts. It has always been a pain to me that he has not found, good Catholic as he was, a more prominent* [crossed-out and replaced by “settled”] position in the Church. It pains me to find from you that he had not the means to send for medical assistance. I had not heard of him for a long while. Of course, notice of his death will come to us, but I will (if all is well) without delay say mass for him tomorrow morning.

I do not know his relations, nor where they are. Of his history I only know that he was curate to Mr Robert Wilberforce*, who afterwards became a Catholic.

I recollect I knew him not only at Propaganda, but in Ireland. Many Irish priests will be sorry to hear he is gone, such as Bishop Moriarty*, Fr Curtis SJ* and various members of the Catholic university*.

Thanking you for your kindness in writing to me. I am,

Dear Mr* Abbot, very truly yours,

John H Newman

The Revd. J. Abbot

N.B. Newman addresses Thomas Abbot as “Dear Sir” and “Dear Mr Abbot”, while referring to “Fr St John” and “Fr Curtis SJ”. The latter were “religious” (Oratorian & Jesuit). “Secular” priests were still called “Mister”.

Newman mentions “Propaganda” in Rome, which sounds ominous but refers to Propaganda Fide, the pontifical college that still trains missionaries for the world.

Ireland”: Newman had been entrusted with the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin. Fr Curtis SJ was one of those who believed the idea to be doomed from the start. Bishop Moriarty was Newman’s choice of successor.

Fr St John, referred to as having recently died, was Newman’s closest and most loyal friend. They would eventually be buried together. Robert Wilberforce, son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and ordained Anglican, did indeed become a Catholic. Alas, we know nothing more of Mr Marshall.

Newman University Church, Dublin