26 July 2010

Loss and Gain: The story of a convert's chapel

After yesterday's article about Our Lady of Oxford, readers might be interested to see how her chapel has developed over the years.  Here is the first Oxford chapel, as it stood up until 1907 in Hartwell de la Garde Grissell's house at Number 60, High Street, in Oxford.  Many of the features still observable in today's chapel can be seen: the lavish baroque frame with the picture of Our Lady of Oxford, the altar (carved in Rome) and its canopy, and the reliquary cupboards.  Under the altar is the body of the boy-martyr St. Pacificus.

Grissell kept a register of the clergy who celebrated Mass in his chapel.  They included Fr. Bowles (who had been at Littlemore with Newman), Henri Brémond, abbé Loisy, Dom Bede Camm, the future Cardinals Mercier and Gasquet, Bishops Hedley and Ilsley, and the great Dominicans Bede Jarrett and Vincent McNabb.

1900s - Foundation
The fate of Grissell's collection preoccupied him.  He contemplated the foundation of a 'Newman Memorial Chapel' in Oxford and corresponded with Cardinal Vaughn, who was eager to obtain the collection for Westminster Cathedral.  However, Grissell was determined that the collection should remain in Oxford and, when he died in 1907, his will stipulated that it be enshrined in a chapel of St. Aloysius' Church, Oxford.  This next photograph shows the chapel as it was fitted out to receive the collection in 1908.  Grissell's original relic cubboards were reconstructed to right and left of the altar.  The paintings on the ceiling are by Gabriel Pippet and depict iconography from the Roman catacombs, alluding to the relics of many of the Roman martyrs housed within the chaepl. A sacristry was erected to the epistle side of the chapel and was accessed through a door where St. Aloysius' statue stands today.  Here were kept a valuable collection of vestments, books, objects from the catacombs, and other artefacts.

1950s - Grey
The next stage of the chapel's development came in the 1950s.  The florid Victorian stencilling of the chapel had fallen out of fashion and the ceiling was painted battleship grey, leaving Pippet's paintings floating in mid-air.  The iron railings seen in the previous picture were removed and the bottom of the relic cupboards were cut away to house radiators for a new heating system.
1970s & '80s - Loss
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the saddest period in the chapel's history.  The cult of relics did not chine with the spirit of the age.  Despite Grissell's fastidiousness in ensuring that all his relics were authenticated by ecclesiastical authorities, the entire collection was declared to be 'inauthentic' and was dispatched to the local crematorium.  The physical remains of St. Pacificus had survived the Roman persecutions of the church, but did not survive the twentieth-century.  The top of the altar still bears the marks of an asiduous 'recker' who chiselled out a relic of St. Peter's altar enshrined there.  The other artefacts of Grissell's collection were dispersed and the sacristry was turned into a public conveniance.  The chapel stood empty and Mass was no longer said there.  Thankfully, the image of Our Lady of Oxford survived in place above the altar.

1990s - Gain
With the arrival of the Oratory Fathers in the 1990s efforts were made to restore the chapel.  In late 1994 a new collection of relics, most of which were given by the Carmelites of Chichester, was installed in the chapel.  The Carmelites also gave a cast iron screen, which can be seen in the above picture.  Happily, the present screen is rather finer than the original one.  Visible on the altar is the inscription announcing the indulgences granted to Our Lady of Oxford by Blessed Pius IX in 1869.  A statue of St. Aloysius was placed in the chapel and its walls (which had become damp and were in a poor state) were draped with temporary hangings of red damask.

2000s - The threshold of hope


In 2009 the chapel was restored as part of the Oxford Oratory's 'Reaffirmation and Renewal' campaign.  The original ceiling stencilling was reinstated, contextualising Pippet's paintings in their original artistic setting.  The relic cupboards were given state of the art lighting, showing off the new relics on display.

Among the relics on display is a first class relic of Blessed Lucy of Narnia, given by the C.S. Lewis scholar Walter Hooper!  The ashes from the relics of Grissell's collection have be re-enshrined in a glass urn, bearing an inscription which translates as 'From the ashes of ten thousand martyrs'.  Thus, St. Pacificus and his celestial companions continue to interceed upon supplication of the faithful!
There follow some photographs of the newly restored chapel and of Pippet's paintings.



2 comments:

jucundushomo said...

Fascinating information (we have lost so much and are just beginning to regain it), but - "Blessed Lucy of Narnia"?

Is this some attempt at humour? If so, it is misplaced in this article.

Oxford University Newman Society said...

No - Blessed Lucy of Narnia is real!! The theory is that CS Lewis visited the Italian town of Narnia and subsequently used both its name and the name of Bl Lucy. Ed.