The church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Littlemore, just outside Oxford, is to this day much as Newman designed it in the 1830s. Parishioners still remember their preacher and benefactor in vivid stories passed down through the generations from those who knew him
In the 1830s, John Henry Newman, then vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, discovered that his parish included a small, impoverished village beyond the southern edge of the city. Since Littlemore lies three miles out of town up a steep hill, and the villagers were never seen at St Mary’s, Newman decided that they should have their own chapel and, while he was about it, a school. By 1836 he had raised enough money to build both. He dedicated the chapel to St Mary the Virgin and to St Nicholas, after the patron saint of Littlemore’s medieval nunnery, and served it himself.
You will not find quite this version of events in any biography of Newman, because this is not history but hagiography. It represents the oral tradition in Littlemore, which has long venerated Newman for his work there, and in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which, despite being Anglican, has been enthusiastically preparing to celebrate his canonisation this weekend. Littlemore’s relationship with Newman is illuminating. It shows us something that has always been part of the cult of saints, but which we rarely get to see today: the evolution of local veneration and its complex relationship with church history and authority.