A Christmas to Remember
Amid this year’s Christmas celebrations, spare a thought for an important anniversary: the 200th anniversary of the re-foundation of the Venerable English College.
The College had been forced to close with the French invasion of 1798 and its re-opening was delayed not only by the political instability in Italy but divisions among the English clergy over who should be in charge. Eventually, in 1817, a Lancashire-born secular priest, Robert Gradwell (1777–1833), arrived in Rome as Agent to the English Bishops and with hopes that he would become Rector.
There were many preparations to make and even an attempt by an Irish Augustinian, Fr O’Handley, to open a rival institution: the ‘Venerable British College’. At last, on 18 December 1818, Gradwell recorded in his Journal:
Six of the students arrived: walked with them to S Pietro Montorio. They were from Ushaw in the Northern District James Sharples [1797–1850], Henry Gillow [1797–1837], Nicholas Wiseman [1802–65], James Fleetwood [1795–1862], William Kavenagh [d. 1820], all ready to begin the study of philosophy, and George Heptonstall [1801–75] in rudiments.
It had been a long and difficult journey for the young men, from Liverpool via Genoa and Livorno (or ‘Leghorn’, as it was called). Wiseman later remembered how ‘a man fell overboard and was drowned off Cape St Vincent’ and ‘a dog went raving mad on board, from want of fresh water, and luckily, after clearing the decks, jumped or slipped into the sea’. There were also fires on the ship and ‘all the passengers were nearly lost in a sudden squall in Ramsey Bay, into which they had been driven by stress of weather’. The eventual cry of ‘Ecco Roma’ must have been most welcome and as soon as Wiseman entered the College, he ‘felt at once at home; it was English ground, a part of fatherland, a restored inheritance’.
The day after their arrival, Gradwell took them to an ordination ceremony at the Lateran, thus focussing their minds on the end of their Roman formation. The journey there and back constituted an informal sightseeing tour of Rome: ‘the Capitol, Forum, St Clements and Colliseum’ followed by ‘Santa Croce, S. Mary Major, St Prassede, Monte Cavallo, Roman College, Rotunda, Sapienza.’ Meanwhile, four more students had arrived, this time from St Edmund’s College in the London District: Richard Alberry, Richard Crosby, John Hearns and Daniel Rock (1799–1871).
Their induction of Rome continued: not only walks around Trastevere and the Vatican Museums, but, on 21 December, an audience with Cardinal Consalvi (1757–1824), the influential Secretary of State, who was ‘pleased that they could converse easily in French.’ He was keen that the students should be received by the pope on Christmas Eve.
Joyous though this news undoubtedly was, the Rector realised that he had just a few days to clothe his new students appropriately. On the way back from the cardinal, he recorded that he ‘brought cloth for their dresess’ and the following day was ‘with Tosti at breakfast, about buying cloth.’ Despite his best efforts, only six of the Collegians were clothed in time for the papal audience, the other four having to stay behind.
The meeting with Pius VII (1742–1823) at the Quirinale was a memorable occasion, commemorated on a lunette in the present College chapel. Gradwell recorded that
The Holy Father received them standing, shook hands with each and welcomed them to Rome. He praised the English clergy for their good and peaceful conduct and their fidelity to the Holy See. He admonished the youths to learning and piety; and said “I hope you will do honour both to Rome and to your own country”.
Christmas Day itself was spent at St Peter’s and admiring the crib at Santa Maria Maggiore. Little did they know that across the Alps, at the little village church of Oberndorf, Silent Night was being sung for the first time.
Sadly, there are no details of Christmas lunch, although for the feast of St Thomas (29 December) nine cardinals and twelve other prelates visited the College during the day and a special dinner was held in the evening.
The New Year of 1819 found Gradwell in reflective form. His first year in Rome had been ‘very laborious’, especially due to his ‘ignorance of Italian’. His work on behalf of the English and Welsh bishops had, at times, been uncertain and stressful, but, with some pride, he wrote:
The College is now on foot, but I am left alone when I stand in absolute need of two other College superiors … God grant me a continuance of health and a blessing to my labours. To him be all honour and glory!
Robert Gradwell’s Journal for 1817–25 is preserved at the Archives of the Archdiocese of Westminster (AAW E7).