Eda Forbes, Secretary to Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

A blue plaque commemorating the former St Ignatius’ Chapel (1793), first Roman Catholic place of worship at Oxford after the Reformation, has been unveiled at Angel Court, 81 St Clement’s Street.

The ceremony took place on Tuesday 31 July, St Ignatius’ Day.

This modest and discreet building deserves greater recognition for the significant part it played in the religious, social and educational history of Oxford.

St Ignatius’ Chapel was built by a Jesuit priest, Fr Charles Leslie SJ, a younger son of Patrick, 21st Baron of Balquhain. He had been a priest at Waterperry before settling in St Clement’s in 1790.

The passing of the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 removed some restrictions on Roman Catholics, permitting them their own churches and schools. He determined to build a chapel for about 60 local Roman Catholics, finding £1,000 from his own funds and raising the rest from supporters very quickly.

The chapel was built in 1793 in the garden of his house, set well back from the road as anti-Catholic sentiment at that time was still strong. On Sundays, two University Proctors would stand outside on the look-out for undergraduates for whom the chapel was out of bounds. After Mass the congregation would take breakfast at the Port Mahon next door, where it still is.

The chapel holds a significant place in the story of John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman (1801 – 1890), and now beatified. After his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, it was here that he attended Mass, regularly walking over from Littlemore during his remaining months at Oxford.

The large and imposing Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius (The Oratory), designed by Joseph Hansom, in Woodstock Road, was opened in 1875 by Cardinal Manning. St Ignatius’ Chapel continued to be used as a chapel of ease. The last Mass was finally celebrated there in 1911.

Meanwhile from 1869 the chapel had been in use as St Ignatius’ School for girls and infants. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) SJ, priest at St Aloysius 1878-79, spent much time at the chapel and school, teaching and ministering to the poor and infirm in this part of the city.

In 1909 the priest’s house on the street was replaced by a handsome new school building designed to house 200 pupils, although the chapel continued in use as a school room. In 1932 the school was renamed St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary School and remained on the site until 1968 when it removed to modern buildings in Headley Way. The former chapel and school buildings are now business premises.

The plaque was unveiled by the Rt Revd William Kenney, CP, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham.

Revd Dr Joseph Munitiz SJ, former Master of Campion Hall, spoke on the history of the chapel and Sister Marie Anne on the subsequent history of the school on the site.