top of page

Fr William Lockhart IC

Founder and first Parish Priest of St Etheldreda’s

Father William Lockhart was a close friend and disciple of the great Anglican Divine, John Henry Newman. When he left Newman’s community at Littlemore in 1843, Newman was extremely pained. The event occasioned his famous sermon on The Parting of Friends. Within a couple of months Lockhart was received into the Catholic Church and soon afterwards entered the novitiate of the Institute of Charity (Rosminians). Newman himself and the rest of his Littlemore companions were received into the Catholic Church two years later.

Lockhart became the founder and first parish priest (1874-1892) of St Etheldreda’s, having previously been the first parish priest of Our Lady and St Joseph’s, Kingsland, London, which he served for almost twenty years. For an excellent account of Lockhart’s life and significance, see Nicholas Schofield, William Lockhart, First Fruits of the Oxford Movement (Leominster, Gracewing, 2011). For Lockhart’s appreciation of Newman, read Cardinal Newman: A Retrospect of Fifty Years by one of his oldest living disciples (pages 1-18). Click here to read the address of Mgr Ronald Knox at the Pontifical High Mass marking the re-opening of the restored church in 1952 after World War II. Text to be found in booklet This Precious Stone (author anon.)

A Homily given at St Etheldreda’s by Fr Tom Deidun on the occasion of the Feast of St Etheldreda, 2010

One evening, in the early 1840s, a student at Exeter College, Oxford, attended the annual Scots dinner for St Andrew’s day in College. On the menu were cockie-leekie, oyster soup and haggis; and the whisky flowed. Having over-indulged somewhat, the student confided to a friend at the end of the evening: ‘I am in a state now in which I might be drawn into any wickedness.’ Which doesn’t surprise me, since cockie-leekie sounds potent enough to me to draw any man into wickedness, with or without the whisky. What wickedness this young man was drawn into, if any, that evening, is not known, but first thing next morning he betook himself to the Anglican clergyman the Revd Dr Sewell, Fellow and Tutor of Exeter College, and Doctor of Divinity, to seek absolution for the previous evening’s excesses. Dr Sewell refused to give him absolution and offered him Epsom salts instead. The student later reported: ‘I came away from that ass at once. I asked my father for bread, and he gave me a stone. I asked for fish, he gave me a scorpion.’ ‘I asked for absolution and he gave me Epsom salts.’ A century later someone wrote a biography of the Revd Dr Sewell entitled: Sewell: A Forgotten Genius. I have not read it myself, but I would be keen to see whether Dr Sewell’s pastoral use of Epsom salts formed part of his forgotten genius (1).

But to be serious: If it hadn’t been for that cockie-leekie and Dr Sewell’s Epsom salts, we would not be here now. For the young man was William Lockhart. He was an Anglican student of theology with High Church leanings, convinced, among other things, of the importance of Confession and sacramental Absolution, a view not shared by Dr Sewell nor by most of his fellow Anglicans. For Lockhart, no church that did not practise it could be called part of the true Church.

Not many years later Lockhart left the Anglican Church and was received into the Catholic Church by Fr Luigi Gentili, an Italian priest belonging to the Institute of Charity, recently founded by Antonio Rosmini. Shortly after that, Lockhart himself joined Rosmini’s Institute and was ordained a priest. He was sent to work among the poor in East London. In 1854, he became the first parish priest of Our Lady and St Joseph’s parish in Kingsland in the Borough of Hackney, still today a very flourishing parish. Fr Lockhart was phenomenally active there for the best part of twenty years, until, in 1870, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Manning suggested that the Rosminians hand the parish to the diocese and start a new parish in the Holborn area, also an area of great poverty. As most of you know, Fr Lockhart managed to purchase, at a knock-down price at auction, a thirteenth-century chapel in Ely Place taken from the Catholics in the sixteenth century courtesy of Henry VIII and after centuries of neglect and tasteless modification finally ending up being leased to the Welsh Episcopalians. Lockhart tells us that it would probably have been pulled down to make room for warehouses, if he hadn’t bought it. Lockhart set about restoring the church not only to the Catholic faith but also to something like its thirteenth-century simplicity and glory, the results of which restoration you can see around you. For this glory, we must thank Fr Lockhart, and many generous and imaginative souls through many generations. And, of course, we must thank the Revd Dr Sewell’s Epsom Salts, without whose hidden genius all this might never have happened.

And St Etheldreda is not the only saint that our founder and first Parish Priest has linked us to. We have already mentioned Rosmini, and we shall come back to him, but Lockhart is also the parish’s link to a third saint, one whose sanctity will be proclaimed to the country and to the world in just three months’ time, that is John Henry Newman, who will be beatified by Pope Benedict on Sunday 19th September.

When Lockhart first went up to Oxford as an undergraduate, Newman was already an influential religious and intellectual figure in the University. As well as being fellow and tutor at Oriel College, he was Vicar of the University Church of St Mary’s, which has been described as the ‘essence of the essence’ of nineteenth-century Anglicanism. It was while the freshman Lockhart was walking one day with a companion in High Street Oxford that he first caught sight of Newman, when his companion suddenly seized his arm and whispered: ‘Look, look, there is Newman!’ Through the mere sight of his demeanour Lockhart fell under his spell. (He later spoke of ‘the majesty of Newman’s countenance for those who have got to know him, his meekness, his intensity, his humility, the purity of a virgin heart in work and will that was expressed in his eyes, his loving kindness, his winning smile, the wonderful sweetness and pathos and delicate unstudied harmony of his voice.’) Now if Newman made such an impression on Lockhart through his outward demeanour, imagine what effect he was to have on him by the power of his intellect and the depth and intensity of his religious devotion when Lockhart became his disciple.

Now it was just at the time of Lockhart’s doubts about Anglicanism (which the Epsom salts episode did nothing to dispel) that Newman himself had decided that he must leave the Church of England. ‘I was already on my deathbed in regard to my relationship with the Church of England,’ Newman later wrote. But he never said that openly at the time, and he was very slow to make the decisive move. He did, however, virtually retire from University life to found a small monastic-like community at Littlemore on the outskirts of Oxford. Lockhart was one of the first to volunteer to join it, and Newman welcomed him. A small group of ardent Christians lived an intense Christian life together, practising a quite rigorous asceticism, broken only by the delights of conversations with Newman at dinner every evening (or occasionally by Beethoven’s sonatas played by Newman on the violin). Newman never spoke of his difficulties to Lockhart and his companions at Littlemore; and when the issue arose, he tried to discourage them from any thoughts of leaving the Church of England. When after less than a year Lockhart ‘could not bear the strain any longer’ (Lockhart’s own words), that is, the strain of reconciling his conscience with the claims of the Church of England (not the strain of listening to Newman’s violin), he left Littlemore and soon afterwards, during a visit to Fr Gentili, was received into the Catholic Church. Lockhart’s defection caused Newman great pain, but when, just two years later, Newman himself was received into the Catholic Church by the Passionist Father Dominic Barberi, one of the first things he did, Lockhart tells us, ‘was to pay me a most kind and loving visit at [the Rosminian community of] Ratcliffe College, where I was studying’.

So in the person of our first parish priest we have a link not only with the blessed Etheldreda and with Rosmini, recently beatified, but also with the soon to be beatified John Henry Newman. How right and proper it would have been, I think to myself, if Newman and Lockhart had been beatified together – not because they left the Church of England together but because truth and holiness shone through their minds and personalities whether as Anglicans or as Roman Catholics. And to Rosmini too, we parishioners of St Etheldreda’s owe a special debt. For Rosmini was not just a milestone in that strange providential journey that brought Lockhart from Oxford and Littlemore, via Ratcliffe College and Kingsland to London EC1. Rosmini was also the main inspiration, under God, of Lockhart’s entire life as a Catholic. As Lockhart himself put it: ‘Newman had impressed me more perhaps than any but one other man, the master of thought under whom I passed when I left Newman – Antonio Rosmini, the founder of the Order to which I have the honour to belong.’ It was Rosmini who had sent the singularly gifted Luigi Gentili and other missionaries to England to hasten the ‘Second Spring’ of English Catholicism; it was as a Rosminian that Lockhart became the founder of our parish; and it was to the person of Rosmini, to his mission, and writings, that Father Lockhart devoted the rest of his life.

Through Father Lockhart we have a very special access to a network of saintly persons, and not only saintly persons but gigantic figures in the history of the Church, whose spiritual stature, I am convinced, will be more and more widely recognized in the years to come. This is an unusual privilege for us as a parish. We ought to be aware of the rich history of our beginnings and be very grateful for it. St Etheldreda became our patron saint thanks to the labours and extraordinary spiritual journeys of some very remarkable people.

Others have sown, and we have reaped the harvest.

Cover Image: The ruins of Ely Palace, and Ely Chapel ©Chronicle (1) I am indebted to Fr Nicholas Schofield for the anecdote about Lockhart, cockie-leakie and Epsom salts

bottom of page