09 September 2023
Blackfriars Priory is
part of the 800-year
story of the Dominican
presence in Oxford
Earlier this week, I visited the Dominican house at Blackfriars Priory (or the Priory of the Holy Spirit) on Saint Giles in Oxford. The house includes both Blackfriars Hall, a constituent permanent private hall of the University of Oxford, and Blackfriars Studium, the Dominican centre of theological studies in England.
The prior of Blackfriars is the Very Revd Nicholas Crowe, and the regent of both the hall and the studium is the Very Revd Dr John O’Connor, who grew up in Co Galway. The name Blackfriars is commonly used for a house of Dominican friars, a reference to their black cappa, which forms part of their habit.
Blackfriars is located between the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies and St Cross College, and close to Pusey House.
The Dominicans first arrived in Oxford on 15 August 1221, at the instruction of a General Chapter meeting headed by Saint Dominic. As such, Blackfriars is heir to the oldest tradition of teaching in Oxford, a tradition that precedes both the aularian halls and the collegiate houses.
The Dominicans established a new priory in the Saint Ebbes district in 1236. The early Dominican theologians in Oxford included Robert Bacon and Richard Fishacre.
Like all the monastic houses in Oxford, Blackfriars was repeatedly in conflict with the university authorities. At the Reformation, Blackfriars and the other monastic houses in Oxford were suppressed in 1538.
The Dominicans did not return to Oxford for some 400 years, until Blackfriars was refounded in 1921 by Father Bede Jarrett (1881-1934), a friend of Graham Greene and the first Dominican since the Reformation to study at Oxford.
The site of the priory was acquired by a wealthy American widow, Charlotte Jefferson Tytus, and she donated it to the Dominicans.
The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Bourne on 15 August 1921, the 700th anniversary of the founding of the first Oxford priory and the anniversary of the death of her husband, Edward Jefferson Tytus, who died on 15 August 1913. The building was completed in 1929. On 17 May the full community moved into the buildings on 17 May and the church was consecrated three days later by Archbishop Alban Goodier, former Archbishop Bombay.
The original priory building was designed by the architect Edward Doran Webb (1864-1931), who also designed the Birmingham Oratory. The building was completed in 1929.
The Dominican studium at Blackfriars had a close relationship with the university, leading to the establishment of Blackfriars as a permanent private hall in 1994.
Blackfriars Hall is a centre for the study of theology and philosophy. It admits men and women of any faith for Oxford undergraduate degrees in theology schools, PPE and for a wide range of postgraduate degrees. Blackfriars also offers candidates for the Catholic priesthood the Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology (STB) from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, in Rome.
Blackfriars Hall is a permanent private hall. It is owned and governed by the English Province of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans and not by its fellows.
Blackfriars Hall is the home of a number of other institutes including the Las Casas Institute on ethics, governance and social justice. The Aquinas Institute was established in 2004.
Webb’s friary incorporates part of a 17th century building in the front range, with staircase tower and a short ancillary range to the rear designed ca 1951 by Rayson and Partners. It is built of Cotswold stone and laid out on a quadrangular plan, with a library, administration and teaching accommodation, friars’ accommodation, a dining hall and a large chapel in late Gothic style.
The entrance to Blackfriars on St Giles is through a gated round arch flanked by pilasters. There is a statue in a shell niche above and a plaque commemorating the return of the Dominicans to Oxford in 1921. The inscription panel over the street entrance was carved by Eric Gill and reads:
Hunc Conventum Alterum
Novum Eadem Die Qua Priscus
Fundatus Est AD MCCXXI
Longum Post Exilium Reduces
Posuerunt XVIII Kal Sept MCMXXI
Webb’s large chapel is in a late Gothic style is listed Grade II as a fine example of 1920s conventual architecture. The chapel is aligned west-east rather following the liturgical convention of east-west. It is large and flooded with light from the clear-glazed windows, including the seven-light liturgical East window (geographical west).
There is a timber arched ceiling, the High Altar stands on five steps, and the chancel and sanctuary have black and white tiling. The chancel stalls were inserted 1963 by Colin Fleetwood-Walker.
The three side chapels in the (liturgical) south aisle each have an altar to the east and a canopied piscina to the south. One of the side chapels has a sculpture of Saint Dominic carved in the manner of Eric Gill. The white marble Stations of the Cross are also in the style of Eric Gill.
One of the most decorative furnishings of the chapel is the screen of intricately carved stone screen at the liturgical west end (geographical east). An expressive modern statue of Our Lady with the Christ Child in the pose of a Pietà is in the entrance lobby.
Notable former students include Cardinal Joseph William Tobin, Archbishop of Newark; Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney; Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool; and the theologians and writers James Alison, Herbert McCabe and Aidan Nichols.
Fellows and academics at Blackfriars have included Brian Davies, philosopher; Andrew Linzey, theologian and a leading figure in the Christian vegetarian movement; Timothy Radcliffe, Master of the Dominicans (1992-2001); Fergus Kerr; and the philosopher Roger Scruton.
Today Blackfriars is thriving, yet it is a haven of peace and spirituality and a centre of learning and training of new members of the priesthood.
The Sunday services in the Priory Church, at which members of the public are welcome, are: 8 am, Conventual Mass; 9 am Lauds; 9:30, Family Mass; 1.05 pm, Office of Readings and Midday Prayer; 5:30 pm Vespers; 6 pm Mass.
Monday to Friday: 7:05 am, Lauds; 7:30, Conventual Mass; 1:05 pm, Office of Readings and Midday Prayer; 6 pm, Mass; 6:45 pm, Vespers. Saturday: 8:05 am, Lauds; 8:30 am, Conventual Mass; 6 pm Vigil Mass of Sunday; 6:45 pm, First Vespers of Sunday.
The Roman Catholic parish church is the Oratory Church of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga on Woodstock Road, 400 metres north of leaving Blackfriars. The University Catholic Chaplaincy is on Rose Place, off Saint Aldate’s, opposite the Christ Church memorial gardens.