In 2019 I had the honour of being one of the Columban representatives at the canonization of Cardinal Newman in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. From that moment on, I thought that no Columban had closer ties to Newman than I did.
Then I met up with Nathalie.
Nathalie Marytsch is a Columban Lay Missionary from Santiago, Chile, who serves in a refuge for asylum seekers in Birmingham, England. It just so happens that her workplace is built in the EXACT PLACE where Newman began his illustrious career in the Catholic Church, a road which led to a cardinal’s hat and, eventually, sainthood.
In the 1830’s John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a rising star in the Church – the Anglican Church, that is. He’d been ordained deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in 1824 and had gone on to be one of that city’s foremost scholars and theologians. Then, in 1845, he scandalized the Establishment by becoming a Catholic.
He went to Rome and was ordained a priest for the Oratorian Congregation. Pope Pius IX gave him permission to return to England and set up an Oratory church in his native land, and he and a group of followers chose Birmingham as the preferred location. After a couple of false starts, in 1849 they were offered premises (of all places) at a disused gin distillery in the Digbeth area of the city. They transformed the distillery into a chapel, which thus became the first “Oratory of St. Philip Neri” in the English-speaking world.
Digbeth was a hugely deprived neighbourhood, crammed with Irish migrants who’d fled the Great Famine. Newman set himself to address the spiritual and temporal needs of this impoverished community.
In 1852 the Birmingham Oratory moved to a permanent base in the nearby district of Edgbaston, where Newman would spend the rest of his life. He left the gin distillery-cum-chapel to the local archbishop, who built a church and presbytery on the site. Finally, in 2015, responding to a modern-day migration crisis, the diocese converted the presbytery into a home for refugees and asked the Columbans to staff it.
“When I arrived the parish priest gave me a framed painting of Cardinal Newman”, she told me. “I’d heard all about Newman of course, but I never knew the picture was here because HE’D been here. I took it because I loved the frame!”
“We DID know that the parish had a history of welcoming migrants, in those days the Irish”, she continued. When she realized that Newman had done this on the very same spot where SHE was working with migrants, it became an additional source of inspiration for her.
The refuge had been set up following Pope Francis’s call to help refugees who’d been driven from their own countries by misery and war. He, like millions around the world, had been shocked by the image of a little boy’s body washed up on a Mediterranean beach. “We decided to welcome single women who’d been refused asylum at the first attempt and were working towards a new claim”, Nathalie explains. “We felt that these formed the most vulnerable amongst all the immigrant groups. They were destitute and unprotected. Some had been living rough. Others had been victims of abuse or been forced into prostitution.”
For the main part the women come from Africa and South Asia. Many are Muslims. Hence the centre is called “Fatima House”, as “Fatima” has a significance both for Catholics (because of the apparition there of Our Lady) and Muslims (as the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter).
“We welcome women of all Faiths”, Nathalie assures me. They can accommodate nine at a time, for around six months each. So far over fifty have benefited from the service. “Other partners provide legal aid. What we offer is a kindly presence to women who feel rejected by everyone else. Standing and working alongside the poor and marginalized, that is how I see my mission here, and these women are SO MUCH like that”, insists Nathalie with feeling.
Newman would be proud of her!