St Leonard's Sunningwell

Serving the community of Sunningwell, Bayworth and Boars Hill


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Tales from God’s Acre: part 40 Thomas 2

Last month I wrote about Sir Reginald Aneurin Thomas. He and his wife Kathleen, who both died in 1975, appear to be the first people buried here with full Catholic ritual since the Reformation, an ecumenical event readily embraced by the then rector, Sidney Brunning, but which also required permission from the bishop of Oxford and from his Roman-Catholic equivalent in far-away Portsmouth. Kathleen’s family, the Blisses, had been devoted to the Church of Rome for a century. Her grandfather, William Henry Bliss, conceived a deep admiration for John Henry Newman while a student at Oxford in the 1850s. He entered the Anglican ministry, and became vicar of North Hinksey for a spell; during that period his son George Cecil was born. But William Henry soon had to resign his office as he followed Newman into the Catholic Church. He turned himself into a librarian and noted scholar of ecclesiastical history, working at the Bodleian in Oxford and then for many years in the Vatican.

There was an entrepreneurial spirit in the family too: it was related Blisses who built the massive Victorian tweed mill at Chipping Norton with its amazing chimney. George Cecil became a leading tea planter in Ceylon, where he found a wife from another Catholic clan, the Hewetts. Kathleen, their only child, returned to Britain for a suitably Catholic education and then, after marrying Reginald Thomas in the last year of World War I, raised their own children in Wimbledon. One of the sons followed his father’s profession and joined the army but, in tribute to the family’s remarkable religious commitment, two of them entered the Jesuit order. Martin was tragically murdered on mission in Southern Rhodesia, as that country was turning into Zimbabwe during desperate years of turmoil. Hilary pursued a teaching career at Stonyhurst College, the historic school in Lancashire run by the order. He was recently buried in Sunningwell churchyard, close to another Jesuit, a Hewett cousin of his.

When the extended Thomas family moved to Boars Hill in 1970, they had a special reason for choosing a property near the top of Lincombe lane. It placed them very close to an existing Catholic church there dedicated to St Thomas More. That diminutive building – for practical purposes a chapel – had been constructed out of the stables-cum-garage at the house, meaningfully named Grace Dieu, of some further fervent Catholics, the typographer and publisher Bernard Newdigate and his wife Ada. Newdigate, who died in 1944, came from a long-established dynasty of country landowners based in Warwickshire, and sometimes spelled Newdegate, or even both ways at once. Ironically enough, their most prominent modern representative, Charles Newdigate Newdegate (!), had been the fiercest political and intellectual opponent of the Catholic revival in Victorian Britain. It’s good to be able to salute this lively little Catholic community in a corner of our parish today. We can only surmise whether there were any parishioners with Catholic sympathies earlier, during the long period when such views were forbidden and persecuted.

Bob Evans October 2013



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