ROME — A new exhibition at the Venerable English College, Rome’s longtime seminary for the Catholic Church of England and Wales, aims to keep alive the memory of the Church’s martyrs during a year of historical significance for English Catholics.
“Memory, Martyrs, and Mission: Aspects of the History of the English Hospice and the Venerable English College, Rome: 1362-2018,” showcases a number of artifacts, many of which are making their first return to Rome after being stored away several centuries ago for fear of destruction.
Timed to coincide with the 900th anniversary of St. Thomas of Canterbury’s birth, the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the first English Seminary in Douai, France, and the 200th anniversary since the re-opening of the Venerable English College after the French invasion of Rome, many of the items in the exhibit tell the story of the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 when the College’s Jesuit administrators were removed from Rome.
In 1773, Pope Clement XIV issued a papal decree that banned the presence and the work of the Jesuits for over 30 years. The items on hand tell the story of their dramatic departure, and what was saved or salvaged in its aftermath out of fear that they would otherwise be confiscated because of their Jesuit links.
Janet Graffius, exhibit curator, noted at an opening gala on Saturday, April 21, that the return of these items — such as priestly vestments, relics, monstrances, and many other signs and symbols of the era — are a powerful reminder of the faith that sustained the institution despite enormous obstacles and threats.
The reception was attended by Monsignor Philip Whitmore, current rector of the seminary; Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister in the Secretary of State; John Browne, headmaster of Stonyhurst College; as well as other patrons of the College and current and former alumni.
The exhibition chronicles the transformation of the institution from the English hospice, which once was a place of respite for English pilgrims traveling to Rome, to the establishment of the English College. It traces the influence of individuals such as St. Thomas More, Father Lorenzo Ricci, S.J., past rectors of the College, the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the faith along the way, and the current work of the institutions in the modern Church.
Housed in the crypt of the Venerable English College, underneath the College’s main chapel, the majority of the artifacts come from the permanent collection of the Jesuit-owned Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, England.
The Christian Heritage Center at Stonyhurst is home to the oldest surviving museum collection in the English-speaking world and exists to promote access to the historic collections of the College. Currently, the Center is in the process of building Theodore House, a state of the art facility that will provide greater access to the collection.
Among the College’s noteworthy connections are its special ties to the United States of America. Many of the graduates of Stonyhurst went on to become Jesuit priests who traveled to America to set-up a Catholic mission in what would become the state of Maryland.
In addition, one of its most noted graduates was Father John Carroll, who would eventually become the first Catholic bishop in the United States and also the founder of Georgetown University. Also, the grandfather of George Herbert Walker Bush (and great-grandfather of George W. Bush) is a graduate of the College.
For organizers of the current exhibition at the Venerable English College, the ties between England, Rome, France, the United States, and beyond are a testament to the living memory and the mission of the Catholic faithful that is still being sustained today.
The exhibition, which is free of charge, runs through May 11, though an extension is under consideration.