From the Archives: 170 years of St Beuno's

Published on 08 Oct 2018
Monochrome photo of St Beuno's with cows in foreground

This month marks the 170th anniversary of the opening of St Beuno’s, a College dedicated to the 7th century Welsh Abbot, confessor, and patron saint for sick children and against diseased cattle. To celebrate this occasion we have taken a look back at the rich history of the former Jesuit College-turned-Retreat centre, found within material in the archive.

Completed in October 1848 St Beuno’s was built to relieve the growing numbers of prospective Jesuit priests putting a strain on Stonyhurst College, and would soon become the home of the British Province’s new ‘theologate’; welcoming in the first wave of theologians from their various places of exile on the now never-to-be-forgotten date of October 24th 1848.  The location of the College, selected by the Provincial at the time, Fr Lythgoe, was deliberately chosen to be in the North Wales countryside due to its beauty and sense of peace, but also to increase the Catholic presence in the surrounding areas:

“At the time when the College was founded . . . with the solitary exception of Bangor, an isolated mission some forty miles to the westward, an English traveller penetrating the Principality could have found no Catholic mission in North Wales after leaving Talacre and Holywell.” (Letters & Notices vol. 2 pp. 7-11.)

Photograph of St Beuno's College and the surrounding countryside, undated

It was also believed that, at a time when cities were rife with epidemics such as typhoid and cholera, the fresh air of North Wales would allow the young priests to better prepare for serving schools and parishes in more polluted, industrial towns and cities.

The architect was Joseph Aloysius Hansom, famous as the inventor of the ‘Hansom Cab’, who’s original design of the building is described in detail in a letter written just a year after the College first opened its doors:

“The plan of the house which is a square is so arranged that the height of the second gallery corresponds with the rise of the hill on which it is built so that the second elevation, [and] the first both open on different elevations of the ground. The Recreation Room, School Room [and] 2 private rooms with an Entrance Hall to one of the rooms of the house join the front, over them the Library, Rector’s [and] Strangers’ [and] other rooms. The Southern side consists of three galleries, one over the other, in which the Professors’, Priests, and other Divines’ Rooms. The Refectory occupies the Northern Side together with the chief entrance to the House. The Kitchen [and] offices branch off at right angles from the corner of the refectory distinct from the quadrangle. On the Eastern side but looking in towards the quadrangle are the infirmary Rooms . . . It is on this side of the house that the chapel is . . . The floor of the chapel is of different elevation to suit the rising ground on which it is built . . .” (MSB/46 ff.553-556 Letter from Chas Henry Collyns to Brooke at Exeter, 28 August 1849.)

Hansom’s design would remain untouched for 20 years, when extra rooms were added in the attics and a new North Wing was constructed. Prior to this, in 1866, the ‘Rock Chapel’ was built on a wooded hill three hundred yards south of the College, designed by student and trained architect, Ignatius Scoles SJ, whose First Mass was the opening of the Chapel. The Chapel could hold roughly 12 people and Mass would regularly be said there in the months of May and June, and was built “. . . in honour of Our Lady of Sorrows and as a pilgrimage shrine in reparation for the 64 shrines . . . in honour of Our Lady destroyed in North Wales during the Reformation years.” (Letters & Notices vol. 71 p. 92.)

A rare image of the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Mary, in front of the ‘Rock Chapel’, July 1st 1954

The days of theologians training at St Beuno’s were filled with activity, as demonstrated in a letter written by a trainee on 1 January 1850:

“Our order of the Day is as follows: We rise at 5-, and finishing our spirit Duties by 7 we have ¾ hour’s study until ¼ to 8 when we have breakfast. After breakfast studies come until 10 from which hour until 12 ½ we have Dogmatic Moral, Canon Law Lectures . . . Dinner at 1. Fri[day] ½ p[ast] 2 to 3 Studies. At 3 Hebrew for the 1st year Divines. At 3 ½ Evening Dogmatic. At 4 ½ recreation ‘till 5; after which studies until 20 min[utes] to 7, at which time we have Circle for an hour, after which supper follows. Then things as usual until time of rest at 10. This is the order for every day of the week, (except Sunday and Thursday the weekly recreation day) . . .” (MSB/46 ff.557-562 Letter from Chas Henry Collyns to Brooke at Exeter, 1 January 1850.)

The College and its extensive library, which itself possesses a fascinating history, offered the young men many courses and opportunities to broaden their knowledge of a range of subjects:

“In addition to the usual course of study followed in our house of Theology, we had an English Academy, and a Welsh Class. The Academicians exhibited a weekly essay in English on some subject connected with Sacred Learning. The Welsh Class was established to help us to be of some service to the poor people around us, who are unable to speak English.” (Letters & Notices vol. 3 pp 112-114.)

Whilst times of recreation afforded students opportunity for lighter studies such as Architecture, Antiquities, and Botany, which often led to papers published in the ‘Dublin Review’ and ‘The Month’.

The College Dining Hall, where residents would meet for breakfast, dinner and supper.

Since its beginnings St. Beuno’s has served many purposes; in 1926 studying theologians were transferred to Heythrop College in Oxfordshire and it instead became a place for the last year of Jesuit training, the tertianship, in addition to housing older Jesuits as the Province infirmary. During the London bombings of the Second World War it served as a refuge to many Jesuit novices escaping the city. However, it was not until late in the 20th century that St Beuno’s took on its current form, first by opening the house to 8, and then 30 day retreats for religious sisters in the 1970s, and then by closing the tertianship and dedicating the entire house to retreats and spirituality in the 1980s. 

Today the house has a full and thriving programme of retreats and courses all year round, from weekends to 30 days.

If you are interested in the history of St Beuno's, or the work of the Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, please contact us.

Alex Van Goethem, Cataloguing Archivist

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