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Lives remembered: Fr Gregory Winterton

Fr Gregory Winterton, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, was born on July 9 1922. He died on January 18 2012, aged 89.

By on Thursday, 9 February 2012

Fr Gregory Winterton  (Photo: Peter Jennings)

Fr Gregory Winterton (Photo: Peter Jennings)

Cecil John Winterton took the name Gregory, after Pope St Gregory the Great, on entering the Birmingham Oratory in Edgbaston, which was founded by Blessed John Henry Newman, write Peter Jennings and Fr Paul Chavasse.

He was born in Brighton, East Sussex, the oldest son of the future Major-General Sir John Winterton and his wife Helen, née Shepherd-Cross.

He was at school at Selwyn House, Broadstairs (1932-35) and Wellington College, Berkshire (1935-40). Leaving school in the early days of the Second World War, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and saw service in North Africa – where he contacted TB, from which he never recovered – Italy and Palestine. In 1946 John Winterton went to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he read theology.

During his time in Italy he had had the opportunity to visit the Shrine of St Francis of Assisi and it was there that he discovered his vocation to the ministry.

Accepted for training by the Bishop of London, he studied for ordination at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and was ordained an Anglican priest in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in September 1951. He served as a curate in Northolt, and in 1954 came to Wolverhampton as priest-in-charge of St George’s church. He resigned on January 1 1955 and was received into the Catholic Church on Maundy Thursday that year.

In his early days as a Catholic, John Winterton first visited the Oratory. He wanted to meet Fr Denis Sheil, the last survivor of Cardinal Newman’s own community, but he was unwell. Instead, he was welcomed by Fr Stephen Dessain, the archivist and great Newman scholar.

It was not until 1961, when he had already been a student for the Archdiocese of Birmingham for five years, that he joined the Oratory Congregation. Fr Gregory Winterton was ordained priest by Archbishop Francis Grimshaw of Birmingham in the Newman memorial church, situated next to the Oratory House in Edgbaston, on March 9 1963.

During his early years as a priest Fr Gregory taught in St Philip’s Grammar School and many still fondly remember him from those years as “Pop G”. Later on he served as a governor of the school and its successor, the sixth-form college.

He was also a governor of the Oratory School near Reading, originally founded by Blessed John Henry Newman in 1859. He served as Provost of the Oratory from 1971 until 1992 apart from six months in 1977, when Fr Geoffrey Wamsley occupied the position until his sudden death in July that year.

There are two areas of his life at the Oratory for which Fr Gregory Winterton will be long remembered. First, for his work as parish priest. For many years Fr Gregory was a familiar figure riding his old bicycle through the streets of Ladywood and Edgbaston. When at the age of 75 poor eyesight meant that he could no longer use his bicycle, his fast, military style of walking became equally familiar.

He was assiduous in visiting the sick and housebound, spent long hours in his confessional; prepared countless couples for marriage and converts for reception into the Church.

Like St Philip Neri, he loved the youth, and was a keen supporter and chaplain of the Legion of Mary. Until well into old age he was a regular pilgrim to Lourdes and attended Oratorian reunions in Rome, Spain and Mexico. His acts of kindness and generosity (often of a financial nature) were both legion and legendary.

The second great area of his work concerned the Cause for the beatification and canonisation of Cardinal Newman. Opened at the Birmingham Oratory during 1958, the Cause had not made much progress apart from the publication, at regular intervals, of new volumes of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman.

During 1973, Pope Paul VI inquired whether it would be possible to beatify Newman during the course of the 1975 Holy Year. The necessary work was nowhere near ready but, galvanised by papal interest, Fr Gregory devoted increasing amounts of time and energy into revitalising the Newman Cause.

He masterminded the founding of the Friends of Cardinal Newman during 1976 and gave numerous talks and lectures in parishes throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to deepen popular knowledge and love of the Cardinal Newman, a holy, pastoral parish priest who cared for the sick and poor of Ladywood and Edgbaston in Birmingham.

Fr Gregory produced pamphlets and prayer books. His work proved successful and worldwide interest in the life, work and writing of the great English cardinal grew year by year. Combined with the work of Fr Vincent Blehl SJ as postulator, significant developments occurred. A particular milestone was reached with the declaration by Pope John Paul II of Cardinal Newman’s heroic virtues during January 1991.

After that another 18 years elapsed before the beatification of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman at the unforgettable Mass celebrated on September 19 2010 by Benedict XVI at Cotton Park, Birmingham, near the Oratory House at Rednal, where Cardinal Newman was buried in August 1890.

The moment when Fr Gregory was presented to Pope Benedict and, later that same day, when they met on the pavement outside the Oratory House, provided unforgettable pictures of two men in their 80s. The Pope, a devoted student of Newman since early in 1946 and the other, Fr Gregory the tireless advocate of Newman’s holiness. It was the culmination of half a lifetime’s hard work for Fr Gregory Winterton.

The similarities between the much-loved and greatly respected Fr Gregory Winterton and Blessed John Henry Newman were often remarked on, not least the growing physical resemblance that arrived with old age. Both in their own ways made lasting contributions to the life of the Catholic Church in Birmingham and beyond.

Fr Gregory died peacefully in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor at St Joseph’s Home in Harborne. Like his father, Major-General Sir John Winterton, and Blessed John Henry Newman, Fr Gregory was 89 years old.

He had been a member of the Oratory Community for nearly 51 years and a priest for nearly 49 years.

  • Nicola and Sandra

    Fr.Gregory carries  the spirit of John Henry Newman into out time