The historic estate at Ushaw College may be turned into a centre for Catholic scholarship run by Durham University, it emerged this week.
The move would allow a vast collection of medieval manuscripts and other treasures to stay in one place and be opened up to the public through exhibitions.
It will be considered as part of a feasibility study that was agreed by the college trustees – the bishops of the north of England – last week.
Their decision, which has been hailed as a “breakthrough” by historians and conservationists, comes as the 200-year-old seminary at the college prepares to close.
If the offer by Durham University is accepted, Ushaw’s library, chapel and Georgian frontage would become part of the university’s rapidly expanding Centre for Catholic Studies, a unit of its theology department. Uses are still being sought for the rest of the site, however.
Dr Eamon Duffy, a Catholic historian, praised the bishops’ decision as “enlightened” and said it was “an enormous relief to all of us who care about the Church and its past”.
He said: “The Catholic Church asserts the indispensibility of tradition, yet in this country Catholics have not always been good stewards of our own traditions.”
The college’s magnificent 19th-century buildings and Pugin chapel “embody the resurgence of Catholicism” following the penal laws, Dr Duffy said. Its library, which specialises in medieval manuscripts, has “few rivals” in Britain, he added.
Professor Paul Murray, director of Durham’s Centre for Catholic Studies, said the plan for Ushaw fitted into the “new evangelisation” project. “It would celebrate and transmit to scholars and the wider public the riches of our Catholic tradition,” he said.
He said the library at Ushaw could open up “new fields of research”. Together with the collection at Durham University and Durham Cathedral, he said, it is “arguably the finest collection of medieval manuscripts, incunables and early print books in the country”.
It is understood that a plan to transfer the library to the ecumenical Liverpool Hope University, favoured by Archbishop Patrick Kelly, has been dropped.
The St Cuthbert’s Seminary at Ushaw was founded at Douai, in the Spanish Netherlands, to train English priests during the reign of Elizabeth I. It was relocated to County Durham in 1808.
During the 20th century the college trained hundreds of seminarians but this year it had only 26 students in formation. These students are likely to be transferred to Allen Hall in Chelsea, west London, St John’s, Wonersh, Surrey, or St Mary’s, Oscott, in Birmingham.
Statement from Dr Eamon Duffy, Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge
In cultural importance for English Catholics, Ushaw College is on a par with, say, Westminster cathedral or, from the more remote past, Lindisfarne. Its chapel and eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings embody the resurgence of Catholicism as a cultural force in England after the repeal of the Penal laws. Considered simply as a library and an archive, it has few rivals anywhere in the country, and its holdings compare well with any of the great college libraries of Oxford or Cambridge. The Ushaw library collections chart the intellectual formation of the English Catholic clergy over the last three or four centuries, in Lisbon and Douay as well as England, and the library holds rare or unique copies of many early Catholic printed books. Its manuscript holdings stretch back into the Middle Ages, and include a mass of documentary material from penal times, and from the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, when Ushaw was a powerhouse for the
reestablishment of Catholicism as a major religious and social force in the North of England. Thousands of priests who served the Catholic community faithfully were educated there as boys, and then formed as seminarians. Its Pugin chapel is an architectural jewel.
The Catholic Church asserts the indispensibiity of tradition, yet in this country Catholics have not always been good stewards of our own traditions. But the people who forget or neglect their roots are lost. This joint commitment by the Ushaw trustees and Durham University will help ensure that both the buildings and their treasures are maintained in their historic setting, not as fossils, but as a living centre of scholarship, and as a religious and cultural resource, for the wider community as well as for Roman Catholics. The association with the Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies means that Ushaw’s wonderful scholarly collections will be put to good use. This enlightened decision is an enormous relief to all of us who care about the Church and its past: everyone involved in it is warmly to be congratulated.