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Our Lady in the Dioceses

Chapter 3 - Stonyhurst College

Written by Matt Betts (mjwbetts@hotmail.com)

In the last two chapters, I discussed the concept of Our Lady’s Dowry, and the great Marian shrine of Walsingham. For the next few chapters,
my intention is to look at the various dedications to Our Lady throughout the Catholic Association Dioceses and Groups. In this chapter, I will be looking at Our Lady of Stonyhurst and the school’s long association with her.

Stonyhurst College is a Catholic school in the Jesuit tradition and is located near Clitheroe in rural Lancashire, England, where it occupies a Grade I listed building. The school was founded in 1593 by Father Robert Persons SJ at St Omer, at a time when penal laws prohibited Catholic education in England. It relocated to Stonyhurst Hall in 1794, having previously moved to Bruges in 1762 and Liège in 1773.

In its mission statement, the school promises “to educate the whole person, integrating a pupil’s intellectual, spiritual, moral, emotional, psychological,
social and physical development”. It also promises to “foster a strong community with Jesus Christ at its centre”, and to “remain creatively faithful to the College’s Ignatian and Jesuit tradition and spirit”. The Jesuit ethos is to educate the whole person and to make sure that our faith is at the centre of everything.

The Jesuit order’s founder, St Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises asks the reader to pray to Our Lady, and through Our Lady we are to offer ourselves as poor servants to her Son. The great Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, spent a number of years at Stonyhurst; his dedication to Our Lady is very evident in his poetry, such as the poem, The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe:

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my forward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Following St Ignatius’ guidelines the school has always kept the feast days of Our Lady, and has a number of statues and altars dedicated to her. One of the most impressive statues is the Lady's Statue, which sits at the top of a grand avenue to the school. Stonyhurst was originally built by a local Catholic landowner, Richard Shireburn, and he particularly wanted visitors to be in awe of its beauty, so he built the avenue which stretches from the local village of Hurst Green to the main door of the building. Later on, when the building became a school, the avenue became a useful place for processions, such as the grand Corpus Christi processions. So to add to the religious experience the statue of Our Lady was erected by the school (in 1882) at the top of the avenue. The statue is a replica of the one put up in Rome by Pius IX in honour of the Immaculate Conception 28 years before. It’s possible to imagine Hopkins writing his poem on Our Lady with the statue in mind. Richard’s avenue continues to succeed in its aim, and visitors always comment on the drive down to the school, but since 1882 there has been an additional beauty with the statue of Our Lady.

Inside the building, the school is adorned by many depictions of Our Lady’s life, but of particular note is the beautiful altar and statue to Our Lady which is situated outside two chapels; the Boys’ chapel and the Angels chapel. The statue depicts Our Lady with the baby Jesus and during the month of May, May Verses were exhibited here. Even though it is situated in the middle of the school it remains a very peaceful place for private prayer.

Early on in the development of the Society of Jesus, they founded and promoted the Sodality of Our Lady, their primary organisation for their students until the 1960s, which they used to encourage frequent attendance at Mass, reception of communion, daily recitation of the Rosary, and attendance at retreats. On 27 September, 1948, Pope Pius XII praised all the Sodality’s for their "numerous and great services to the Church" and said of Sodalists "indeed in propagating, spreading and defending Catholic doctrine they must be considered among the most powerful spiritual forces" and added that "wherever Sodalities are in a flourishing condition - holiness of life and solid attachment to religion readily grow and flourish".

Until the advent of the Second Vatican Council, the Sodality of Our Lady at Stonyhurst was a well-known part of the life of the school and had its own chapel dedicated to it. However, after the Council, its character was viewed as old-fashioned and the Sodality ended. As a curious pupil at the school in the 1990s, I remember discovering the Sodality chapel - it was very much a forgotten place and was only used very occasionally. However the chapel’s story has a happy ending; during the early part of the 21st century, the school re-founded the Sodality with its old pupils association, and the chapel has once again become a central place of worship. Long may that continue.

As an aside, the chapel also holds the bones of St Gordianus, a Roman judge, who was so moved by the sanctity and sufferings of Januarius that he converted to Christianity with many of his household. Being accused before his successor, he was cruelly tortured and finally beheaded. In the 17th century his remains were removed from near Rome and were eventually interred below the altar of the Sodality chapel at Stonyhurst.

The school’s dedication to Our Lady does not end with the buildings and walkways, as the school has attended the Catholic Association Pilgrimage since 1963/4. From the beginning of the Stonyhurst Pilgrimage a notable feature has been that it has comprised such a diverse and comprehensive representation of all those who make up the Stonyhurst 'Family'.

The connection to Lourdes is extremely important to the school, and in celebration of the 150th anniversary a new Rosary Garden and statue were built in front of the historic building. Also, in the 1960’s it received a piece of the Grotto rock from the Soubirous family, and this is on show near the Angels Chapel.

The school’s dedication to Our Lady is over four hundred years old, and sits very deep within its heritage and history. Anyone who is in the area should definitely try and visit the beautiful grounds and building, which is an integral part of this country’s Catholic heritage.

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