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A Letter to the Catholics of Toronto from St. John Henry Newman

Posted : Feb-13-2024

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In early February of 1853, a 51-year-old Catholic priest in Birmingham, England felt moved to compose a letter to the faithful Catholics of Toronto. Fr. John Henry Newman had given a series of 9 weekly public lectures a few years earlier, between June 30 and September 1, 1951, on the Present Position of Catholics in England.

Within these lectures, Newman – who would later become Cardinal Newman, later still a Saint – spoke on the rising tide of anti-Catholicism in England a topic that he would have been well versed in, seeing as he himself had converted to Catholicism from the Anglican church in 1847. He had been a priest with the Anglican church for 22 years before converting.

In the fifth of the series of 9 lectures, Newman denounced a number of different anti-Catholic characters of the time including Giacinto Achilli, a man accused of multiple accounts of abuse and who was discharged from the priesthood, imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition before escaping and turning to work as a clergyman for the Anglican church to evangelize, engaging largely in anti-Catholic propaganda.

Achilli would end up taking Newman to court for libel. After a three-day trial, Newman was found guilty and aside from a lengthy lecture delivered to Newman from the judge on sentencing day, was ordered to pay a fine of £100. In addition to that, he was also on the hook for more than £12,000 for court costs. Newman was able to instantly pay the fee of £100, however the larger sum for court costs was a different story.

His defense committee had been organizing a fund in order to support Newman as they knew there would likely be a financial burden resulting from the trial. Catholics throughout England, and indeed overseas including here in Toronto contributed to the fund.

Terence O’Neill, President of the Catholic Institute of Toronto was able to collect £20 from faithful Torontonians and sent it off in the post to Newman on January 9, 1953.

Portion of Letter from St. John Henry Newman

What O’Neill received back is truly remarkable. Newman had taken time to write a personalized letter dated February 5, 1853, addressed from Birmingham. Newman wrote as follows:

My dear Sir, 

     Such proofs of interest in me as your most friendly letter, and the very handsome contribution to my law expenses which it enclosed, are very acceptable to me, as showing that my cause is not a private one but belongs to the Catholic Church.   You will have learned from the newspapers already that the liberality of Catholics has enabled me to carry on the contest to its final issue, which otherwise would have been impossible, and that that final issue is a moral triumph.   I have indeed been nominally punished, with the additional infliction of admonitory words, which, however spoken by a Protestant judge on extra-judicial subjects, have, of course, no weight, and have met with no response from the public.   Immediately before the judgment my counsel got up, one after another, and protested   I withdrew not a syllable of the original charge;  but though the opposite counsel got up in great excitement, declared such a proceeding was unprecedented, and assured the judges that unless I were visited in consequence with a heavy punishment, Achilli would go out of court to less advantage than he came in, they took no notice of it.

     Pray mention this to my good friends and benefactors, the Catholics of Toronto, of whom you are the representative;  and while you assure them of the gratitude I shall always feel for their seasonable charity, beg of them that, now that my name has become familiar to them, they will give me the benefit of their good prayers in time to come, that I may to the end prove worthy of the generous solicitude they have shown me, and of the effectual support they have extended to me in the most trying event of my life.

     With my best acknowledgments for the special trouble you have yourself taken in my behalf, I am, my dear Sir, very respectfully and gratefully                                

yours in Xt

John H Newman

of the Oratory.

In the end, Newman’s fund was able to pay, in full, for court costs and with the approximately £2000 surplus, a small property was secured where a chapel and a cemetery was built – the cemetery in which Newman was buried after passing away in 1890.

The Archdiocese of Toronto has recently gained possession of the original copy of this letter, now framed, after the letter was put up for auction and purchased by the Archdiocese of Birmingham who thought it fitting that the letter make its home here among the Catholics of Toronto.

Portion of Letter from St. John Henry Newman


Images of the Original Letter

Portion of Letter from St. John Henry Newman



Portion of Letter from St. John Henry Newman



Portion of Letter from St. John Henry Newman



Letter from St. John Henry Newman