William Neville

This reminiscence by Fr Denis Sheil is taken from the Oratory Parish Magazine for November 1960.

Father William Neville might be described as a mysterious person, but this would be a mistake engendered by his extreme reticence about himself and his obliviousness of his own ease and comfort. His personality seemed to elude you, and the element of the unexpected was part of his make-up. Was he a convert? Yes, undoubtedly, though he never said so. Where was he at School? Did he go to a University? There was always a strong tradition amongst the Oratory school boys, and indeed amongst the Fathers, that he had been in the Guards, and this explained his lack of contacts with ecclesiastical circles. Once, and once only, when chatting with me, he gave a personal recollection; I listened with all my ears, hoping for more: but it was limited to the profound impression made on him, at his first meeting with Newman – Entering a room he beheld a figure leaning against the mantlepiece, talking familiarly with the company, and that was Newman, to whom then, and for ever, he wholly surrendered himself. How many questions I would have liked to ask but dared not: and any suspicion of prying would have ended any chance of more information.

After being received into the Oratory he discovered his vocation to watch over and minister to J. H. N., and when Fr. Ambrose St. John died in 1875, Fr. William made this the occupation of his life. As the years went on J. H. N. became more and more an invalid and Fr. William nursed him continually; None the less he fulfilled all the community duties, often at considerable sacrifice, not known by others at the time. I remember a Palm Sunday High Mass lasting from 10.30 until 1.00 (owing to the long Procession and the sung Passion) and at the last moment there was a difficulty about the celebrant. Fr. William promptly stepped in to take it – and I found out afterwards that he had been up all night looking after the Cardinal and was very tired indeed.

When the unexpected happened to Fr. William one always said “How like him”. Thus, at Baddesley Court the Forty Hours was being kept with specially large ceremony – for it happened to be August Bank Holiday – the High Mass was to be at eleven o’clock. Suddenly the nuns realised to their horror that no arrangement had been made for a celebrant. With growing despair they found, of course, that every priest who arrived for the ceremonies had already said Mass. At the last minute Father William arrived. Had he said Mass? No, somehow he hadn’t. All was well. But why had he not said Mass? Just like Fr. William, no explanation at all.

Some of the things that happened to him were not so laughable then as they seem now. Thus, our present home in the Hagley Road was being built while the Fathers lived at Alcester Street. There was a continuous coming and going through (through green meadows and trees, Fr. Austin used to say) and Dr. Newman decided that Fr. William should take up residence at Hagley Road to settle the minute to minute difficulties that arose. He occupied the last room on the left of the top floor. A week after his arrival he developed small-pox – and this was in pre-vaccination days when it was a deadlier menace than now – he recovered, but the catching of such a thing at such a time was ‘just like him’.

Father William was, however, far from being a ‘queer one’. He was genial with a great sense of humour, and great charm of manner. He was tall, very spare, and admitted only one eccentricity – his reticence about himself and his jealous reserve in discussing Newman (which arose perhaps because of the ill-treatment of which J. H. N. had been the victim). After Newman’s death he found himself literary executor, and the immense work was begun of collecting, arranging and cataloguing the vast correspondence of over 20,000 letters (which will soon begin to be published) and he himself produced a widely read collection of Newman’s prayers and meditations.

NOTE: Fr. William Neville was not quite the ‘mystery’ that he seemed to be to Fr. Denis. A native of Ulster, he was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Oxford, at the time that J. H. N. was living in retirement at Littlemore. After taking his degree he went to St. Saviour’s, Leeds, as a lay helper. He remained at this outpost of Tractarianism for two years. St. Saviour’s reached a crisis in its history in 1851 and Newman went to Leeds and at once began to receive converts, among others, William Neville, who, a week later, proceeded to the Oratory. (Editor)