In late October 1866, a young student and poet named Gerard Manley Hopkins boarded a train in Oxford and took the sixty-mile journey north to the industrial city of Birmingham. There he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by John Henry Newman.
By that time Newman had a saintly reputation. Once a renowned Anglican preacher and don at Oxford, he had gone on to become a Catholic priest and later founded the oratories of St. Philip Neri in London and Birmingham.
In the mid-1990s, I decided to trace the poet’s decisive journey from Oxford to Birmingham and to the Catholic Church. In Birmingham, I found myself at the entrance of the Oratory residence, where a pleasant seminarian offered to show me Newman’s room. (I was lucky—such visits are now restricted.)
We climbed a wide staircase to the second floor, where he opened a door and a hundred years fell away. The room remained exactly as it had been when the cardinal died on August 11, 1890. The floor was covered with worn brown-patterned linoleum, the walls lined with leather-bound books. A partition divided the room. On the other side was an altar set against the wall, and in front of it there was a single prie-dieu on which rested Newman’s enormous galero, or cardinal’s hat. This tiny space, which once served as his bedroom, had been made into a private chapel after he was named a cardinal. The overall impression was one of simplicity and single-mindedness, but there was also a sense of Victorian...