Fisher House today
The Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy, now popularly known as Fisher House, was founded by papal indult in 1895, when Catholics were allowed once more to read for degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. Since 1924 Fisher House, a cluster of two sixteenth century houses, has been its home. The acting chaplain is Father Robert Verrill OP (a Dominican friar and Cambridge graduate, recently returned to the UK from Baylor University); the assistant chaplains are Sister Ann Swailes OP and Father Chase Pepper, a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross. While Sister Ann and Father Chase are on sabbatical, Paul Norris (a recent graduate of Cambridge) is working as a pastoral assistant.
The chaplaincy is open daily to all Catholic members of the University, from undergraduates to fellows. There are usually three Sunday Masses (a said English vigil Mass, sung Latin Mass and sung English Mass), and a daily Mass. During the exam period, Lauds is also celebrated. College representatives also help to organise periodic Masses in College chapels.
The current pandemic has sadly limited the number of activities that can take place in person, but mass is still open to the public, celebrated twice a day on weekdays and at 10.30am on Sundays.
The Fisher House Library has a fine collection of theology, biography, history, and literature. It can be used by all Catholic undergraduates and postgraduates, and is open whenever Fisher House itself is open.
The Terrace is one of the best-kept secrets in Cambridge, and is available (weather permitting!) for all users of Fisher House. It is also the location for summer barbecues and parties.
The finances of the chaplaincy, including building upkeep, are handled by the Cambridge University Catholic Association (CUCA), while the chaplains are appointed by the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board (OCCEB). Day-to-day running of the chaplaincy is handled by the chaplain and the student-run Fisher Society. Catholic students and those who regularly attend Mass at Fisher House are automatically members of the Fisher Society, and anybody else is welcome to join the events organised by the committee.
Regular events include the annual Fisher Mass (in recent years celebrated at Great St Mary’s) and the Gilbey requiem, as well as the Fisher Society dinner, barbecue, and garden party at the nearby Dominican priory. Lunches are organised daily (excepting Sundays when tea is provided), as well as many parties and events throughout the term.
The chaplaincy provides weekly courses and discussion groups on bible study, theology, ethics, poetry, philosophy and others, as well as an annual series of Fisher Lectures.
History of Fisher House
Foundation and Early Years (1871-1924)
Oxford and Cambridge opened their doors to Catholics in 1871 after the repeal of the Test Acts which had excluded Catholics from the ancient universities. However, the Catholic hierarchy, believing that it would be impossible for the students to attend Oxford and Cambridge without being corrupted by an increasing atmosphere of liberalism and scepticism, forbade Catholics to attend, and sought instead to found a Catholic university in London. This decision was met with public outcry from wealthy laity who wished for their sons to attend Oxbridge colleges. Following the death of Cardinal Manning, who had been implacably opposed to Catholics attending Oxford or Cambridge, a petition led by the Catholic Cambridge fellow Baron Anatole von Hügel was presented to the Bishops and the ban was lifted in 1896 with the condition that a chaplaincy be established to provide teaching on philosophy, history and religion.
As a consequence, the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board was founded, and Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, purchased property at St Edmund’s House, where the Catholic Chaplaincy was established, with Fr Edmund Nolan as first chaplain. The very first lectures were given by Cuthbert Butler, OSB, entitled “Questions of the Day”. At the same time, the Fisher Society was established by Cambridge students as a literary and debating society.
In 1899, the Cambridge University Catholic Association (CUCA) was founded, and purchased rooms for the chaplaincy at 2 Green Street. Later, under Monsignor Arthur Barnes, the chaplaincy moved to Llandaff House near Downing College. After the Great War, Fr Bernard Marshall became chaplain at 50 Bridge Street, and then 2 Round Church Street, next to the Union.
Fisher House (1924-present)
In 1924, a Grade II listed pub called the ‘Black Swan’ was purchased by CUCA for £10,000. The chaplaincy was moved there and named Fisher House. It is an interesting cluster of buildings with two old houses joined at right angles. One overhangs the street and dates from the late 16th century. The other (containing the dining room, kitchen, great chamber, and living quarters) is of the early 17th century with medieval cellars. The site included a Victorian billiard room, and a large courtyard, which later housed the two-storey chapel. The old chaplaincy building survived the plan of the City Council to demolish Petty Cury, and remains the only surviving part of central medieval city architecture.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey was chaplain from 1932 to 1965: a renowned and much-loved figure who fought to prevent Fisher House being demolished for redevelopment. He was interred in the courtyard in 1998.
Fisher House was officially opened on 4 May 1925, at that time the feast of Blessed John Fisher. In 1937 a women’s chaplaincy was founded at Lady Margaret House, and was merged into Fisher House in 1966. Originally Mass was held in a chapel in an upper room, but in 1967 work was started on a new hall and side chapel. The new chaplaincy buildings were opened for worship in 1976.
The hall, used for Mass on Sunday, was originally rented out during the week to market traders to provide income, and was also the focus of chaplaincy social events. In 2008, after a successful appeal to raise £2 million, it became a permanent place of worship. This endowment fund included a personal donation of 3000 euro from Pope Benedict XVI, who had previously stayed at Fisher House while delivering the Fisher Lecture at the Chaplaincy in January 1988.
In 2005, a reconstruction of a c. 1280 Cimabue crucifix was commissioned from the Hamilton Kerr Institute by Fr Alban McCoy. This artwork was created according to contemporary medieval Italian methods, and was completed in March 2008. It was installed at Fisher House and consecrated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
The fundraising enabled the creation of a permanent chapel. Consecrated in 2011, it is a remarkably beautiful and light space; the harmony of its spaces, and its subdued colour palette, make it a worthy religious focus both for great ceremonies and for private prayer.
In May 2015, the chapel was completed with the addition of a stone altar, containing relics of some of the Cambridge martyrs. It was consecrated by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, and provides a worthy centre for the worship which is the foundation of life at the chaplaincy.
Fisher House now encompasses a venerable old building, with a fine modern chapel and meeting room, with a library and terrace. It is thus well equipped to serve the Catholic Community of the University – undergraduates, graduates and Senior Members – remaining true to its original mandate: to support, encourage, challenge and guide the members of the University in living out their Catholic faith in Cambridge.