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. Nonetheless, the Catholic hierarchy, believed that it would be impossible for the students to attend Oxford and Cambridge without being corrupted by what was perceived as an increasing atmosphere of liberalism and scepticism; thus, it 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 in each university to provide teaching on philosophy, history and religion.
As a consequence, the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board (OCCEB) 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 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.
Development and consolidation (1924-1965)
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 adjoined 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.
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.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey was chaplain from 1932 to 1965; he was 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 today (1966-)
Mass was originally 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.
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.
Until 2008, the hall, used for Mass on Sunday through a moveable altar, was rented out during the week to market traders to provide income, and was also the focus of the Chaplaincy’s 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 3,000 euros from Pope Benedict XVI, who had stayed at Fisher House while delivering the Fisher Lecture in January 1988, in a guest bedroom now known as the ‘Ratzinger Room’.
The 2008 appeal also 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 2013, Mgr Mark Langham was appointed Chaplain of Fisher House. A much-loved chaplain, Fr Mark was a brilliant entertainer, and a keen artist and gardener. He redecorated much of the interiors of Fisher House, and significantly contributed to the Mary Garden on the terrace. Fr Mark passed away on 15 January 2021.
Under Fr Mark, 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.