Inspired by history in action

Jan Graffius with delegates and the Stonyhurst collection

Stonyhurst College has for centuries been a repository for curious and precious items relating to the history of Catholicism in Britain. 

Curator of the Stonyhurst Collections, Jan Graffius, gave a guided tour to the delegates at the province conference held at the college last week.  She explained that over the centuries the Jesuits had collected, been given and bequeathed an extraordinary array of items now housed in a suite of rooms, some originally designated for display purposes, as well as a newly converted chapel museum and a library.  Several of the Jesuits in the audience had fond memories of this library from their time as students or teachers at the school, as a room where they took tea.

One of the items Jan highlighted was the very first acquisition, Henry VII’s cope and chasuble, recorded in 1609 when the British Jesuits were still based at St Omers in France, the oldest of many richly decorated and historic vestments in the collection.

Another was the personal crucifix of St Thomas More.  This Jan allowed delegates to handle, so they could feel the rough metal edges designed for self-chastisement.  Among the more macabre items on display, Jan pointed out a relic of James II – a piece of his intestine, which he bequeathed to the Jesuits on his death in exile in 1701; and the eye of St Edmund Oldcorne SJ, who was executed in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Jan described how she uses the collection as a teaching aid, both with the students of Stonyhurst and its prep school, St Mary’s Hall, and with children from other local schools around Lancashire and Merseyside.  As well as supporting the history and religious curriculum, students learn about conservation and story-telling.

Jan Graffius shows the Book of HoursDescribing an enormous Book of Hours which once belonged to the Spanish royal family she explained how “children become wide-eyed when I explain how vellum is made, and how many calves were killed to create this beautiful book.”

Also of interest were artefacts used by priests ministering in secret during the penal years, for example a chalice assembled from three separate unidentifiable pieces, and a well-thumbed and condensed book of sacramental prayers: 
“If you can imagine a community which hasn’t seen a priest for over a year perhaps, there will be children to baptise, marriages to regularise, confessions, confirmations all to be completed within a couple of days before he has to move on. So having lightweight book with all these sacraments easily hidden within clothes was essential. This one was clearly very well-used.”

Jan says that even young children find the collections incredibly inspiring, and after just a short time are able to speak about the objects and explain their significance to others.

Conference delegates were equally fascinated at this insight into our Jesuit heritage.

The collection started as a sanctuary for the scattered fragments of Catholic culture rescued during the Reformation; and to this day it continues to be the chief repository of memory for the Roman Catholic community of Britain, at home and in exile. On behalf of the Jesuits in Britain, it holds many important artefacts, such as a thorn from the Crown of Thorns presented to Mary Queen of Scots by her father-in-law Henri II, and the rope that bound St Edmund Campion SJ to the hurdle at the time of his execution. 

And the collection continues to grow. Among the newest acquisitions is a relic of St Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador – a piece of the bloodstained alb he was wearing when he was shot dead in 1980.   Julian Filochowski, Chair of the Romero Trust, is on the left in the picture below with Fr Denis Blackledge SJ and Jan Graffius. 

The collection can be visited by the public at certain times, see the Stonyhurst College website for more details.

Julian Filochowski, Denis Blackledge SJ and Jan Graffius with the relic of St Oscar Romero