A little piece of history is about to be consigned to the recycle bin of fond memories (well, for some anyway….). Yesterday I took a train journey up to Durham, and a short bus-ride out to Ushaw College to ‘celebrate’ the last “Grand Day” of its 203 year history.
Ushaw College has been the principal Catholic Seminary for the north of England for 2
centuries, and was established from Douai College in northern France even before Catholic Emancipation became official in 1829. Read more here. The College has had a long and complex history, culminating in its fight over several recent years to survive the tides of change. After a couple of ‘stays of execution’, it has finally thrown in the towel and announced its closure in June of this year. The reasons given are entirely financial.
When I joined the College in 1961 as an 11 year old, I joined what was then a flourishing Junior House that formed part of the extended College, which trained students from the beginning of secondary schooling right through to ordination at the age of 24/25 years. There had been a post-war boom in vocations, and the Catholic church had invested hugely in seminary training from a young age, inculcating a curriculum that was heavily biased towards the classics with a quasi-monastic existence (which didn’t appeal to everyone!). It probably was not surprising that there was a high drop-out rate. The 60s and 70s heralded massive changes in society. Some say that if you can
remember that period you weren’t really a part of it. Those of us at Ushaw watched the 60s unfold from the touch line, and most couldn’t resist running onto the pitch to be a part of the great melée. Hence, the Junior House eventually closed down and the College continued as a Senior Seminary in liaison with Durham University becoming, at one time, a residential University College.
This year’s “Grand Day” (ie Old Boys reunion) was the final Act of the 203 year drama. About 300 former students of all ages, many in the ordained ministry, but perhaps the majority (like myself) lay members, gathered together for Mass in St Cuthbert’s Chapel (a historic monument in its own right) and a convivial meal afterwards in the Refectory, a place that conjured up so many memories for all present. Like most Grand Days, the celebration was rounded off with a game of Cat (a French game inherited from Douai College and unique to Ushaw in the UK).
As I hastened down the long drive to catch a bus into town, I chanced by another Ushawman from the 1940s who shared a number of fond memories of his time at the College. But what stood out for
him (a little painfully, perhaps) was that when his brother joined him at the College, his parents always sent letters to be shared by both of them, and they were always addressed to his younger brother. For several years, he had never received an unopened letter from home. And at the age of 76, that was still a little unresolved grievance for him.
So, many of us were meeting up for the first time since our College days. I counted at least nine from my own year group, and some of us were celebrating 50 years since we joined the College in 1961. And how we had all changed!! Memory has the habit of playing tricks on us. As we scanned the ranks for familiar faces, we conserved the memories of classmates as they had been 50 years ago, and that could be very deceptive. But by the end of the afternoon, we had all located each other, and this is the result. Happy days!!