Ambrose St. John

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Ambrose St. John

The Reverend Father Ambrose St. John (1815 – 24 May 1875 in Edgbaston, Birmingham) was an English Oratorian and convert to Catholicism. He is now best known as a lifelong friend of the Bl. John Henry Newman.[1]

Early life[edit]

He was born and brought up in Hornsey, Middlesex, now in north London.[2] He was the son of Henry St. John, descended from the Barons St. John of Bletso. He was educated at Westminster School, and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated M.A., forming a lifelong friendship with Newman.


In 1841 he became curate to Henry Wilberforce, first at Walmer, subsequently at East Farleigh. He then joined Newman at Littlemore which he left, on his conversion to the Catholic Church, about a month before Newman's conversion in October, 1845. After a short time spent with Newman at Maryvale he accompanied him to Rome where they were ordained as priests.

Having become Oratorians, they began mission work in Birmingham (1847), removing to the suburb of Edgbaston in 1852. There he devoted himself entirely to missionary work, taking a leading part in the work of the Birmingham Oratory and its school.

He was a classical scholar and a linguist both in Oriental and European tongues. His death followed work in translating Josef Fessler's book on papal infallibility, published as The True and False Infallibility of the Popes, London, 1875, a defence of the doctrine of Infallibility as taught by the Italian "Ultramontane" theologians, at a time when the controversy over the doctrine was mounting and Newman was engaged in controversy with William Ewart Gladstone. Newman, who with others had been privately opposed to a dogmatic declaration of the doctrine, which Gladstone had vigorously attacked, reproached himself that he had caused his friend's death by overworking him.


He was a man of marked individuality and Newman paid tribute to him in his Apologia. In The Dream of Gerontius, Edward Elgar's piece based on Newman's poem, the character of the Guardian Angel is considered to be based on St. John.[3]

Newman wrote after the death of Fr. Ambrose St John in 1875: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine."

In accordance with his expressed wishes, in 1890 Cardinal Newman was buried in the grave with The Rev. Fr. Ambrose St. John.[4] Previously, they had shared a house. The pall over the coffin bore his cardinal's motto Cor ad cor loquitur ("Heart speaks to heart"). The two men have a joint memorial stone that is inscribed with the words he had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth"). In 2008, Newman's remains in the shared grave were exhumed as part of a plan to move them to the Oratory in Birmingham city centre in preparation for Newman's possible canonization. At the exhumation, Newman's wooden coffin was found to have disintegrated and his body completely decayed.[5]


  • Francis Aidan Gasquet, Lord Acton and his Circle (London, 1906)
  • Gordon Gorman, Converts to Rome (London, 1910)


  1. ^ Dairmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London 2010
  2. ^ St John Heller, Florence, Hornsey Historical Society Bulletin 52 (2011), p 37
  3. ^ Byron Adams, in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar (2005), p. 90.
  4. ^ Alan Bray, The Friend (2003), pp. 303-4.
  5. ^ Gledhill, Ruth (4 October 2008). "The Tomb Was Empty!". The Times (News Corp.). Retrieved 13 October 2008. [dead link]

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.