St John, Ambrose (1815-1875), Roman Catholic priest and headmaster, was born in Islington, London, on 29 June 1815, the younger son of Henry St John (1768-1833) and Catherine (d. 1856), the daughter of the Revd Henry Wigley of Pensham House, Worcestershire. Ambrose was the grandson of St Andrew St John, dean of Worcester, and the great-grandson of John, tenth Lord St John of Bletso. He entered Westminster School in 1829, became a king’s scholar the following year, and in 1834 went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was elected to a studentship. He proved to be a good classical scholar and a keen Orientalist, studying Hebrew and Syriac under Edward Pusey, though he only gained a third-class degree in literae humaniores (1837). St John graduated MA in 1840, and, after taking holy orders, served as curate (1841-3) to Henry Wilberforce, first at Bransgore, in Hampshire, and then at Walmer, near Deal. It was Wilberforce who provided the link with John Henry Newman, who first met St John on 21 April 1841 at the consecration of Ampfield church, in John Keble’s parish of Hursley.
On 7 August 1843, suffering increasing doubts about the Church of England, St John joined Newman’s community at Littlemore; but the anticipated visit of ‘about 3 months, perhaps for a longer time’ (Letters and Diaries, 9.428) turned into an association of thirty-two years. St John left Littlemore on 30 September 1845 for a visit to Prior Park, Bath, and, after three days there, was received into the Roman Catholic church; he returned to Littlemore in time to be present at Newman’s reception on 9 October. At his confirmation at Oscott College St John asked if he could take a vow of obedience to Newman; the request was turned down, but for the rest of his life St John acted as if he had taken one. In the autumn of 1846 he and Newman set off for the College of Propaganda Fide in Rome to study for the priesthood; there the Romans spoke of the fair-haired, blue-eyed Englishman as Newman’s guardian angel. The two were ordained priests on Trinity Sunday 1847 by Cardinal Fransoni at Propaganda, and, after a short novitiate, returned to Birmingham, where Newman was to establish the first oratory of St Philip Neri in England.
St John remained at the Birmingham Oratory for the rest of his life, effectively acting as Newman’s right-hand man. By nature vivacious, energetic, and practical, St John took easily to parish work, and was indefatigable in pulpit and confessional alike. In September 1849 he and Newman volunteered to help the priest at cholera-struck Bilston, risking their lives in the process. As well as shouldering many of the tasks at the oratory, St John acted as superior when Newman was in Dublin overseeing the Catholic University; and in December 1855 he and Newman went to Rome to resolve a dispute with the newly formed London Oratory.
In 1857, when Newman was asked to undertake a new translation of the Bible from the Vulgate version, he chose St John as one of the chief translators. St John began work on the book of Psalms, adding a commentary from the Hebrew text, but the Bible project was abandoned (and his translation of the Psalms left unpublished). St John saw through three other major translations: the Raccolta (1857), a vast Italian collection of prayers, which ran to numerous editions and was praised by the Weekly Register (14 Nov 1857) for its ‘great felicity of expression'; the Doctrine of Holy Indulgences (1868), also from the Italian; and Joseph Fessler’s True and False Infallibility of the Popes (1875) from the German.
In January 1862, at Newman’s request, St John dropped his literary work to undertake the headmastership of the Oratory School. It had been founded by Newman in 1859 as a public school for Catholics at the request of a group of Catholic converts, led by Edward Bellasis; but the experiment nearly collapsed when the first headmaster and his staff mutinied in December 1861. Bellasis and James Hope-Scott, the school’s main benefactors, came to the rescue and enabled St John to take over, under Newman’s presidency. St John soon remedied the deficiencies in Catholic training and teaching that he had inherited and over the next decade ensured that the school was re-formed along the lines originally intended by Newman. From the outset the school had employed the Eton dame system, to provide female care for the younger boys. Now, under St John, discipline was tightened up and the school became more orderly. St John and Newman worked together on many school tasks: dealing with parents, whom they treated as partners in education; undertaking the individual interviews with boys after the end-of-term exams, at which St John read out a report about character; and even, from 1865, overseeing the production of an annual Latin play, for which St John acted as stage-manager. As a pioneering venture-employing laymen, not clerics, as masters, catering ‘for youths whose duties are to lie in the world’ (draft prospectus in Shrimpton, 279) rather than ecclesiastical life-the Oratory School met with fierce opposition from supporters of the other Catholic establishments, and in 1867 St John was sent to Rome to prevent the school’s closure; during his audience with Pius IX the pope commented on how much he had aged.
Due to his chronic asthma and exhaustion, St John retired from the headmastership in 1873 and returned to ordinary oratorian duties. Newman had intended him to act as his literary executor and biographer, but he overworked on the Fessler translation, which was intended to support Newman’s efforts in rebutting William Gladstone’s Vatican Decrees. He died as a result of sunstroke and ‘brain fever’ at Ravenshurst Farm, Edgbaston, on 24 May 1875, and was buried at Rednal near Bromsgrove, in the private cemetery belonging to the Birmingham Oratory. Newman had already paid St John a glowing tribute in Apologia pro vita sua. Now, shortly after his death, Newman acknowledged that ‘As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last’ (Letters and Diaries, 27.305). In recognition of this deep spiritual friendship and absolute loyalty, Newman asked to be (and was) buried in the same grave.
Sources Birmingham Daily Post (26 May 1875) + Catholic Times (28 May 1875) + Catholic Opinion, 11, 528 + Gillow, Lit. biog. hist. + Foster, Alum. Oxon. + Burke, Peerage + The letters and diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. C. S. Dessain and others, [31 vols.] (1961-) + H. Tristram, Newman and his friends (1933) + P. A. Shrimpton, A Catholic Eton? Newman’s Oratory School (2005)
Archives Birmingham Oratory, corresp., diaries, journal, notebooks, sermon notes and papers
Likenesses M. Giberne, oils, 1847 (with Newman), Birmingham Oratory · Southwell Bros., two cartes-de-visite, c.1862, Birmingham Oratory · R. W. Thrupp, four cartes-de-visite, c.1864, Birmingham Oratory · S. Grey, carte-de-visite, c.1868, Birmingham Oratory · M. Giberne, oils, c.1870, Birmingham Oratory · H. J. Whitlock, three cartes-de-visite, c.1873, Birmingham Oratory · photograph, Birmingham Oratory [see illus.] · watercolour over photographic base, Birmingham Oratory
Wealth at death under £2000: probate, 9 July 1875, CGPLA Eng. & Wales