Dermot Fenlon obituary: Scholarly priest expert on John Henry Newman

Fenlon left a career in academia to join the priesthood, but internal strife at Birmingham Oratory led to him being excluded from Newman beatification ceremony

Born: December 4th, 1941

Died: August 17th, 2022

Fr Dermot Fenlon, who has died in Cobh aged 80, gave up a promising academic career in Cambridge University to become a priest, but was forced to leave the Oratorian order in controversial circumstances in 2010. He was born on December 4th, 1941, second of two sons of Dermot Fenlon, engineer, and his wife Mary (née Tutty). After attending Blackrock College, he tested his vocation with the Holy Ghost Fathers before going on to study history at UCD. Following an outstanding performance in his finals, he graduated in 1963 and then went on to Peterhouse in Cambridge, where he completed his Ph.D. on the English Counter-Reformation Cardinal, Reginald Pole under the supervision of Geoffrey Elton. In 1968 he was elected into a Fellowship at Gonville & Caius College, becoming in time a college tutor and university lecturer.

In 1972 he published his doctoral thesis with Cambridge University Press as Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy. This was a sensitive and pioneering study of Pole, a pivotal figure in the Counter-Reformation, both in Italy and in England, whose intellectual breadth and brilliance, and willingness to explore that dangerous ground between Protestant heresy and Catholic orthodoxy, both worried the papal curia, and also made him such a difficult figure for historians to evaluate. Fifty years later, Heresy and Obedience remains by far the best study on Pole. At this stage he seemed destined for a distinguished academic career, either in Cambridge or in his alma mater, UCD.

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But his academic interests led him in a markedly different direction. A fascination with St Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorian Fathers, and with the work of the 19th century Oratorian, the theologian, scholar and poet John Henry Newman, led him to consider again his religious vocation. In 1978 he entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, and was ordained in 1982, serving initially in the diocese of East Anglia. But he was not really cut out for the secular priesthood, and after teaching at Oscott College seminary in Sutton Coldfield, he found his ideal niche in 1991 when he became a member of the Birmingham Oratory, founded by Newman.

In 2010, after persistent internal arguments within the oratory led to a visitation from Rome by an Apostolic Visitor, Fenlon and two other members of the Oratory were exclaustrated – expelled

Here he both served the faithful in the Oratory church and developed his intellectual interests, as his focus shifted from the Counter-Reformation to Cardinal Newman. As archivist in charge of many of Newman’s papers, he was ideally placed to research him and further the cause for his beatification.

In 2010, after persistent internal arguments within the oratory led to a visitation from Rome by an Apostolic Visitor, Fenlon and two other members of the Oratory were exclaustrated – expelled. He was not, as a result, present for Pope Benedict’s 2010 beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham. It is difficult to imagine the anguish which this heavy-handed exercise of authority caused. The BBC reported that the three men had been ordered to stay away because of disciplinary matters such as “pride, anger, disobedience, disunity, nastiness, dissension, the breakdown of charity”.

Banished from his books and his beloved Oratory, he spent some time in Scotland and the United States before finally returning to his native Ireland. Thanks to the generosity of Bishop William Egan, he became a priest of the diocese of Portsmouth, which enabled him to continue his ministry in Ireland.

Guiding light

He first found a home in the Dominican Priory in Waterford where, again, he is fondly remembered for his kindness and pastoral care. He also maintained his interest in Newman, becoming a guiding light for the fledgling endeavour, Newman College Ireland (NCI), teaching during its first year in Rome and for three years in Derry.

When NCI brought its students to complete their studies in the United States and the Waterford Dominican Priory closed, he accepted a chaplaincy with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Cobh, Co Cork. There, for the last four years of his life, despite the threat of Covid and his own struggle with cancer, he found peace amid the beautiful surroundings of the priory, ministering to the sisters and those who came to their chapel, and enjoying the wonderful views over Cork Harbour from the Priory garden.