The Daily Telegraph
Father Dermot Fenlon
Historian best known as one of the ‘Birmingham Three’ in a scandal at Cardinal Newman’s Oratory
FATHER DERMOT FENLON, who has died in Ireland aged 80, was a historian who gave up a promising academic career in Cambridge in his thirties to become a Catholic priest; he found himself embroiled in controversy in his Oratorian community in Birmingham shortly before Pope Benedict XVI came to England to beatify the Oratory’s founder Cardinal Newman.
Born in Dublin on December 6 1941, Fenlon was the younger son of another Dermot Fenlon, an engineer, and his wife Mary Tutty. The boys went to school with the Holy Ghost fathers at the nearby Blackrock College.
After school, Fenlon spent a short time as a novice with the Holy Ghost Congregation before departing to attend University College Dublin, where he took a first in History in 1963, finishing top of a class that included future eminent historians Ronan Fanning and Patrick Cosgrave.
Fenlon went on to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he wrote a doctoral thesis under Geoffrey Elton on the Italian Counter-reformation, focusing on the role there of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, a puzzling figure later to achieve historical notoriety as the evil genius of Queen Mary’s policy of burning Protestants.
Fenlon’s work was so highly regarded that he was appointed a university lecturer and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College.
His Cambridge thesis was the basis of Fenlon’s book Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy, published in 1972. Fifty years later, the book is still acclaimed as a major contribution to historical scholarship.
In 1978, deciding that he did not want to devote all his life to academic scholarship, Fenlon entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, and was ordained in 1982.
He then lived the life of an ordinary secular priest in East Anglia.
Ultimately, despite his pastoral gifts, he found the grind of parish life uncongenial and moved on to lecture at Oscott College, a seminary in Sutton Coldfield.
In 1991, he found his ideal niche when he became a priest of the Birmingham Oratory. A shy, gentle, reticent man with a rigid conservative bent on moral questions, Fenlon served the faithful who attended the Oratory church as a clear and encouraging preacher, a gentle confessor, and a friend.
He also developed his intellectual interests, with his focus now shifted from the Counter-reformation to Cardinal Newman. As archivist in charge of many of his papers, he assisted in promoting Newman’s cause for beatification.
After almost two decades at the Oratory, and with the beatification of Newman in sight, internal differences within the community led to a visitation, from Rome, by an Apostolic Visitor, who ordered the Master of Novices, a novice, and Fenlon to move elsewhere for prayer and reflection.
An Oratory source told The Daily Telegraph that they were sent away because the community was disintegrating through arguments. Protests from parishioners opposing Fenlon’s departure were in vain.
He was not present in 2010 for Pope Benedict’s beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham. A spokesman for the Oratory told the BBC that Fenlon and the other two Oratorians had been ordered to stay away because of disciplinary matters such as “pride, anger, disobedience, disunity, nastiness, dissension, the breakdown of charity”.
No specifics were provided, but the affair of “the Birmingham Three” pained friends of Fenlon including his contemporary the historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, who wrote vigorously in his defence.
Banished from his beloved Oratory, Fenlon spent time in Scotland and the United States, before finally returning to his native Ireland.
He maintained his interest in Newman, becoming a guiding light for the fledgling Newman College Ireland, teaching during its first year in Rome and for three years in Londonderry.
Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth accepted Fenlon as a priest of his diocese, so enabling him to say Mass in public anywhere. He accepted a chaplaincy with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Cobh, Co Cork, where, despite health problems, he spent the last four years of his life happily.