The Zeal of a Convert: Father Frederick Faber

When Father Frederick Faber died in September 1863 after a long illness, there was an outpouring of grief for this Oxford Movement convert.  The Freeman’s Journal in Dublin remarked that Faber’s death, “though so long expected, has come with a seeming suddenness…. [T]he name of Father Faber has become a household word as his beautiful hymns have been adopted by every congregation.”  The funeral, which was held at the Brompton Oratory that Faber had established ten years earlier, attracted a great crowd.  Many of Faber’s fellow Oratorians attended, including John Henry Newman.  A number of diocesan priests came as well, including Monsignor Henry Manning, who would soon be appointed Archbishop of Westminster.  Also participating were Dominican and Capuchin friars along with priests from France, Belgium and Germany.  A correspondent for the Freeman’s Journal recounted the ceremony: “A procession was formed down the centre of the church, the cross being borne in front, and the clergymen walking two by two between the vast crowd which thronged the building. It was a sight calculated to cause deep feelings.”

Faber had accomplished much in the 49 years that God had allotted him.  He had arrived at Oxford University in the early 1830s just as the Oxford Movement was taking shape.  Like Newman, Faber was drawn to the Church Fathers and hoped that Anglicanism would accept the Early Church understanding of sacraments and liturgy as its own.  Ordained an Anglican minister in 1839, Faber quickly lost confidence in the Church of England and wanted to convert to Catholicism.  Newman, however, urged him to wait.  By the fall of 1845, Newman, too, had despaired of Anglicanism and was received into the Catholic Church.  Faber followed a month later.  Newman and Faber and the dozens of other Oxford ministers who entered the Catholic Church knew they were taking a bold and radical step.  Catholics in England were a small, suspect group, associated in the public imagination with “Bloody Mary,” the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot.  When reporting on the conversions, some English newspapers described them as “perversions.”

Faber was ordained a priest in 1847 and he set to work establishing a religious community, the Brothers of the Will of God, comprised mostly of converts.  However, when he learned that Newman planned to establish a branch of the Oratorians  in England, Faber asked if he and his community of brothers could join Newman’s Oratory.  Newman agreed and so not one, but two Oratories were established in England in 1849: Birmingham headed by Newman and London headed by Faber.

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Relations between the two men and their respective oratories were strained almost from the start.  Faber was an enthusiast for all things Roman: forty hours devotions, Corpus Christi processions, novenas to the Virgin Mary.  Above all, though, Faber was a champion of Roman authority, declaring that “Rome must not be merely our Court of Appeal from a national episcopate.  Rome must really govern, animate and inform things with its own spirit.”  Some other Oxford Movement converts shared Faber’s ultramontanist views, notably Henry Manning and W.G. Ward, the lay editor of the Dublin Review.  Newman, however, was put off by Faber’s flamboyant Romanism and feared that such practices and pronouncements would alienate many Anglicans.  These theological differences contributed to Newman’s decision to have the two oratories juridically separated by Rome in 1855.  The separation pained both men, but especially Faber.  He revered Newman as his mentor and desperately wanted to reconcile.  While Newman visited Faber shortly before his death, the two men were not able to fully resolve their differences.

For many years following his death, Faber was indeed a household word for many English-speaking Catholics.  He was well known for hymns such as “Faith of Our Fathers” and “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.”  He was known as well for his devotional works which encouraged Marian piety and frequent reception of the sacraments.  Faber’s most notable work, All for Jesus (1853), was translated into several languages and sold widely throughout Europe.  He was remembered, too, as a gifted preacher who could reach a variety of people from English aristocrats to working class Irish immigrants.

In recent years, however, Faber’s reputation has suffered.  Some Catholics have found him too Roman, too Marian, too exuberant in his piety.  Some Newman scholars have sided with Newman in his quarrel with Faber and have written disparagingly of Faber.  And even Faber’s classic hymn has been tampered with.  In the 1990s, feminist-minded church musicians added a new stanza to “Faith of Our Fathers”:

Our mothers, too, oppressed and wronged/
Still lived their faith with dignity;
Their brave example gives us strength/
To work for justice ceaselessly

Whatever Faber’s faults may have been, he was a faith-filled priest, zealously loyal to Rome.  Surely many Catholics would benefit from taking a fresh look at his life and his spiritual writings and his many beautiful hymns.


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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