Blackfriars Cambridge

The original ‘Blackfriars’, the mediaeval Dominican priory in Cambridge, was an internationally patronized centre of teaching for philosophy and theology on the site of what is now Emmanuel College: only the friars’ fishpond remains visible today.  In 1238, King Henry III helped to pay for the building of the priory church, but exactly three hundred years later, in 1538, King Henry VIII, by then ‘head’ of the Church in England, ordered its dissolution when he wound up the monasteries and Religious houses.  Four hundred years on, in 1938, the Dominicans came back as a result of the gift of a newly-built villa in the Italian style.  To this in the 1950s they added the house next door, and in the 1960s joined the two together.  The purpose of the Dominican Order is to teach sacred doctrine on the basis of a semi-monastic life of prayer and study. So the Dominicans decided the re-founded priory would be a domus scriptorium or ‘house of writers’.  This was its sole purpose until in 2000 it was made the novitiate house of the English Province, introducing young men, a year at a time, into the Dominican way of life.

When in the 1950s there were still two separate buildings with a shared, pleasantly leafy, garden, there was room enough to host a gifted group of young eastern-rite Ethiopian clergy who were sent to Cambridge to study at the Bell (the first and most prestigious of the language schools) and, in one case, at the University.  This was to provide leadership for the Catholic Church in Ethiopia in a period when government had determined that English, rather than French or Italian, should be the primary European language used.  Throughout the turbulent political history which followed, contact was retained chiefly through lay people connected with Blackfriars until in the late 1990s Dr Jean Grove persuaded the then Prior, Fr Aidan Nichols, to initiate a new phase of relations which led to the creation of the ‘Blackfriars Ethiopia Project’.  The ‘Blackfriars abbas’ (Abba, ‘father’, is the proper Amharic form of address to a priest) had lived long enough to see this unexpected product of their sojourn in England: Cambridge-based assistance for the charitable and especially educational outreach of the Catholic Church in the service of a predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox, and secondarily Islamic, population.

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