The East Wall Stained Glass Windows
By Canon Mervyn Tower, Parish Priest at Corpus Christi, Headington, Oxford.
Fr. Bernard McKenna opened up the East Wall in 1967. The space was first filled with amber glass but this was replaced in 1970 by stained glass designed by Leslie Sheels. The first volunteer to pay for a panel of this was a non-Catholic, Jim Hart.
At the back of the Church there is a full description of the significance of the stained glass which is in honour of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, canonized in 1970. It was composed and written by Claude Howard in 1972:
‘Under the Presidency of His Eminence Cardinal Godfrey, the Archbishop of Westminster, the united hierarchy of England and Wales at their Low Week meeting 1960, in a letter dated 27th April petitioned the Holy Father Pope John XXIII for permission to re-assume the cause of canonization of a selected group of 40 English and Welsh Martyrs. The windows are dedicated not only to the honour of these forty, but as the inscription testifies to “all those who died for Christ”. Herewith a description of the symbolism of the windows together with a few details of each martyr depicted. The ‘nimbus’ or ‘halo’ which surrounds the head of each martyr is red, to signify martyrdom.
The Centre Window
This contains the Chalice and the Host, symbols of the Holy Eucharist. The red ‘vesica’ surrounding the cup is symbolic not only of the Blood of Christ, but the blood of all martyrs. The radiance of the cup spreads out into all the windows, symbolic of the widespread and worldwide influence of Jesus’ sacrifice upon the Cross of Calvary.
Outer left-hand window
At the top is the Palm and Crown of martyrdom. The Palm because it signifies victory over death and the Celestial Crown because itthe reward of the faithful who die in Christ.
Inner left-hand window
At the top is the symbolism for Our Lady as the Mother of Christ. It consists of the Cross with the purple robe draped around the Chi Rho and the letters MPOV, these being the Greek abbreviation for ‘the Mother of God’.
Inner right-hand window
At the top of the window is the symbolism of the Papacy with the Papal Tiara and the Keys of the Kingdom entrusted to the Pope, the gold one to ‘bind’ and the silver one to ‘release’.
Outer right-hand window
At the top and symbolic of martyrdom is the Palm of Victory, the sacrificial Cross of Faith and the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the ending – saith the Lord.
The outside of the stained glass depicts four of the Forty Martyrs:
St. Ralph Sherwin (top right)
St. Ralph Sherwin was born at Rodsley, Derbyshire and educated at Exeter College, Oxford. In 1575 he was converted and left England for Douai and Rome. In 1580 he returned to the English Mission, but he was soon caught and was imprisoned firstly in the Marshalsea and then in the Tower. Here he was put in irons and tormented but never spoke. He was tried and found guilty and executed with Edmund Campion and Alexander Briant on the First of December 1581. Ralph Sherwin is the Protomartyr of the English College Rome. He was the first to sign the Liber Ruber – the list of students – and to take the missionary oath that he would return to England. At that time he said ‘Potius hodie quam cras’ – better today than tomorrow. As he went to the scaffold he said ‘Jesus, Jesus, be to me a Jesus’.
St. Margaret Clitherow (bottom right)
St. Margaret Clitherow was a butcher’s wife in York. At first she was a Protestant, but in 1574 she became a Catholic and an active helper of the Douai priests. In 1584 she sent her own son to Douai, but two years later her house, where she ran a Catholic school, was searched and after the Officers had bullied all the children, a little Flemish boy told them where the priests’ vestments were hid. She was tried but refused to plead in order to save her children’s heritage and the conscience of the jury. On the 25th of March 1586, she was crushed to death and she is shown holding a large stone as a symbol of her martyrdom.
St. Nicholas Owen (top left)
St. Nicholas Owen was a Jesuit brother known as ‘Little John’ who made almost all of the priests hiding holes. He is shown holding an ‘adz’ – a carpenter’s tool of that period and a symbol of his craft. He never asked payment for his work and he never made two hiding holes the same so that if one was discovered it did not endanger the others. Nicholas Owen served Fr. Henry Garnett for eighteen years and was finally taken with him in 1606. He was tortured and died on 9th December 1606 without revealing one of his hiding holes to his persecutors.
St. Swithun Wells (bottom left)
St. Swithun Wells he came from Bambridge in Hampshire and for many years was a schoolmaster. He is here shown holding some books, a symbol of knowledge and teaching. He was tried and found guilty. On the way to his execution he saw an old friend whom he greeted with the words, “Farewell dear friend. Farewell all hawking, hunting and old pastimes: I am going a better way.” He died the 10th December 1591.’