Fisher House today
The Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy, now popularly known as Fisher House, was founded by papal indult in 1895, when Catholics were allowed once more to read for degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. Since 1924 Fisher House, a cluster of two sixteenth century houses, has been its home. From September 2013, the chaplain is Mgr Mark Langham (a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster and former Administrator of Westminster Cathedral); the assistant chaplains are Sr Ann Swailes, OP and Fr Kevin Grove CSC.
The chaplaincy is open daily to all Catholic members of the University, from undergraduates to fellows. There are three Sunday Masses (a said English vigil Mass, sung Latin Mass and sung English Mass), and a daily Mass. During the exam period, Lauds is also celebrated. College representatives also help to organise periodic Masses in College chapels.
The Fisher House Library has a fine collection of theology, biography, history, and literature. It can be used by all Catholic undergraduates and postgraduates, and is open whenever Fisher House itself is open.
The finances of the chaplaincy, including building upkeep, are handled by the Cambridge University Catholic Association (CUCA), while the chaplains are appointed by the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board (OCCEB). Day-to-day running of the chaplaincy is handled by the chaplain and the student-run Fisher Society. Catholic students and those who regularly attend Mass at Fisher House are automatically members of the Fisher Society, and anybody else is welcome to join the events organised by the committee.
Regular events include the annual Fisher Mass (in recent years celebrated at Great St Mary’s) and the Gilbey requiem, as well as the Fisher Society dinner, barbecue, and garden party at the nearby Dominican priory. Lunches are organised daily (excepting Sundays when tea is provided), as well as many parties and events throughout the term.
The chaplaincy provides weekly courses and discussion groups on bible study, theology, ethics, poetry, philosophy and others, as well as an annual series of Fisher Lectures.
History of Fisher House
Foundation and Early Years (1871-1924)
Oxford and Cambridge opened their doors to Catholics in 1871 after the repeal of the Test Acts which had excluded Catholics from the ancient universities. However, the Catholic hierarchy, believing that it would be impossible for the students to attend Oxford and Cambridge without being corrupted by an increasing atmosphere of liberalism and scepticism, forbade Catholics to attend, and sought instead to found a Catholic university in London. This decision was met with public outcry from wealthy laity who wished for their sons to attend Oxbridge colleges. Following the death of Cardinal Manning, who had been implacably opposed to Catholics attending Oxford or Cambridge, a petition led by the Catholic Cambridge fellow Baron Anatole von Hügel was presented to the Bishops and the ban was lifted in 1896 with the condition that a chaplaincy be established to provide teaching on philosophy, history and religion.
As a consequence, the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board was founded, and Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, purchased property at St Edmund’s House, where the Catholic Chaplaincy was established, with Fr Edmund Nolan as first chaplain. The very first lectures were given by Cuthbert Butler, OSB, entitled “Questions of the Day”. At the same time, the Fisher Society was established by Cambridge students as a literary and debating society.
In 1899, the Cambridge University Catholic Association (CUCA) was founded, and purchased rooms for the chaplaincy at 2 Green Street. Later, under Monsignor Arthur Barnes, the chaplaincy moved to Llandaff House near Downing College. After the Great War, Fr Bernard Marshall became chaplain at 50 Bridge Street, and then 2 Round Church Street, next to the Union.
Fisher House (1924-present)
In 1924, a Grade II listed pub called the Black Swan was purchased by CUCA for £10,000. The chaplaincy was moved there and named Fisher House. It is an interesting cluster of buildings with two old houses joined at right angles. One overhangs the street and dates from the 16th century. The other (containing the dining room, kitchen, great chamber, and living quarters) is of the early 17th century with medieval cellars.