Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Oliver, George

George Oliver, 1781 – 1861, Author and priest

The plaque is on the wall of 21 The Mint, Exeter, EX4 3BL, opposite St Nicholas Priory.

The inscription reads:

George Oliver, Catholic priest, created Doctor of Divinity by Pope Gregory XVI 1844, lived here 1807–1861 & rests near this spot. To commemorate his lifelong services to his fellow citizens in history, literature, benevolence and pastoral zeal.

For more than two centuries following the Reformation Catholicism could only be practiced clandestinely in Exeter. In fact it was not until as late as 1791 that a purpose built chapel was consecrated for Catholic worship in the grounds of the former St Nicholas Priory.  The chapel still stands in its mid-Victorian neo-Norman makeover, but has long since ceased to be used as a place of worship. In 1807, GEORGE OLIVER was appointed to be priest of this chapel and to be responsible for the Catholic mission in Exeter. He was to remain in Exeter till his death more than 50 years later.

He was born in Surrey in 1781 and received his training in the newly established (1794) Stonyhurst College in Lancashire prior to his appointment. He came to be a greatly respected figure in Exeter, conciliatory and never aggressive in his relations with other faiths in the city. He lived through eventful times, marked by the lifting of the majority of legal disabilities against Catholics in 1829 (Roman Catholic Relief Act) and the controversial—for the time—reintroduction of the full Catholic hierarchy in Britain by Papal Bull in 1850.

A measure of his reputation may be judged by the obituary notice in the Western Times in April 1861 which said that he “was esteemed by the city at large as the Catholic priest”. It added that he “arrived in Exeter when much public suspicion prevailed as to the ultimate aims of Catholics, when a priest was eyed with distrust and might be said to live in enemy’s territory … His benevolence of heart won him affection and esteem … he was singularly abstinent from intruding the dogmas of his religion on anyone and in this respect he fell short of that Papal zeal which burned so fiercely when His Eminence the Cardinal[1] issued from the Flaminian Gate his warrant to the Roman episcopacy to snap up heretical England.”

Another instance of his independence of spirit was his disapproval of Pope Pius IX’s complicity in the abduction of a young Jewish boy (the Mortara case 1858) to be brought up as a Catholic on the grounds that he had been given “emergency baptism” by a Catholic maid. George Oliver admitted in correspondence with the Jewish Chronicle that “Jewish brethren suffered from wicked laws in Catholic countries.”  However, his achievements as priest and scholar had been recognised by the previous Pope Gregory XVI who awarded him the title of Doctor of Divinity in 1844.

Apart from his priestly duties, George Oliver established himself as a local historian and antiquarian of note. Among many other works he published Historic Collections relating to Monasteries in Devon (1820),  a History of Exeter (1821) and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Devon (1839-40, 3 vols.)

A collection of £100 was presented to him on his retirement from active service in 1851, and in a gesture typical of the man, he distributed this money among the poor and needy of his parish.  Mourned by both Catholics and non-Catholics on his death in 1861, he was buried near to the high altar of the chapel he had served for so many years. JW


[1] The reference is to Cardinal Wiseman and his first pastoral letter to the new Catholic province of England from “the Flamininan Gate”  (the ancient Roman gate on the road leading to the port of Ostia.)