Fr Leo O'Hea SJ
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
This year, 16 May marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Fr Leo O'Hea SJ (1881–1976), founder of the pioneering Catholic Workers' College (later Plater College) and director of the Catholic Social Guild.
O’Hea was born 14 July 1881 in Dorking, Surrey, the eldest of ten children. He was educated at Wimbledon College where he was among its first cohort of pupils, and later at Stonyhurst College. On finishing his studies O’Hea went straight on to join the Society on 7 September 1900. For an Easter vacation during his Theology at St Beuno’s, the Rector, Fr Alexander Keogh, sent him to Merseyside dockland to learn about conditions there first-hand. In 1917, after Tertianship, he was sent to teach Maths and Physics at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow, where he became aware of the groundswell of popular and political radicalism in Scotland known as Red Clydeside.
The Catholic Social Guild had been set up on 1 November 1909 with Charles Plater SJ (1875-1921) as one of the founding group. Its purpose was to study the social teaching of the Church as expounded in the encyclical Rerum Novarum which had been promulgated in 1891. It ran study circles and lecture tours, mostly in working-class districts north of the River Trent. In 1919 Plater, then Master of Campion Hall, set up the Guild’s headquarters in Oxford. His death in January 1921 hastened the efforts to establish a Workers’ College in Oxford. Fr O’Hea was selected to be Principal of the new Catholic Workers’ College, founded in 1922, and would remain in that role for 32 years. The College offered further education with an emphasis on Catholic social teaching to students who had vocational qualifications, those who had entered into employment directly from school, or some who had missed other educational opportunities. When it opened, Plater took up lodgings with just three scholars (a mill worker, a sheet-metal worker, and an engine driver) who were provided for by the Catholic Social Guild, at 223 Iffley Road, Oxford. The College moved the next year to 1 Walton Well Road, its home until 1955 when it moved to Boars Hill.
The author of O’Hea’s obituary in Letters and Notices gives us an insight into O’Hea’s character:
"But his physical fitness – witness his years – was the result of his energetic outdoor life. He was renowned (and by many hapless students, feared) for his ‘walks’. You could not call them ambling or rambling events; they had the doggedness of a marathon and the percipience of an Ordnance Survey cartographist ... His knowledge of birdlife could hardly be rivalled – but on bird song he stood alone. Julian Huxley … did not hesitate to rank him as the greatest authority in Europe on bird song."
In 1923 O’Hea became Honorary Secretary of the Catholic Workers’ Guild which he combined with his duties as Principal. Throughout the Second World War the Catholic Social Guild managed to hold its annual summer schools and AGMs, but the College had to close. Its premises became a home for mothers and babies evacuated from London and Fr O’Hea resided at Campion Hall, acting as Master. In 1946 O’Hea gave up his role as Honorary Secretary of the Guild so that he could concentrate on building up the College again. It opened at first with four students, and by 1950 the rollcall was 20. The breadth of intake increased, with students from German trade unions, Belgium, Ghana, China, Malta, India and Guyana. The walks and bird watching resumed.
In 1952, after 32 years as Principal of the College he had founded, he was succeeded by Fr Charles Pridgeon. He joined the staff at Corby Hall, giving retreats and moving among the people of Tyneside, many of whom had been his students. In 1954 he was sent as Rector to St Beuno’s and remained a member of the community when he was sent to Fishguard as chaplain to St Teresa’s convent (1963 – 1972). He returned to St Beuno’s for his last four years and died 16 May 1976. His funeral took place 21 May with Fr Provincial as celebrant along with 18 other priests, Jesuit and diocesan, representing Stonyhurst, Wimbledon, St Helens and the local deanery. Fr Waterhouse, third Principal of the College preached the panegyric, and representatives of the College and past students were there. Further Masses were celebrated in Glasgow, Oxford, and at Plater College, so that his many friends and students could pay their tribute and offer their prayers.
The Catholic Workers’ College was renamed Plater College in 1965 and continued in some form until closing its doors for good in 2005. In 2012 the Archives acquired the remaining archive of Plater College which includes papers, photos and artefacts from the College's 80-year history and is a rich source of research for anyone studying social thought in the 20th century and Catholic social action in general, whether that be in a national or international context. If you are interested in the College or Leo O’Hea, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.