History of SJE

St Stephen’s House and the Church of St John the Evangelist

St Stephen’s House is a theological college offering formation for a variety of ministries in the Church of England, and a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford.

St Stephen’s House began life in 1876, and stands in the Tractarian (Anglo-Catholic) tradition of its founders. These included Edward King, who would become famous in the 1880s for being subjected to trial in an ancient, revived 'archiepiscopal court' for ritualist practices whilst Bishop of Lincoln. The first site of the House was on the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road, where the New Bodleian Library now stands. It later moved to Norham Gardens; in 1980, the House came to its present home here at 16 Marston St and the Church of St John the Evangelist in Iffley Road.

From 1866 to 1980, this complex of buildings was the mother house of the Society of St John the Evangelist (the ‘Cowley Fathers’). Established in 1866 by Richard Meux Benson whilst vicar of St James’ church, Cowley, it was the first religious community for men founded in the Church of England since the Reformation. With two other ‘mission priests’ he planted his community in the fast developing suburb between Cowley village and Oxford town. The community eventually spread to the United States of America, India and Japan. The English province of the Society still maintains a presence at St Edward’s House, Westminster, close to the Abbey and Westminster School.

In 1859, a new parish was created out of St James Cowley and St Clement’s: Cowley St John. Fr Benson established the ‘iron church’ on Marston Street. He was joined in 1865 by Fr Grafton and Fr O’Neill.

In 1866 the Society of St John the Evangelist was constituted and placed under the care of the Bishop of Oxford.

1866 saw the building of the MISSION HOUSE on Marston Street. The architect was Clapton Crabbe Rolfe. His restoration work includes St Giles’ Standlake; Holy Rood Shilton and St Denys Northmoor. Original work includes All Saints Nuneham Courtenay and the terraced housing on Kingston Road, Oxford.

In 1876, the iron church was replaced by the new parish church of Ss Mary and John, on the Cowley Road.


The mission house contains the FOUNDERS’ CHAPEL. The altar and encaustic tiling are probably original; the reredos is by Bodley. The painting over the west door was originally the reredos at St Stephen’s House chapel in Norham Gardens. Depicting the stoning of St Stephen, it was painted by, and features members of the House community of the time, including the Principal, Fr Arthur Couratin.

The CHURCH OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST by Bodley was built between 1894-6; the tower was completed in 1902. It was originally intended to extend far further west. It is listed Grade 1. Notable are the windows by Kempe, including the magnificent piece at the east end depicting the crucified Jesus in the midst of a vine of saints; and the Bodley reredos. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel – where the consecrated elements of the Eucharist are housed – was expanded from the original Song School by Ninian Comper in the 1930s. His ciborium over the altar reflects that in the House Chapel. Note should be taken of the lockable gates dividing the chapel from the north aisle, to provide a legally separate space from the church in a time when it was illegal to reserve the Sacrament of Holy Communion within a church. The rood screen is based on German prototypes, and the rood itself is from Bavaria. Notice the confessional box in the north aisle, a sign of the Cowley Fathers’ ministry of counsel and absolution to their many visitors.

The main body of the college is also by Bodley, built in 1899  (grade 2*). Together with St John’s church, it is his largest and arguably most important work on a single site. It contains the HOUSE CHAPEL, with its original stalls and screen. Originally terminating at the step into the sanctuary, it was expanded to include two short transepts and two sacristies between 1937-9 by Ninian Comper. The ciborium is an excellent example of his trademark style of ‘unity by inclusion’, combining elements of classical and baroque design. It is loosely based on a late antique North African prototype. Comper’s vision for this building was restored with the reinstatement of an eastward facing altar in 2009. The Sacrament of Holy Communion is also reserved on this altar. Note the name boards over the stalls, listing the dates and places of death of the Mission Priests of the Society of St John the Evangelist.

For details of our development campaign for S John’s Church, please take an information pack! And see: www.ssho.ox.ac.uk for information about forthcoming events and open days.