Here is the opening address from the Capuchin Franciscan Conference 2016
BROTHERS OF THE PEOPLE, 400 YEARS OF CAPUCHIN FRANCISCAN SERVICE IN IRELAND
Opening Address of Commemorative Conference Feb 27th 2016
A warm Franciscan welcome to one and all, to our Commemorative Conference as part of our celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Capuchin friars in Ireland. In welcoming all of you, allow me to welcome especially his Excellency, Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio – the representative of our Holy Father Pope Francis, in Ireland. A special welcome too to the Provincial Minister of the Friars Minor, Fr. Hugh McKenna; Br. Michael Burke, the General Minister of the Franciscan Brothers of the Third Order Regular and Br. Paul Coleman, Provincial Minister of the Capuchins of the Province of Great Britain. Welcome to all our religious brothers and sisters and members of the clergy and to historians, archivists, researchers and students of history, colleagues, neighbours, and friends of the friars and all who are present.
This Commemorative conference, entitled: Brothers of the People, 400 years of Capuchin Franciscan Service in Ireland has been organised by the Irish Capuchin Archives, under the direction of our esteemed Archivist, Dr. Brian Kirby and in conjunction with the Míchaél Ó Cléirigh Institute, UCD. I wish at the outset to sincerely thank Dr. Kirby and our own Provincial Heritage Commission for preparing this event and to thank Br. Bryan (Guardian of Church St.), Br. Kevin his vicar and the Church St fraternity for hosting it today.
I am delighted that so many of you could be here today – if anything, it will be a way of passing the time fruitfully while awaiting election results later this evening. On your behalf, may I welcome our distinguished speakers for today’s Conference: Dr. John McCafferty, Fr. Mícheál Mac Craith, Dr. Conor Mulvagh, Dr. John Borgonovo, Soyna Perkins, Ruth Sheehy and our own Br. Kieran Shorten. I am very much looking forward to hearing them as I am sure you are.
400 years is a long period of history to cover and seven lectures cannot do full justice to this entire period, but I feel assured that we will be given a good flavour of how the Capuchin friars engaged with the people and events since our first foundations here in the 17th century.
It is, I believe wholly appropriate that we hold this Conference here in Church St., which has been a very significant place for the friars over the centuries. In this place and on this street, the Capuchins have since 1690 been here in the midst of the people. Here they have been brothers of the people in good times and bad. The Church you sit in today is the third one on the site: the first a Mass house in the late 1600’s, then a church in 1796 and finally this church built in 1881 – the altar and beautiful reredos designed by none other than James Pearse, the father of Padraig and Willie Pearse, who as you know were executed following the 1916 Rising. It would have been here, in the 19th century that Fr. Theobald Mathew, known as the Apostle of Temperance, would have based himself while campaigning in Dublin in the cause of temperance, aware as he was of the crippling effects of excessive alcohol consumption on the people. He viewed his campaign, however, as not just encouraging morality, but as a way to bettering the lives of ordinary people by promoting literacy and economic development for all Irish people – and his campaign met with no small success at that time. This tradition of social justice and reaching out to the poor, destitute and marginalized has continued to define our work as Capuchins over the centuries.
Church St was the locus of a terrible disaster, on the evening of 2nd September 1913, when two overcrowded tenement buildings, directly across the street from us here, collapsed. Of those trapped in the rubble, seven died – including three children – and many others were left seriously injured, while over 100 people were left homeless and destitute. This tragedy highlighted the dreadful conditions and endemic overcrowding in inner city tenements. The Capuchin Friars on Church Street were among the first on the scene of the disaster and provided comfort and support to the victims, freely giving accommodation in the Father Mathew Hall to those who were left homeless and destitute. Later, the friars here, campaigned for improvements in housing conditions and were instrumental in securing the construction of new dwellings and houses for the poor and dispossessed of Church Street and the surrounding locality. Our work in this field continues to this day through the work of the Threshold, the National Housing Charity, founded by the late Br. Donal O’ Mahony in 1978 and of course through the work of the Capuchin Day Centre, founded in 1969 by Br. Kevin Crowley. At present, the Day Centre distributes 1,200 food parcels every week and provides nearly 600 meals, six days a week. The centre also provides a variety of services, religious, educational, medical and social to the homeless and destitute of Dublin and beyond and supports our recently developed Friary Food project in Kilkenny.
The Capuchin friars in Church St., also played a role during and in the aftermath of the Rising during Easter Week 1916. This is, in many ways, a remarkable story of how of a small group of friars provided pastoral care to the combatants, but also played a crucial role in bringing about an end to the hostilities. It is fitting that as we mark the centenary of the Rising this year, we remember the role they played. The friars became involved in the Easter week events of 1916 at every level: some provided spiritual solace to the Volunteers engaged in the conflict, some provided practical assistance to those who were injured, many of whom were first treated in the Fr. Mathew Hall, (next door) which, during the week, became a first-aid post and friars helped carry the more seriously injured to the Richmond Hospital, where they also ministered. On the Easter Monday, the Feis Maitiú would have been in full swing but when the fighting began, the first child-casualty of the Rising was killed in crossfire, while being wheeled in his pram by his mother just outside the Church here. His name was Sean Foster (2 years). No doubt the friars were on site to offer what assistance they could. As the week wore on, and more and more British soldiers arrived to put down the rebellion, Friars Augustine, Aloysius and Columbus played a major role in communicating Pearse’s surrender and mediating negotiations between the volunteers and the British authorities. The following week, these same friars as well as friars Albert and Sebastian ministered spiritually to the leaders of the Rising and were in attendance at their executions in Kilmainham Jail. They did so because they believed that these men, acting in good faith and now preparing to die were entitled to spiritual support. However, it is often forgotten that Irish Capuchin friars, ministering to volunteers here in Dublin in 1916, were at the same time, acting as chaplains and providing spiritual comfort to Catholic troops (including an estimated 200,000 Irish men and women) serving in the British army during the First World war. Among their number was Fr. Dominic O Connor, who later became chaplain to the Cork Brigade of the IRA Volunteers led by Tomás MacCurtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork and after MacCurtain’s murder by the RIC in 1920, chaplain to his successor Terence McSwiney, who 6 months later was arrested and court martialled for sedition and following his imprisonment in Brixton, died after 74 days on hunger-strike, attended by Fr. Dominic. Fr. Dominic was later arrested, court martialled and sentenced to 5 years, for his ministry to McSwiney, serving his sentence first in Wormwood Scrubs and later at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight until his release in 1922. All I can say is there must have been some really interesting conversations around the friary table!
Wherever the people are, especially in their greatest needs, Capuchin friars are meant to be there with them. The Constitutions of our Order challenge us that we must: “generously dedicate ourselves to the service of all, gladly live our life as brothers among the poor, sharing their distress and lowly state, relieving their needs especially in times of public disaster and promoting their human and Christian development.” (Capuchin Constitutions 14, 2-4, 108, 1-2) To put it simply: as followers of St. Francis of Assisi, we are called to be brothers of the people.
Over the last 400 years, this is what we have tried to do – this is who we have tried to be. Of course we have made mistakes and failed at times and for this we ask forgiveness. We have faced many challenges, hardships and trials in various periods of our history, but we have survived. We face similar and perhaps even greater challenges today. But our history acts as a bridge between the past, the present and the future. We recognise that a growth in the secularisation of society has led to a loss of a sense of the importance of God, a loss of faith among the people. There has also grown a certain distrust, dis-engagement, indifference, hostility even towards the institutional Church, much of it deserved. But we Capuchins believe in the Gospel – the Good news of Jesus. We believe in the charism, the inspiration of Francis of Assisi. We believe in our calling and so despite the many challenges we face, we remain steadfast in our service as Brothers of the People. Our four hundred years has been marked by the giving of all to God for the sake of the Gospel. This record of faith and ministry continues today as 90 or so Irish Friars serve the people of God here at home and in our mission territories abroad, to this very day. Remember them as you hear something of our story today and please pray or us as we pray for you.
Thank you. Enjoy the day!
Br. Adrian Curran OFM Capuchin
February 27th 2016