I’m a sucker for churches. I can feel at home in a chapel or kirk of any faith. Part of this comes from being raised by a grandfather who was a monumental sculptor - a rather grand term he employed for his craft as headstone maker.
Most Sunday afternoons would find us pottering around some graveyard in County Wexford. Bored to the teeth I would often retreat to the adjoining church for some shelter from the wind. He would eventually join me and comment on the lines of a statue, the granite in a pillar, the marble on an altar, and more circumspectly: the eccentricities of the parish priest and the prospects of his curate.
I was influenced too by my love of Wexford’s Friary where I served as an altar boy for five years.
The Franciscans arrived in Wexford in 1255 and have never left, although they were forced into hiding during the worst days of the Reformation. Enraged by the town’s resistance to siege, Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads slaughtered seven friars before trotting their horses across the high altar of the medieval church.
The powerful bond between the friars and Wexford people was rarely spoken about; they were just part of the fabric of the town. This union handily survived a wave of anti-clericalism during the Lockout of 1911-12 when the Catholic hierarchy was presumed to support the factory owners rather than the workers. Through all this unrest the Franciscans never stinted in their support for the working poor and were hailed for it.
Like many I felt more comfortable in the Friary than in the two majestic twin churches whose steeples seemed to egotistically stab at the sky. Even as a boy I found them pompous and they offered little in the way of artistry, apart from their pipe organs that thundered beneath the massed choirs that gathered in both houses of worship.
But even that show of hymnal firepower paled in comparison to the hushed beauty of the shrine to St. Anthony where I regularly served 7 o’clock mass on Tuesday mornings. There I’d minister to the saintly Father Ignatius as he presided over his congregation of dotty, elderly ladies. One morning I fainted on the altar steps and regained consciousness untended – neither priest nor congregation had noticed such was their devotion to this 12th Century Franciscan.
I never witnessed a man so consumed with God as Fr. Ignatius until encountering a blind Muslim mystic in Southern Turkey. Nor have I ever met a priest as jolly as Fr. Justin, OFM. He was like a rolling ball of laughs as he traversed the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford town. He was also a first-rate confessor. Every sin from an anemic fib to fornicating with a thousand naked Cossacks earned the same penance of three Hail Marys.
When I related this observation to Fr. Mychal Judge OFM one riotous night in Connolly’s he pondered for some moments before murmuring, “three Hail Marys straight from the heart can cure a world of heartbreak.”
It was in the Friary too that I made my last confession, largely because Fr. Justin had been temporarily replaced by some lunatic cleric who roared to the rafters that I had polluted my eternal soul – and this while I was in the preliminary venial sin stage of my disclosures. I thought it better to spare the poor man a heart attack, and me everlasting Wexford notoriety, and so I fled for the door and years of agnosticism.
The Grey Friars have taken over the old church now – no doubt they’re a good outfit, although I miss my men in brown. Father Mychal once did some detective work for me and related that Ignatius had become well known as a mystic within the order, while Justin went to his eternal reward with a smile on his face.
Mychal’s gone now too and what a loss he is to the many who turned to him in times of trial. Yet, no matter how far one strays from the old faith, it’s always a comforting feeling to know that an ancient church continues to stir so many warm and treasured memories.