THE FRANCISCANS IN WEXFORD
Years 1240 – 1540:
According to tradition the Franciscans are said to have arrived in Wexford around the year 1240. We are not quite certain from whence they came, but we do know that Franciscan foundations had already been established in other parts of the country prior to that date.
Little is recorded of the first hundred years or so of the friars’ presence in the town. The townspeople were certainly no strangers to religious life: the Knights Templar had already been established in the area for some time. The Franciscans, however, were one of the new Mendicant Orders, themselves a product of the Middle Ages. Following in the footsteps of their Seraphic Father, St. Francis, the Franciscan friars went amongst the people preaching the Gospel and living off the alms freely given by those people.
In the middle of the 14th century, the bubonic plague – more commonly known as the ‘Black Death’ – ravaged Europe, including eastern parts of Ireland. Interestingly, there are no records of any fatalities in Wexford town.
Towards the middle of the fifteenth century a reform movement within the Franciscan Order had begun to sweep across Europe, led by St. John Capistrano and others. In 1517 this culminated in Pope Leo X dividing the Franciscans into two separate Orders viz. the Observants and the Conventuals. The Wexford friary was to embrace the Observantine Rule.
Years 1540 – 1649:
Not very long into the sixteenth century, the unity of Christendom was shattered as a result of the so-called ‘Reformation’. In 1517 Luther had posted his ninety-five theses in Germany. In England, some fifteen years later, King Henry VIII had broken with Rome and declared himself Head of the Church in England. The Act of Supremacy was passed bringing this into effect. Then, in 1535, the Suppression of Religious Houses Act was passed dissolving the monasteries, friaries and convents in England; in 1540 this Act was extended to Ireland. Wexford friary was amongst the twenty five friaries suppressed that year. The friars went into hiding. The friary itself was rented out to private concerns; by 1560 the friary church was in ruins.
During the short few years of the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary the friars in Wexford were able to regain possession of their friary. However, with the ascension of Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1558, the situation for the friars became worse than ever. The friars had to leave the friary once more. They remained in the area, evading capture by Crown forces, and continued to serve the people of the town. The friars in Enniscorthy were not so lucky: three of them were captured and put to death in 1582.
In 1622 the friars were again able to regain possession of their friary, this time due to a relaxation of the enforcement of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws. The friars became visible on the streets again. The bishop entrusted them with the task of assisting the secular clergy with Masses, preaching and administering the sacraments. This short hiatus was destined to come to an end with the arrival in the town, in 1649, of England’s new Puritan ruler, Oliver Cromwell, and a large force of troops.
Years 1649 – 1744:
By 2 October 1649 Cromwell’s troops, consisting of about 4,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry, had encamped a short distance from the north wall of the town. A few days earlier a fleet of about twenty of his ships had dropped anchor just outside Wexford harbour. Cromwell’s terms of submission to the town were rejected and the townspeople decided to defend the town.
On the morning of 11 October Cromwell began his bombardment of the town. Very soon he had captured the Castle, and his troops were thus easily able to enter the town. No mercy was shown to the people, and the massacre of Drogheda was repeated: about 200 people grouped around a cross in one of the town squares were quickly put to death; many more perished in River Slaney whilst trying to escape; others sought refuge in nearby churches, only to be struck down by pursuing Puritans as they knelt in prayer. In all, about 2,000 people were slaughtered on that terrible day.
The clergy were singled out for special treatment: whether by torture, or imprisonment, or by hanging, or by being shot or put to the sword. Of the secular priests who died, we have no names – we do know that the bishop’s chaplain was put to the sword and left to die in his own blood. Seven friars were put to death by Cromwellian forces, and we should note their names:
- Raymond Stafford, ofm, killed in the market-place as he urged the people to be faithful;
- Richard Sinnot, John Esmond, Paulinus Sinnot, Peter Stafford and Bro’s James Rochford and Didacus Cheevers, ofm, who perished in the church as they led the people in prayer.
Before the massacre there were 18,000 Catholic inhabitants of the town; after the massacre only about 20 remained. The survivors escaped to the surrounding countryside. It is likely that some friars were amongst these survivors, and so were able to continue to minister to the people in secret.
The persecution of priests intensified: in 1653 a decree was issued banishing all priests from the country; many went into exile to the Continent; others were transported to the Barbadoes; others languished for years in prisons or special concentration camps on the islands of Aran and Bofin. Some priests chose to remain in Ireland and continued to minister to the people. If these priests were captured they faced imminent death – in 1654 four friars were captured in Wexford and hanged.
Following the restoration of King Charles II to the throne in 1660 a certain measure of toleration was granted to Irish Catholics, although the Penal Laws remained in operation. The friars were able to recover their friary and church. Work eventually began on the construction of a new church using the still-standing walls of the pre-Cromwellian structure: this new church was completed by 1690.
A new hope for Catholics dawned in 1685 with the ascension of the Catholic King James II to the English throne. However, as in the case of Queen Mary a century previously, this hope was shattered with the arrival and victory of King William of Orange in 1690: a new era of persecution for Catholics would soon begin.
The Act of Banishment came into force in 1697, requiring all bishops and religious to leave the country by 1 May 1698. Many of the friars went into exile abroad, particularly France. Those remaining in Ireland could take a chance and register with the civil authorities as parish priests, as required by the terms of the Registration Act. However, if they were detected as religious they felt the full force of the penal laws: one friar was detected in 1716 and imprisoned in Wexford Gaol, where he died four years later.
Years 1744 – 1900:
In 1781 work began on enlarging the church, and this work was completed in 1790. Further renovations took place over the following decades, with the major work beginning in 1856. There was a relaxation in the Penal Laws in the late eighteenth century and, finally, in 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed.
The present-day friary was built in 1802. This friary would later serve as the novitiate house for a time. A large library was later added: here were stored many valuable books formerly housed in the friary in Louvain until that house was suppressed during the Napoleonic era – a tablet on the tower commemorating this event can still be seen to-day.
Years 1900 – present date:
The Wexford friars stayed with the people all through the Penal Times, and continued to serve them after Catholic Emancipation. They became part of Wexford town. In 2007, the Observant friars (now known as the OFM friars) made a decision to close some of their friaries due to falling numbers. Negotiations began with the Conventual friars about taking over the running of the Wexford friary. The Conventuals had been entrusted with the care of Fairview parish in Dublin in 1986, and this marked their first return to Ireland since the ‘Reformation’.
Thus it was that in 2007 the Wexford friary once more came under the Conventual Rule. The Conventual friars are happy to continue serving the people of Wexford with a Franciscan presence spanning back almost eight centuries. Pax et Bonum!
Much of the above has been taken from The Franciscans in Wexford by Fergal Grannell, OFM. This well-written booklet comprises a detailed history of the Wexford friary. It has now been re-printed and is available for purchase in the friary office for €3.