When Fr Bernard O’Loughlin became Rector of St Paul’s Retreat, Charles was in his sixty-fifth year; he had only six more years to live. These last six years of his life were marked by two progressive developments, one external and the other internal. Externally, he was becoming more and more of a celebrity in the eyes of the people, while interiorly he was growing less and less concerned about day-to-day matters, a natural part of growing old, and increasingly absorbed in God. However, this deepening of his spirit of recollection was not without its dangers:
Poor Fr Charles had an accident which might indeed have been rather serious, but his Guardian Angel protected him. He fell into a hole, in the closets, about six or seven feet deep. The plumbers, who are at present repairing the pipes for water, had taken up a trap door and left it open. Poor Fr Charles, who is always wrought up in God, did not see the danger, and down he went, straight into the hole. He complains only a little pain, and of the fright he had. (Diary of Fr Salvian, 16 February 1887)
The May Processions through the monastery grounds, always considered and important event in the Dublin calendar, became during these years opportunities for people to express not only their love for Mary but also their veneration for the man they called ‘Fr Charles of Mount Argus’. Fr Salvian gives this account of the Procession which took place on 1 May 1887:
Grand Procession at four o’clock in honour of our Blessed Lady. The whole service consisted in Solemn Vespers, Sermon by Fr Rector Bernard in the Church, Procession, and Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. Fr Charles officiated at Vespers, and at the Procession, carrying the Relic of our Blessed Lady. It was a wonderful and edifying spectacle to see the people by thousands kneeling on the ground and saying to each other, ‘Here is Fr Charles -- that is Fr Charles -- may God protect the holy Saint’, and so on. I heard and saw it, being near Fr Charles, more to protect him from being crushed by the crowd, who would have thrown themselves at his feet to kiss his habit, than to keep the Procession in order.
From time to time there would be references to Charles and his ministry in the newspapers. The Irish Catholic, describing the Crib which had been set up at Mount Argus for Christmas 1888, said, ‘It is erected in the little wooden chapel in which the renowned and saintly Fr Charles has performed innumerable miraculous cures upon persons afflicted with all manner of diseases.’ An English Catholic newspaper also told its readers about the old church at Mount Argus and the happenings there:
This shell of a building, which exteriorly looks like an old school-house, is the scene of constant pilgrimages. Hither come or are led from time to time, the blind, the lame, and the halt to supplicate their cure at the hands of Fr Charles Houben... to whom popular belief has ascribed the possession of the Apostolic gift of healing; and, I am credibly informed, instances are not infrequent which furnish a practical commentary on the text of St James: ‘The prayer of faith shall heal the sick’.
Fr Eugene Nevin recalls that ‘from all parts of the English-speaking world letters came to him by every post requesting his prayers and blessing in illness or distress of whatsoever kind.... The people’s faith and confidence in the efficacy of his prayers and blessing was so great that they believed almost all things possible to him.’ Yet, according to Fr Eugene, ‘he himself was the greatest miracle, living all those years so wholly dedicated to his vocation.’
The Rector had, at Fr Salvian’s insistence, appointed certain times in the day when those who wished to be blessed by Charles should present themselves in the old church. Fr Eugene tells us that the people would gather there every day waiting for Charles to arrive:
A little ahead of the appointed times a leaning and pensive figure would be seen to emerge by slow degrees from beneath the pillared portal of the Monastery door, seemingly oblivious to all such contingencies as arrangements of time and place. Sometimes little groups would be waiting, sometimes none, for the people naturally collected where they knew they were sure to meet him. But in a few moments, as if by magic, ones and twos and threes would come out, apparently from nowhere, grouping themselves around him, the men uncovering, the women in prayerful attitude. Grown soon to fair proportions a go-as-you-please procession moved in the direction of the old church, so slowly that the distance of less than a hundred paces ordinarily took about half an hour. This was because he made of it a miniature Via Dolorosa or road to Calvary with many stopping places where he got the people to meditate on scenes in the Passion, and repeat after him prayers in honour of the Sufferings of Christ and the Sorrows of his Blessed Mother.
When he arrived in the little church, Charles would first kneel almost prostrate for about five minutes before turning to address the people. Thomas McGrath recalled how effective his words were:
I heard Fr Charles preach. I recall his intense earnestness: he seemed to want to reach out and grasp every soul in the congregation.... He was a very remarkable preacher, possessed of a powerful voice; he gesticulated very much, was inclined to preach too long.... Often he seemed to be overcome by his own emotions and earnestness. The congregation listened to him most attentively, and occasionally a sigh or moan would be heard in sympathy with the preacher’s own emotion.
In his preaching he would urge his listeners to be converted to Christ, to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. ‘Remember,’ he would say, quoting St Bernard, ‘the the Lord seeks not only flowers but fruits, that is not only good desires and resolutions but also holy works.’
When he had finished preaching, he would prepare the people to receive the blessing with the relic of St Paul of the Cross by inviting them to renounce the Devil, afterwards sprinkling them with holy water. According to one witness, ‘he would accompany his words by stamping on the ground as if he were actually trampling on the Evil One.’ Charles understood that there can at times be a link between bodily sickness and the powers of evil, as we see from this prayer he offered for a woman who was paralysed:
O Blessed and Immaculate Queen of Purity, thou who from the beginning hast received from God the power and might to crush the head of Satan, humbly we beseech thee to send thy Holy Angels that under thy power they may pursue and encounter on every side the evil spirits, resist their bold attacks and drive them hence into the abyss of everlasting woe. Amen.
When those present had renounced the Devil, Charles would begin to pray aloud, partly from a book and partly extempore. This prayer would go on for some time, after which he would give the blessing with the relic of St Paul of the Cross, praying that God, through the intercession of St Paul, would free those present ‘from every evil of mind, soul and body, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. According to Fr Francis Kelly, ‘when he was imparting the blessing, he would look up to heaven and a radiant smile would suffuse that face which was at all other times so serious’. After this, he would pass through the crowd, blessing those who were sick and praying over them. Mary Agnes Styles, who was cured at Mount Argus in 1892, remembered the intensity of his prayer: ‘Fr Charles came and knelt on the ground beside me for a long time: then he rose and blessed me with something he had in his hand. Then he knelt down again and prayed most intensely, the beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.’
Although the Rector had fixed the times for receiving the blessing with the relic, Charles’ compassion was not constrained by the timetable: ‘after giving the relic to the people in the church, if some people came late he would go out again for the relic patiently.’ Others still would come to the monastery outside of the regular times; Fr Columban Tyne recalled his cheerfulness and patience on those occasions:
At the time I knew him, when he was seventy years old, he was infirm as a result of his years and failing health; yet he would come down from his room at the top of the house most cheerfully and readily every time he was called for -- probably many times a day. This must have been most trying and exhausting. He was patient with the ignorant, compassionate to the sick and scrupulous; the poor he especially loved.
Even in these last years of his life, when so many people were coming to see him at Mount Argus, he was still willing, in spite of his poor health, to visit sick people in their homes when called upon. Stephen Dempsey tells how when his father was seriously ill, his mother went to Mount Argus for help:
My mother, who was in despair, came to Fr Charles who accompanied her back to the house: on the way Fr Charles repeatedly said, ‘A stroke! God help us.’ I don’t know how he knew what was wrong with my father. I remember my father during his illness: he was lying in bed, scarcely able to move or speak. When Fr Charles came, he prayed over him for nearly a quarter of an hour. Fr Charles before leaving told my father to get up. He did so and dressed himself without any help: everybody was astonished when they saw my father up and walking about as if he had never been ill.
In her moment of anguish Stephen Dempsey’s mother had turned to Charles, as did many others at all times of the day and night. When told that his cousin was dying, Owen McDonald, an officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Constabulary, went in the middle of the night to ask for Charles’ prayers; he arrived at Mount Argus when the community were chanting Matins. above: the drive out of Mount Argus
When my cousin James McDonald was very seriously ill, in fact according to the authorities of the Richmond Hospital dying of Typhoid fever, in 1891, I cam here [to Mount Argus] to get Fr Charles’ prayers. It was about 2.30 a.m. and the Brother who opened the door told me to write down what I wanted. I did so and he took it to Fr Charles. He returned after some minutes and told me, ‘Fr Charles says your cousin will be all right.’ When I got back to the Hospital the nurse (who had previously been the means of sending me to Mount Argus, since as she said, ‘your cousin is dying and there is nothing you can do now except to go to Fr Charles’) said to me: ‘I know the exact time you were with Fr Charles, because your cousin took a turn for the better at that moment.’ My cousin improved hourly and is still alive. I always attributed my cousin’s recovery to Fr Charles’ prayer. The hour in which he surmounted the crisis of the fever exactly coincided with the hour at which I sent up my written petition to Fr Charles.
During these last years Charles was always in the public eye. Shortly before his death, he happened to be in Westland Row railway station waiting for a train; some people in the crowd recognised him and within a few moments he was surrounded by a large crowd kneeling on the platform, asking for his blessing. Yet in site of being the centre of attention wherever he went, Charles never lost that simplicity of hearth which put those who met him immediately at their ease. Owen McDonald, who as a policeman worked in the area around Mount Argus stated:
Fr Charles was the most humble man I ever knew. He seemed to have no opinion of himself, free from all ostentation. He certainly did not seem to be in any way puffed-up by the fact that so many people came to see him.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - all rights reserved
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.