As the year 1892 drew to a close, it became obvious that Charles’ life too was coming to an end. Although he was just seventy years old, Fr Eugene Nevin tells us that ‘his poor emaciated body was so worn-out that he looked fully ten years beyond his actual age’. According to Fr Eugene,
From some time previous to his last illness it was plain to all his brethren that he was far from well. His slow movements and the only partial success of his efforts to conceal a halt were clear indications of it. Then he began to be late at the acts of observance owing to his inability to draw himself along in time, and absent altogether from some.
above: Father Charles, c. 1891
On 8 December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he celebrated Mass for the last time. The next day, a Friday, he was not able to say Mass but in the afternoon he came to the Choir for the weekly Chapter, though he was scarcely able to walk; genuflecting to go to his place, ‘he had to lean his two hands on the Altar Step to enable himself to rise again. I can recall him very clearly as he was that afternoon because we all noticed how ill he looked, and subsequently spoke of it among ourselves.’ (Fr Eugene Nevin) That evening when the community assembled in the refectory for the evening collation, Charles’ place was empty. Fr Salvian tells us what happened then:
Fr Charles not having come into the Rectory for supper, the Infirmarian went to his room, to ask Fr Charles what was the matter with him. At first he would not answer, but said that he would be all right in a few minutes. The Infirmarian asked him the cause of his difficulty in walking; he answered that he had pain in his leg. The Brother wished to see the affected leg and, behold, found it very much inflamed with a large sore. Of course he ordered Fr Charles to stay in his room. I was there and we both requested him to lay down in bed, but he promised that he would do so bye and bye. The supper was brought into his room, but I heard that poor Fr Charles took very little.
Fr Eugene says that this sore was in fact due to Charles’ injury years earlier when he was thrown from a carriage at Harold’s Cross Green, and that the wound he had received on that occasion, which had never healed properly, had now become ‘inflamed and angry-looking, and spreading its harmful influence through the whole system soon menaced his very life’.
Fr Norbert McGettigan, Charles’ confessor, had recently taken Fr Salvian’s place as Chronicler; it was he who noted Charles’ illness in the Platea:
For some weeks, indeed for some months past, it was remarked that his strength was rapidly failing, as he seemed to walk with much difficulty, and was frequently seen to lean for support when walking from place to place in the Retreat. But in as much as he made no complaint, nor admitted that he was suffering any pain when asked, no particular notice was taken further than that it was the natural consequence of age and its consequent infirmities. However on the evening of the ninth the Broth Infirmarian, Br Placid, suspecting that he was suffering great pain, insisted on knowing the cause, and found that his right leg from the knee to the ankle was fearfully swelled and angry-looking. The good father remained in bed next morning, and the doctor having arrived at an early hour, declared that he was suffering from erysipelas, which must have been neglected for a length of time, and hence would be very difficult to prevent its spread through the whole system. All was done that could be done, but the doctor, a good Catholic, had such slender hope of his recovery, that he recommended he should receive the Last Sacraments. He received the news of his critical state with calmness and resignation, and began at once to prepare himself. In the afternoon of the same day he received the Last Sacraments with great devotion, the whole community being present. The next day, Sunday, he was somewhat better, and during the week, but little hope could be entertained of his recovery.
In fact, according to Salvian, when Br Placid had gone to Charles’ room that morning he had found him lying on the floor; Charles had fallen out of bed and, being too weak to move, had lain there all night. That evening, when Salvian visited him he noticed that ‘the dear soul was a great deal better, although not able to speak. Fr Norbert, his confessor, is constantly at his bedside. All the Fathers and Students, besides the Infirmarian and other Lay Brothers, visit him very often. The Doctor came again at 10 p.m.’ Dr Murphy stayed with Charles until midnight, and through the night two of the community remained in his room with him.
The next day, Sunday, the Rector, Fr Dominic O’Neill, asked Salvian to give the blessing with the relic to the people who had come looking for Charles:
During the day I blessed the people in the place of Fr Charles, being appointed by Father Rector to do so for some days. To say the truth, I don’t like to take such a duty upon myself. There is not much sanctity in me to work miracles. (Diary of Fr Salvian, 11 December 1892)
On 14 December Salvian wrote, ‘Dear Fr Charles is going on suffering, truly like a Saint, and it is the greatest edification to the whole community.’ The next day he noted, ‘Fr Charles continues to be very ill, and suffering very much, but no complaint ever escapes his lips.’ Fr Bernard Mangan later recalled his patience and resignation in suffering: ‘During his last illness I was especially struck by his resignation to God’s will. “I cooperate with God’s will” was his way of putting it. He suffered very severely but very patiently.... His habit of prayer and invocation was uninterrupted by his sufferings.’ Fr Columban Tyne remembered some of his prayers during his illness: ‘“My Jesus, I embrace this affliction for love of you. I desire to suffer in order to please you.” Such and other prayers he constantly uttered and would get the students to join him.’ Charles’ attitude during his illness impressed not just the community but also the doctor: ‘Dr Murphy told my mother than Fr Charles suffered greatly in his last illness and that he was most wonderful in his patience. Dr Murphy had great admiration for Fr Charles, especially on account of his patience and his piety.’ (Christina Frances O’Brien) above: Dominic O'Neill C.P., Rector of Mount Argus at the time of Father Charles' death
By this time, news of Charles’ illness had spread through the city and, Fr Eugene tells us, ‘crowds of anxious inquirers continually besieged the Hall-door.’
Although he was still weak and helpless, Charles’ condition became more stable for a time; on Christmas Eve Fr Salvian noted that ‘our dear Fr Charles is not better, nor worse, but like a true Saint, he patiently carries his heavy cross.’ The next day, Christmas Day, at eleven o’clock Fr Norbert celebrated Mass in Charles’ room. Fr Norbert tells us that throughout his illness Charles’ mind was always on God:
He was never once heard to utter a word of complaint though his sufferings were terrible in the extreme. He obeyed the physicians and infirmarian with the docility of a child and seemed to have no will but theirs. Yet during all these sufferings his mind was always united to God. Those long years of training produced their result in his soul. Even when towards the end he was unable to pronounce distinctly, the lips would move in prayer or the eyes would seek the crucifix near his bed.
A week later, Fr Salvian’s diary records a deterioration in Charles’ condition:
31 December. Fr Charles began to get worse yesterday and the doctor gave no hope of his recovery. Today is just the same if not worse.
2 January. Dear Fr Charles gets worse every day, but his patience in sufferings is indeed marvellous. Salus infirmorum ora pro eo.
3 January. Fr Charles worse still.
On the night of 3 January, a male nurse came from St Vincent’s Hospital to be with the religious who had been taking turns to watch Charles during the night. Fr Eugene, who was one of those who, in his own words, vied with each other in their attendance in the sick room, wrote: ‘What an example of patience did he not give to all during those days and nights! What willing obedience to our slightest wish!’
In the Platea Fr Norbert recorded the beginning of the last stage of Charles’ earthly journey:
As the first few days of the new year passed away, it became more and more evident that no hope could be entertained of the recovery of Fr Charles. Even the medical men who were constantly in attendance could give no assurance or hope; all they could say was, ‘a few days at most’. On the afternoon of the Fourth, when the doctor called, a great change for the worse was visible, and then it was not days but hours.
On the same day, 4 January, we learn from Fr Salvian: ‘It seems that the poor sick man has lost the power of speech and the sight of his eyes. He cannot swallow any food and seems to suffer very much, but no word of complaint ever escaped his lips.’
On Thursday, 5 January 1893, the Vigil of the Epiphany, Salvian wrote in his diary:
At a quarter past five, before going to say Mass, which I say every morning at six, I went to see Fr Charles, and he appeared to be in his agony. The Infirmarian told me that Fr Charles would die at about six, and so it happened, but I did not know till after my Mass that he was dead. Whilst I was vesting for Mass, I heard the sound of the community bells, and on my way to the Sacristy after Mass, Fr Andrew, who was going to say the 6.30 Mass, told me that dear Fr Charles was just gone.
Fr Norbert tells us that Charles died at a quarter to six that morning:
The end was calm and peaceful. No struggle with death was evident, not did any of those physical pains which are common at last moments manifest themselves. One last breath drawn with the same apparent ease and fullness as at any other time and the heart ceased to beat; his brethren waited for another sigh -- it came not. The soul was with its God.
According to Fr Eugene, with Charles when he died were a priest, two students and the nurse. Charles’ death, he adds, ‘was well in keeping with his life, quiet, unobtrusive, retiring, lived for God alone’.
At 7 p.m. the body of Fr Charles was brought into the Church, accompanied by the whole of the community, with lighted candles, and singing the Miserere and the De Profundis, whilst the large bell was solemnly tolling. We found in the Church already a large number of people waiting to see the body. Every one of them touched the hands or feet, the coffin being opened. The respect of the Irish to the Holy Priest, whoever he may be, is really remarkable, but the respect and veneration to our dear saintly Fr Charles has been extraordinarily manifested at every occasion, but on this occasion it was indeed more than I can express in words.
The veneration shown to the people when Charles’ body was brought to the church on the night of 5 January, described here by Fr Salvian, was, was indeed extraordinary. Everyone seemed to know that Fr Charles of Mount Argus had died, and all were intent on going to see him for the last time. A witness at the Apostolic Processes recalled the scene at Mount Argus that night:
Crowds hastened to the church when the news of his death spread. I went about 8 p.m. The church was full, and priests had to keep the crowds back, so great was the desire to touch the body which was exposed in the coffin. It took me an hour to make my way through the crowd up to the body and to get back again. As I returned home, I met crowds flocking up the church and asking us, ‘Can the body be seen?’
The next day, 6 January, people were coming to the church all day long, as Fr Salvian tells us:
From morning to late in the evening, there was a continual procession of hundreds, or rather thousands, of people going to see the dear Saint (as the people were saying). The whole day, but especially in the afternoon, the spacious church was filled with people. Two, and sometimes three and four, of our religious were near the coffin to protect it from the people, and to take from their hands books, rosaries, handkerchiefs....and touch the body of the deceased and give them back to them, to keep them as relics. below: Pius Devine C.P.
The following day, the weather was very cold and it began to snow, but this did not keep the crowds away; they still came in their thousands. On 8 January, which was a Sunday, the sermon at the High Mass was preached by Fr Pius Devine, the subject being Fr Charles’ great virtues. One of those present recalled its effect: ‘The preacher had known the servant of God for years, and was able to inform the immense congregation on many points unknown to the outer world, which possessed a thrilling interest, moving both preacher and audience to tears.’ In the afternoon, at four o’clock, the Solemn Office of the Dead was sung by the members of the various Confraternities of the city: ‘The spacious church was crammed everywhere by people and hundreds, or rather thousands, were outside, although fast raining and mud half a foot deep.’ (Diary of Fr Salvian) After the Office, the crowds began once more to file past the coffin. According to Fr Wilfrid O’Hagan,
Such extraordinary crowds were never seen in Mount Argus. The people were from every corner of Ireland. The roads were blocked and it was absolutely impossible to get into the church without long waiting. Sunday evening was the wettest and most disagreeable here that I have seen for a long time. It was quite a Godsend that it was so else I am afraid some would have been smothered. Even as it was, the crowds were outside in the rain struggling to get in.
That night people continued to come to the church, ‘all anxious to get a last glimpse of that face on which they loved to look, and to touch the body with some object of devotion’. (Fr Norbert McGettigan) ‘For the space of five days,’ recalled Fr Eugene Nevin, ‘“poor old Charlie”, as he so often in life called himself, had the honours of a lying-in-state fit for a King or Emperor.’
On the morning of the funeral, 10 January, which the doctor and the undertakers went to close the coffin, they were surprised to find no trace of decomposition or rigor mortis. Fr Wilfrid O’Hagan, who was then Provincial Consultor, describes the condition of the body in a letter written the day after the funeral:
He was five days lying in a church strongly heated with hotwater pipes and amid the suffocating atmosphere of the tens of thousands who from morning till night literally crammed the church. And yet there was not the slightest trace of decomposition, but his whole appearance was brighter and clearer than when alive. Nay more, the flesh on his forehead and hands remained quite soft; there was as little of the fixedness of death as if the blood were freely coursing in the veins. But more marvellous, the arms and hands and fingers were quite flexible when the coffin lid was screwed down. There was entirely absent the least appearance of the rigidity of death. Dr Murphy, who attended him, confesses that he could not explain it, for the immediate cause of death was of such nature that it would immediately cause rigidity.
It was Fr Wilfrid who celebrated the Funeral Mass, which was attended by the auxiliary Bishop, Dr Donnelly, as Fr Norbert tells us:
When the Office commenced at eleven o’clock the large church was packed to capacity, to its utmost containing capacity. The Most Rev. Dr Donnelly presided at the Office and Mass, at which Fr Wilfrid, Consultor, was celebrant. Hundreds were obliged to remain outside during the Mass. The music of both Office and Mass was rendered by a choir of the secular priests from the city of whom there was a large number present, as well as the religious Orders, all of whom were represented. Very remarkable was the absence of any external manifestation of sorrow amongst the crowds present, as if by instinct the people preferred to pray to him rather than for him.
After the Mass, the Bishop led the prayers of Final Commendation and then the procession moved down the nave, towards the cemetery: ‘In front walked the Sub-Deacon, carrying a cross, and accompanied by acolytes, after which the secular and regular clergy walked two by two; next in order was the celebrant of the High Mass, and last of all the members of the Confraternity of the Cross and Passion, bearing the coffin.’ Slowly, the procession made its way through the crowd. A Passionist who was present at the funeral wrote, ‘Inside the church, and away down the avenues, was one dense mass of human beings’; according to another eye-witness, as the body was being carried through the crowd, ‘it seemed as if the people were about to snatch up the coffin and prevent the burial’. Fortunately, the Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had sent a large number of officers to control the crowds outside the church; these now formed two rows and made a path through the crowd so that the procession could pass from the church to the cemetery. At the grave, the prayers were led by Fr Wilfrid. When the last prayers were over, many of the people went back to the church, looking for some memento, as Fr Eugene recalls:
The pall on which the coffin lay was touched with objects of devotion. The was from the candles round the bier, even pieces of wood from the votive candle boxes were requisitioned as mementoes. Anything in fact, if only remotely associated with Fr Charles in life or death, had now a high value set upon it.
That evening, an account of the funeral was published in the Evening Telegraph:
Never before within living memory has there been such an outburst of religious sentiment and profound reverence as was beheld around the open grave of Fr Charles. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, every eye was wet with tears, and loud and general manifestations of the most sincere regret went up from the multitude present, who clustered round with heads uncovered to take a last look at the coffin which enclosed the remains of a most exemplary and beloved priest.
‘His death, like his life, was that of a saint’: with these words of Fr Dominic O’Neill our story began. Now we have reached its end which, as we said, is also a beginning. ‘As the coffin was lowered into the grave’, Charles’ life took on a new and fuller meaning. His ministry now is not confined by space and time, and his compassion reaches out to all who turn to him in their need, whose lives are touched by his. The example of Blessed Charles of Mount Argus is a lasting inspiration to all who are struggling to live according to the Gospel. The witness of a life lived generously in the service of God speaks more eloquently than any words, as Pope John Paul II affirmed: ‘At a time like our own, characterised by a kind of allergy to belief in words not sustained by deeds, the witness of life remains the most important sign of credibility, because it accredits the sincerity of the apostle and the presence of the divine force working in him.’ (Osservatore Romano, 26 January 1987)
Blessed Charles witnessed to Christ not just by his words but by his life also. His compassion for the poor and the sick, his fidelity to prayer, his living faith and patience in suffering all testify to the fact that he was a true disciple of Christ crucified. Commenting on the life of Blessed Charles, one of the Theological Consultors of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints wrote:
We find ourselves here before a brilliant life, totally dedicated to the neighbour, especially the poor and the needy, and at the same time lived in retirement, in prayer, in perfect penance and obedience, leading to an intimate participation in the Passion of Christ.
It is in relation to the Passion of Christ that we come to understand the meaning of the life of Blessed Charles. At his religious profession he committed himself to keeping alive in the hearts of God’s people and in his own heart the memory of the Passion of Jesus. Commenting on this vow, St Paul of the Cross had written in the Rule:
Circumstances will open numerous other ways of promoting so great a work.... For the love of God is very ingenious, and is proved not so much by the words, as by the deeds and examples of the lovers.
Blessed Charles’ profound understanding of the intimate link between the Passion of Christ and human suffering opened for him a way of ‘promoting so great a work’, a way which manifests clearly the power of the Cross. As a true son of St Paul of the Cross, he lived in his own time and in his own particular way that gift of God which is the Passionist Vocation.
We are aware that the Passion of Christ continues in this world until He comes in glory; therefore, we share in the joys and sorrows of our contemporaries as we journey through life toward our Father. We wish to share in the distress of all, especially those who are poor and neglected; we seek to offer them comfort and to relieve the burden of their sorrow.above: portrait by James Hanley for the canonisation of Father Charles, 2007
The power of the Cross, which is the wisdom of God, gives us strength to discern and remove the causes of human suffering.
For this reason, our mission aims at evangelizing others by means of the Word of the Cross. In this way, all may come to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, may share in His sufferings and, becoming like him in his death, may be united with Him in glory. (Passionist Constitutions, par. 3)
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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.