On the feast of Mary, Mother of Holy Hope, 9 July 1857, Charles set foot for the first time on Irish soil. The ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’ was to be his home for a total of almost thirty years and his final resting-place. However that was still a long way off; he was now only thirty-five years old and had been a priest for less than five years.
The red-brick house known as Mount Argus, on the outskirts of Dublin, had been taken by the Passionists on 15 August 1856. Less than eight months later the new community had experience a sharing in the Cross with the death of their young rector, Fr Paul Mary Pakenham. His successor, Fr Osmund Maguire, right arrived to find a group of men who were discouraged, overworked and suffering from malnutrition. It was obvious that an injection of life was needed; he asked the Provincial and Charles was sent.
The new arrival lost no time in settling in and taking more than his share of the work. Charles had already worked with the Irish immigrants in England and had been drawn to them, finding them very like his own people. In a letter written to his uncle not long after his arrival at Mount Argus he says,
I came to Dublin, the capital of Ireland on 9 July 1857. The people here speak English. Our congregation has only one house in Ireland; here we have five Passionist priests and five lay-brothers. In spite of the large number of Catholics in Ireland, there are very few priests and I have to say two masses every Sunday. We have to hear confessions from morning till night nearly every day. If we had twelve priests here , they would all be kept busy preaching and hearing confessions. Much good can be done here in the Lord’s vineyard. As you know, Ireland is a Catholic country.... For more than three hundred years the Irish have been cruelly persecuted but have remained loyal to the Catholic faith in spire of everything.
For Charles and for all the community the early years at Mount Argus were demanding. However, Fr Osmund’s mind was on the future. The farmhouse in which the ten religious were leading their cramped existence, described by the chronicler as looking like a slice cut from a factory, was far too small to meet the needs of a growing community; it would have to go! Always one for thinking big, Fr Osmund engaged J. J. McCarthy, the foremost architect of nineteenth-century Ireland, to design a monastery which could accommodate the religious community, provide additional cells and classrooms for students and incorporate a retreat centre for laymen, the first of its kind in Ireland. McCarthy submitted a design in romanesque style for a building with about eighty rooms, to be constructed in Wicklow granite. The design was accepted by the community and on 13 June the foundation-stone was laid by the auxiliary bishop, Dr Whelan, thousands of the Catholic body having congregated in the charming grounds attached to the Retreat’, according to the Evening News.
In solving one problem Fr Osmund was creating another: large monasteries have to be paid for. So it was that Charles was given a task which, though seldom referred to, was to occupy him from time to time for many years, that is, collecting money to pay for the building of Mount Argus.
With Br Michael Behan as his companion, he went questing all over Ireland, to places as far apart as Kerry and Tyrone. His simplicity and compassion made him welcome wherever he went, receiving from others but also giving advice and comfort, turning his work of collecting into a valuable apostolate. He was always grateful to those who helped; at the same time, he was not blind or insensitive to what was going on around him, as we see in a letter to his brother, Fr Peter Joseph Houben.
Here in Dublin we have built a huge monastery which cost about eight thousand pounds. The Irish gave us this money; they are very generous when it comes to their Catholic faith. However, here in the city of Dublin and in the surround districts there are also thousands of people who neither go to confession nor make their Easter communion. With all my heart I implore you to pray for them, to offer your evening rosary for the conversion of so many great sinners; go to mass and offer your communions for this intention. I shudder when I think of how often our Lord is offended in this large city, crucified by serious sins. Ah, pray that these sinners may turn back to God.
above: handbill distributed by Br Michael when he and Father Charles went questing for the new church
The Passionist rule, written by St Paul of the Cross, with its emphasis on poverty and penance, solitude and constant prayer, has as its aim the formation of a certain kind of person: an ‘apostolic mystic’. In an account of the Congregation written in 1747, St Paul says of the Passionists,
Their life is like that of the Apostles; even more, it is totally conformed to these and the apostles’ conduct is the norm for the Constitutions which endeavour to form a man totally God-centred, totally apostolic, a man of prayer, detached from the world, from things, from himself so that he may in all truth be called a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Charles was well aware that his effectiveness as a priest was indissolubly linked to his commitment to a life of prayer. Before his brother Peter’s ordination, he had written to him, ‘the more you prepare yourself, the greater will be the graces you receive from God’. During these first years in Dublin the Holy Spirit was to lead him into another ministry, the one for which he is most remembered today. Fr Sebastian Keens has left us this account of any early incident in which the healing power of God was shown through the prayer and blessing of Fr Charles of Mount Argus:
A boy about twelve years of age, having lost the use of his legs, was brought to me by his mother. I made no delay in calling Fr Charles to bless him. Whilst Fr Charles was blessing the boy, I put on my secular dress to go into Dublin. Great, indeed, was my surprise to find the little fellow walking in front of the house waiting for me, perfectly cured.
Other cures followed and soon people were coming to Mount Argus not just to be blessed but to be blessed by Fr Charles; those who were too ill to travel to the monastery would send for him. Joseph Moore, a witness at the Apostolic Processes, gives this testimony:
I heard from my mother of a striking instance which happened about 1861. Fr Charles had been called to visit a granduncle of mine, Thomas Doyle. He resided as 23 Lower Ormonde Quay. Fr Charles came, saw the sick man and, when about to leave, surprised the members of the family by saying ‘There is another sick person here’: they had not told him that a daughter of the sick man, Johanna Teresa, was actually very ill with fever. There were not prepared to bring a visitor as the room had not been duly tidied up, and tried to dissuade Fr Charles from going to see her. He however insisted on doing so. My mother always emphasised that nobody had told Fr Charles about the sick girl
....She was suffering from typhus fever or some virulent fever, and was so reduced that the doctor [Dr Willis] said that unless she got immediate rest and sleep she would die. She had not slept for some days before that. When Fr Charles came in, she was sitting up in bed raving in delirium. She was at the crisis of her fever and had been refusing to take the prescribed remedies. He gently put his hand on her forehead and pushed her down to a lying posture. She almost at once went to sleep and when the doctor returned next morning, the crisis was passed and he pronounced her out of danger. My mother often spoke of this matter and said she considered it a miracle. The doctor, I was told, also looked on it as miraculous.
In this case, not only do we see the Holy Spirit working through Charles with the gift of healing, but we also observe how the Spirit enlightened him, making him aware of the presence of the second sick person in the house. What exactly was Charles’ own reaction to events such as these we cannot say; he never spoke about any of the cures. Certainly it must have tested his faith in the power of God when sick people would come and ask to be blessed. On one occasion a man whose child was sick said to him, ‘You must cure my child’, to which, we are told, Charles replied, ‘There is no “must” with God.’ Obviously he was only too aware that the cures which took place were not the result of any powers which he possessed, but had as their source the kindness and mercy of God.
On 8 September 1865 the new Retreat of Blessed Paul of the Cross, Mount Argus was blessed by Archbishop Cullen of Dublin. (St Paul of the Cross was not canonised until 1867.) A newspaper report described it as ‘the noblest religious house erected in these countries since the Reformation.... The whole exterior is built of granite, and although of the greatest plainness of character and simplicity of design, as is required by the spirit of the Order, yet from its height, massiveness, and boldness of outline, it produces quite a monastic effect.’ The community continued to use the small temporary church which had been built onto the original farmhouse. right: Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen
Plans for a new church had been made, but as yet it was not possible to proceed. Archbishop Cullen was opposed to the project as he believed there was no need for a large church so far from the centre of the city. However, the people were undeterred by the distance and were now coming in large numbers to be blessed by Charles, with unfortunate consequences for him:
For some time his health had been very much impaired, in consequence of his constantly attending the people, coming from every part of Ireland, and some from England, Scotland, and even from America for his blessing. It is said that many were cured from their maladies, but we never took any step to have the ‘miracles’, as the people called them, verified. Every hour of the day, from morning till evening, people were coming for Fr Charles’ blessing and miracle. The poor saintly man had not a moment’s rest. Day by day, he was getting weaker and weaker. (Annals of the Anglo-Hibernian Province)
In his diary Fr Salvian writes that at this time ‘the poor man [Charles] had not a moment to himself. The consequence was that he got very thin and weak, for not taking care of himself.’ The superiors considered moving him to another house for the sake of his health. However, before they reached their decision, something happened which compelled them to remove Charles from Dublin.
Amongst the sick, lame, blind, deaf, etc. several beggars intruded themselves, soliciting alms; and some others filled up bottles and jars with Holy Water, which every day was blessed by Fr Charles, and sold it to simple people, not only in the City of Dublin, but in other cities and towns. This simoniacal dealing of those wretched devotees came to the ear of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Cullen, who advised our superiors to remove for some time Fr Charles from Dublin, and that would be the only remedy to put a stop to the scandalous dealing of those persons. The superiors were very glad for the suggestion of his Grace, and sent Fr Charles to England. (Annals)
Fr Salvian writes in his diary, ‘Of course the poor man never dreamed that people would do such a thing, and make their fortune by selling Holy Water; he was ignorant of it all along.’ The fact that he stresses the point of Charles’ innocence only makes it more clear that Charles was indeed under suspicion of being involved. He tells us that the selling of the blessed water was the Archbishop’s ‘principal reason’ for asking the Provincial to remove Charles. There had also been some adverse publicity, in the form of a letter to Saunders’ Newsletter, a newspaper well known for its hostility to the Catholic Church:
I have the honour to be attached as Medical Officer to one of the hospitals of this city. A few days ago a poor girl having both her eyes destroyed by purulent ophthalmia applied at the hospital for advice. I asked her why she had not sought medical aid sooner, informing her at the same time that her case was not hopeless. She made the following extraordinary statement. About six weeks previously one of her eyes became inflamed and, as she did not derive any benefit from remedies she had been advised to try, she applied to the Blessed (!) Fathers of Harold’s Cross [Mount Argus]. These gentlemen rubbed her eyes with ‘the relics’, ordered her to take holy water internally, and told her not to go near the doctors. She remained under this treatment until both her eyes were destroyed. Thus, a poor girl, who under proper medical treatment could have been perfectly cured of her disease, is now thrown into the poorhouse by those who, under the mask of religion, have done their utmost to ruin her not only in this world, but in that which is to come.
Obviously the letter was directed against Charles. Whatever the source of the accusations may have been, there is no doubt that Charles never discouraged anyone from seeking medical attention. On the contrary he had the greatest respect for doctors; in her testimony at the Apostolic Processes, Elizabeth Nally states, ‘My mother used to tell me that she once brought an elder sister of mine, who had a swelling under her ear, to Fr Charles. He told her to bring the child to a doctor because God in his goodness had given doctors skill to heal.’
Nevertheless, in spite of his innocence in both cases, to England he was sent. His being removed after these occurrences might have seemed to others to imply his guilt, but nothing was said. His new home was to be the novitiate house, Saint Saviour’s Retreat, Broadway, where he would be sure to have the rest he needed. On the evening of 3 July 1866 Charles slipped away from Mount Argus. His friend, Br Michael came with him to the boat, to help with his luggage and to wave goodbye.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - 2020 - 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.