Paul Francis Spencer C.P.

Among the most important sources of information about Charles are the writings of Fr Salvian. Apart from his personal diary, Salvian also kept the Platea, the official chronicles of the monastery, for almost twenty years. A man who held strong view on most subjects, Salvian was quick to notice the failings of others and left many sharp comments on human nature not just in his diary but also in the Platea. He took special notice of Charles, as he has already told us, because of his reputation for holiness; another man he kept his eye on, but for a different reason, was Fr Sebastian Keens.

Fr Sebastian, or the ‘Great Man’ as Salvian like to call him, was probably, after Charles, the best-known Passionist in nineteenth-century Ireland. He was for many years the Director of the Confraternity of the Passion, which he has introduced into Ireland, and was the author-editor of a number of prayer manuals some of which were best sellers. In great demand as a preacher, he gave retreats and missions all over Ireland and was considered an excellent preacher by everyone; that is, everyone except Fr Salvian who, even back in 1874, had written in his diary:

The [May] Procession in the afternoon went on still better than the Sunday before. Fr Sebastian preached one of his ‘anything and everything’ sermons, and made himself a great fool in his theatrical delivery. The contortions, the tone of voice, the eternal repetition of the same things over and over again ‘usque ad nauseam’ tired everyone, except perhaps some old woman who understood nothing of the sermon, except the screams and the stamping of the feet of the preacher. What a pity that people will not listen to the good advice of others!

Sebastian Keens CPWhen Fr Jerome Smith became Rector in July 1884 Fr Sebastian, who was then fifty-two years old, was at the height of his popularity. On close terms with many of the prominent figures in Dublin society, he had organised some very spectacular events in aid of Mount Argus, with a little help from his more influential friends. right: Sebastian Keens C.P.

Although a man of great ability, he was never made Rector of Mount Argus, which no doubt surprised him greatly but was a comfort to many in the community. However, he had managed to work himself into a position in the community where he could act more or less independently of the Rector even within the monastery; taking advantage of Fr Jerome’s lack of experience, he now began to act as if he were in fact the superior. In the house chronicles Salvian has left this account of the Feast of St Sebastian, 20 January 1885:

Early in the morning the students presented an address to the Rev. Fr Sebastian, who seated in a rich armchair, under a beautiful throne [i.e. canopy], which had been put up by the same students in their recreation room. Tablecloths were laid in the Refectory; Fr Sebastian took the first seat at table, and acted as Superior the whole day. This is never done, even for Fr General.

In the evening, after supper, the community was invited upstairs to the Throne Room where there was a grand display of good things in the shape of Cakes, Tarts, Biscuits, Native and Foreign Fruits, Wines of different sorts, but especially the ‘Native’. Then speeches, songs and recitations until a late hour. It was a splendid ‘Fete’ and the students especially enjoyed it very much.

The writer does not exactly, nor necessarily agree to all this sort of thing being done on the Feast of a private individual, unless the individual is one of the Superiors.

Whether from motives of kindness or weakness, Fr Jerome was inclined to leave Sebastian unchallenged. While it was true that he was working to raise money to pay off the debts of the monastery, it was equally true that he had effectively cut himself off from the day-to-day life of the house, being always absent from community prayer and spiritual conferences, and from community meetings unless the business under discussion affected him personally. The acts of largesse in which he indulged during Fr Jerome’s rectorship tended to antagonise some members of the community, who resented his playing the role of superior and wondered where the money for the feasts was coming from. HIs strongest allies were the students who always treated him with deference and respect, though sometimes not from the purest of motives, as we learn from a diary kept by one of them, Adrian Cole:

25 November 1885. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Fr Sebastian’s ordination. An address was delivered by Confrater Ambrose containing of course sentiments that would be ‘truly noble’ in Fr Sebastian’s estimation, such as when he was styled in it a ‘pillar of the Church’ and ‘worthy to wear the mitre’, etc. This oration produced its desired effect and we spent a very pleasant evening in the professed recreation, everything being provided by Fr Sebastian, and of course well seasoned with compliments.

The students were delighted to have some entertainment and were quite willing to pay the price. However, not everyone in the community was as pleased as they were with Fr Sebastian’s generosity. Salvian gives this version of the proceedings, and his comments:

The students presented him [Sebastian] with an address full of praises and flattery, which the good Father swallowed with the greatest delight. In the evening after the service he regaled the whole community with sweets, cakes, apples, grapes &c, and whiskey and wine to swallow them. Speeches, replies, songs in abundance ‘usque ad nauseam’. Well, I do not know what to say about this sort of things. If they were done to honour our Superiors on the Silver or Golden Jubilee, well and right, but when they are repeated three times a year, viz. at the anniversary of the Clothing or Profession -- at the Feast of the Patron Saint -- and at the ordination, and done with such publicity, and I may say dissipation, I cannot reconcile myself, nor could I approve such things.

Jerome Smith C.P.Fr Jerome’s inability to take a firm hand began to show itself in other ways. The general atmosphere of neglect which had been building up in the community over the years now came to the surface. There was a careless attitude towards the church, with priests failing to appear for Masses and other public services. The house itself was not even clean; the kitchen was dirty and untidy and the corridors were in need of sweeping. This external carelessness was symptomatic of a deep feeling of hopelessness and futility within the community, faced as it was with the depressing reality of a financial situation which was completely out of control; this was being further aggravated by the crisis of leadership in the house. right: Jerome Smith C.P.

The Provincial, Fr Vincent Grogan, at the Visitation in September 1885, had made a vain attempt to shore up the external structures of the community: ‘He spoke very strongly but most kindly about the abuses. Most solemnly he prohibited the use of spirits before dinner; recommended the punctual attention to the Choir night and day; attention to the confessional; and abstaining from smoking in the rooms.’ In noting these admonitions of Fr Vincent in his diary, Salvian was unable to resist a footnote on Sebastian: ‘Strange to say, my friend who has not put his foot into the Choir since the Visitation of twelve months ago, except on two of three occasions for Prime and Tierce only, was not present even on this occasion.’

The strong but kind words of the Provincial did nothing to stop the downward slide which was now well under way. There was no lack of good will on the part of members of the community, as Salvian says, but good will alone was not sufficient. In his summary at the end of the year 1885 he admits that

the observance of many points of our holy Rules and Regulations are disgracefully neglected. The Choir, day or night, is attended only by the students and one or two of the priests. There is no recreation in common; only few attend it. There are some who very seldom are seen in the Choir for Sext and None, Vespers or Compline. If you happen to pass on the low level corridor during that time, you will see them by twos or threes chatting away, as unconcerned about the Choir as if it was their business to stay away.

The ‘one or two of the priests’ attending the community prayer were Salvian himself and Charles, when he was able.

Charles was still subject to bouts of ill-health and according to Salvian ‘had become very weak, and his mind a little affected’, as a consequence of which he was sent, on 23 July 1885, to Holy Cross Retreat, Ardoyne, Belfast for a few weeks’ rest. Brother Michael was sent with him, to take care of him. However, Charles had very little rest in Belfast; news of his arrival leaked out and within a short time the monastery was besieged by people asking for him. According to P. J. Tiernan, who was an altar boy at Holy Cross at the time, ‘During the period Fr Charles was at Ardoyne enormous crowds of people from all parts of the North of Ireland came daily, some afflicted physically or otherwise and others in perfect health, to be blessed by him.’

With this state of affairs Charles was probably busier during this ‘holiday’ than he would have been had he stayed in Dublin. When he returned to Dublin on 11 August there was, according to Salvian, very little improvement to be seen: ‘The saintly man seems a little better, but in my opinion not much. I fear that if the poor Father is allowed again to bless the people who come here from every part of Ireland and England for his blessing, he will again get as bad as before.’

While he was genuinely concerned about Charles’ health, Salvian was also glad to seem him back; he had been given the job of blessing the people while Charles was away and had found them very demanding, as a result of which he had tried to put some order on the proceedings:

During his absence I was appointed to bless the people, and I was not left a moment to myself. There was a constant up and down the whole blessed day, from morning till evening, when I was at home. I dare say that every day more than fifty or sixty people come for the blessing and on Sunday there must be more than one hundred; however, I made a regulation on this point and fixed hours when I would go down, in the Old Chapel, and bless all those who were there.... In particular cases I went down in the Parlour and blessed them there. If Fr Charles is put under obedience to do the same, I think it will answer very nicely, without distress. The Porter should not call him except at these hours.

Later that year, during the first weeks of November, Salvian was again called upon to replace Charles, who was unable to move because of rheumatism: ‘I had a great many of them for the blessing or, as the poor people say, for rubbing with the relic of St Paul.’

Salvian mentioned that he had been blessing the people in the old church, which had been left standing when the present church was opened in 1878. Two months before Charles’ visit to Belfast the students had set up a grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes inside the old church; here it was that Charles was now to bless the people, although occasionally he would also give the blessing at the altar of St Mary Magdalene. It is interesting to note that the times for the daily blessing with the relic of St Paul of the Cross (10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m.) were fixed not by Charles but by Salvian.

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The new year 1886 brought no remarkable improvement either in the bodily health of Charles or in the spiritual health of the community. In the month of March, two days before the feast of St Patrick, Fr Sebastian managed to find another way of upsetting the community. The student Adrian Cole tells us that ‘Fr Sebastian got permission from the Father Rector to have an old panegyric of his upon St Patrick read in the refectory. He preached it twenty-two years ago in a church, Melior St, London. I think most of the priests are offended by this almost unprecedented act.’

A few days later there was a community celebration for the feast-day of Fr Gabriel, the Director of Students, at which, according to Adrian, ‘Fr Sebastian got up and made a long speech on Fr Gabriel’s virtues, alluding to the time when Fr Gabriel was Rector of this house, and he was his Vicar. When he had finished, Fr Pius [Devine] started to his feet, and gave Fr Sebastian some very sharp words about his conduct as Vicar, respecting Fr Gabriel. Fr Sebastian left a few minutes afterwards.’ Sebastian’s combination of naivety and pomposity had turned most of the priests of the community against him; three days later he succeeded in doing the same with the students:

Fr Sebastian came to our recreation this evening with a great secret which could not be divulged unless all the students were present. When most of us were there, he told us that [he] desired very much that we should form a kind of committee to have for its object the publication of his sermon on St Patrick that was read in the refectory and also the other one that he preached on last St Patrick’s day, as they would tend very much to increase faith and patriotism, and for this purpose we should speak to the Father Rector only. He then produced a manuscript on which most of his last sermon was written out, but as I have not reached the practise of virtue in the heroic degree, and consequently could not remain listening to such stuff for an hour or so, I very thoughtfully remarked that one or two students were absent.... I went out to find them, taking remarkably good care not to return.
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In the months which followed, Fr Jerome’s authority in the community continued to diminish until finally he decided that the only course of action open to him was to resign his office. He wrote to the Provincial offering his resignation and it was readily accepted. The Provincial then wrote to Mount Argus, informing the community and appointing the Vicar, Fr Anselm, as interim superior, with Fr Salvian as pro-vicar, until a new rector would be elected by the Provincial Curia. When the letter arrived, Fr Jerome was away, giving a mission. In fact, wrote Adrian Cole, he ‘has been giving missions uninterruptedly for the last four or five weeks, so that his powers were virtually suspended, and I suppose his resignation was expected as a matter of course’. In the same letter the Provincial, Fr Vincent Grogan, announced that he would arrive in Dublin the following Monday, 16 August, to conduct the Visitation of the monastery. According to Adrian Cole, the students believed ‘that this Visitation will be very severe’.

On 13 August, three days after the letter from the Provincial had been read publicly in the Choir, Charles wrote to his brothers and sisters, ‘Thank you very much for your lovely letter.... I am very well and everything is fine.’ In context of the situation of Mount Argus -- the Rector’s resignation, the coming of the Provincial, the anxiety in the community, and the general background of turmoil and confusion -- his words ‘everything is fine’ seem laughable at first sight; but as the letter goes on, we see how his preoccupation is not with surface problems but with deeper realities:

Let us abide and remain in the sweet hearts of Jesus and Mary, and let us ask the Blessed Virgin every day to obtain for us, through her powerful intercession, a real spirit of prayer and the gift of perseverance in prayer to the end of our days; may she obtain for us a happy death. Amen.

In praying for a real spirit of prayer and the gift of perseverance Charles reduces the problems around him to the most fundamental level; indeed by his own persevering fidelity he was during these difficult times a silent, yet strong, example to all the others of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Archbishop WalshOn Monday 16 August Fr Vincent opened the Visitation. He told the community that he had been summoned to appear before the Archbishop, Dr Walsh, on account of complaints which had been made against the Passionists. In Salvian’s diary we read:

Reports are gone to the Archbishop against us, which seem to be rather serious, and we fear will bring great disgrace upon this community. May God protect us. In this diary, I have occasionally remarked some internal irregularities, but I never would have dreamed that more serious ones would have been brought before the Archbishop. What these accusations are, I do not know, but from the way that poor Fr Provincial spoke, I fear they are serious enough. The crisis seems to have come, when the poor Provincial will have to act with a strong hand, so contrary to his kind, mild and fatherly dispositions.

above: William Joseph Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin, 1885 - 1921

During the Visitation the Provincial addressed the community, speaking on the values of Passionist religious life and emphasising the importance of prayer, solitude, mortification and recollection. When he came to examine the financial state of the house, he found things to be in a very bad way; he wrote the following comments in the Account Book:

On examining this Book, we find the financial statement handed in at the Visitation to be a deplorable revelation. The Vicar who endeavoured to keep this book, could not in conscience sign it, as the late Rector was not careful in giving him an account of money received and money paid out. The House has gone in debt to an alarming degree since last Visitation, and there must have been a reckless extravagance. However under a new regime there is every hope that a better report will appear next year. There is no knowing the real state of affairs, as according to the present statement, the deficiency not accounted for is £259 three shillings and eleven pence. The Rector is to blamed and no one else.

Fr Vincent concluded the Visitation of Friday 20 August, after have given what Salvian describes as ‘a magnificent address, telling us of the innumerable abuses he had found existing in this Retreat, at the same time earnestly beseeching us to put an end to these sort of things and live as good Passionists’. Fr Vincent had also asked Salvian to refrain from writing criticisms of individual members of the community into the Platea as this would ‘not remedy the evil but exasperate the feelings of the guilty’. While agreeing to do as he had been asked, Salvian explained his point of view in his diary:

When there was anything that was not right, I had no human respect; I spoke strong in the said Chronicles, as anyone who may read them will find out. When we shall have a superior who will ‘do’ first and ‘teach’ after, it will be all right. (31 August 1886)

All were now wondering who would be the new Rector. There was a great deal of talk and different names were put forward. The general feeling was that the most suitable person would be Fr Bernard O’Loughlin, who was at that time the Master of Novices. Fr Bernard, who was sixty-three years old, was a remarkable man; Salvian described him as ‘one of our best religious in every way’. A man of great experience, he had at different times been Vicar, Rector, Provincial Consultor and Provincial. According to Salvian, he had also been Commissioner General for the Franco-Belgian Province, had been the first superior in Paris, where he had built the Church and Retreat, and had been the first superior of the first Passionist foundation in Spain. It was said in Mount Argus that he ‘would be the only one who could be appointed with advantage to this community. Two or three of the old Fathers went farther in their opinion, and said that Fr Bernard would be the only one who could save this Retreat from utter destruction.’ (Platea)

After a month of waiting, on 14 September a telegram arrived from the Provincial. ‘About six o’clock p.m. the news came that Fr Bernard was elected Rector of this house; this was expected by a good many, but it was doubtful whether he would accept it.’ (Adrian Cole, Diary) Three days later Fr Bernard arrived at Mount Argus. The following day, the Provincial

installed the new Rector into his Office with the usual ceremonial. Then the whole community paid him their obedience, and all showed their gladness for the happy event. After this the new Rector addressed a few words of encouragement in the practice of virtue, but especially on the faithful observance of our Holy Rules, and promised us that if we do so, we shall be happy here, and hereafter. (Platea)

When the news of Fr Bernard’s election had come, Salvian had noted in his diary: ‘The general opinion in this Retreat is that Fr Bernard is the very man who will be able to revive the spirit of the Passionists in this house and to remedy its financial affairs.’ The hopes of Salvian and other members of the community did not prove to be vain. Fr Bernard began by going round the garden ‘pulling up old withered shrubs’, but his desire to clean up Mount Argus went beyond the garden. By encouragement and by example he began to rebuild the community’s sense of purpose and to heal the divisions which had arisen within the house. Under his leadership the spiritual life of the community began to flourish once more, as Salvian tells us:

Our present Rector is very prudent and is the first in all the observances; he has already brought us back to the primitive fervour in many points, and by degrees he will complete the full reformation.
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Father Charles, c. 1885The 1880s were difficult years for the community of St Paul’s Retreat. The members of the community reacted to the situation in different ways; some used it to their own advantage, which for others it was a source of annoyance and feelings of bitterness. There were those who opted out of the life of the community, and those who found their consolation in complaining, or in more harmful pursuits. right: Father Charles, c. 1885

One man stands out during this period, conspicuous by his faithful witness to the importance of prayer and apostolic service. For Charles these must have been years of great suffering, as he lived through this experience of fragmentation and collapse in the community. However they were for him also years of growth: growth in self-knowledge and growth in faith. Some months after Fr Bernard’s arrival, when things had begun to improve, Charles wrote to his family, ‘I see now just how necessary prayer is in order to practise all the virtues in their perfection.’ He was well aware of the harm which had been caused by the absence of prayer in the community and, consequently, more convinced than ever of the need to fulfil the Lord’s command to ‘pray always and not lose heart’, as he writes in the same letter:

How greatly has God loved men! He did not spare his only Son but abandoned him to death, even death on the cross. Jesus Christ urges us to pray; but how? Ask, seek and knock. It is for this reason that the Lord has said: ‘Watch and pray, lest you fall into temptation.’ Let us listen to the words of Thomas à Kempis: ‘My son, in this life you will never be completely free or without fear, but as long as you live, make sure you are spiritually armed, because you are living in the midst of enemies who are attacking from every side.’

‘The struggle is continual,’ says St Bonaventure; it is for this reason that we must pray during our whole life.

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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - 2020 - all rights reserved

From the Web publisher:
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.