Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 8, 2004
Irish eyes are smiling
St. Patrick -- Feast Day -- March 17
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
At a time of year when everyone wants to welcome spring by becoming Irish for a day to celebrate the great patron saint's feast, it's worth remembering the conditions under which Catholics worshipped for centuries in the Old Country.
A good way to gain on understanding of the not-so-happy past is to visit one of Ireland's historic gems, St. Patrick's Church in Waterford, one of the few surviving post-Reformation Catholic churches in the entire country.
When first used in 1704 it was intended to be a model of obscurity, a converted corner-store where the faithful were permitted under the penal laws to worship provided that they didn't disturb or offend their non-Catholic neighbours. Today it's a little less obscure but still takes a bit of searching to locate and visit.
Waterford, like many coastal Irish towns, was originally a Viking settlement but its residents soon acquired Christianity by intermarriage with their Celtic neighbours and by 1096 the first bishop of Waterford had been named. Later decimated by the Reformation, it wasn't until penal laws were relaxed in the 18th century that Catholics were again allowed to worship publicly, if not openly, in Waterford.
Directions are recommended to find St. Patrick's. This rarity of an Irish Catholic church, a house of worship that has been in continuous use for 300 years, is worth visiting. It's halfway down narrow, block-long Chapel Lane, a pedestrian walkway that's accessible from either George's Street on the north end or a large car park on Jenkin's Lane.
Even the statue of the Sacred Heart centred in the walkway, a large crucifix on the church wall and a statue of St. Patrick opposite the church doorway doesn't take away from the austere anonymity of this precious little refuge.
Everyone knows the church's namesake as the Roman British boy who was kidnapped by raiders and spent six years in slavery in pagan Ireland. After escaping he travelled to France where he studied, was ordained and named a bishop. In 432 he was sent back to the island to convert the natives there. Noted for his humility, sanctity and prayerfulness, Patrick became the patriarch of the Irish people, bringing to them the gift of the Christian faith.
His feast day on March 17, in addition to serving as an excuse for world-wide festivities, became a brief, unapproved respite from the rigours of Lent. It's a holy day of obligation in his homeland. In the Canadian Church, St. Patrick's Day is an optional memorial.
St. Patrick's exudes the aura of a holy place. It's small but seems even smaller because of the large gallery that fills much of a second level of the building. Almost out of sight at the rear of the church is a yet higher partial gallery. Small, stained-glass windows, facing onto Chapel Lane are reminders that before features like this were permitted, the church must have been a very dark place, illuminated only by lanterns and candles.
Behind the altar, the old sacristy has been added to over the years, served as a Jesuit school and now houses the Waterford Heritage Services, a well-patronized genealogical research facility.
The sense of mystery and furtiveness that still exists around the old worship site is accentuated by the routine locking of gates at both ends of Chapel Lane overnight. Not to fear though, as the church is accessible after 8 a.m. for those desiring to attend daily 8:30 Mass or the two celebrations on Sundays.