The Irish Franciscans in Athlone have confirmed that they will be leaving Athlone after 800 years in the town. The tough decision comes after the community struggled with an ageing and reducing membership.
The shock news was delivered to mass goers on Tuesday morning at the Friary in Athlone, and will bring an end to a Franciscan presence in the town which has lasted for 800 years.
In a statement explaining the decision, Fr Aidan McGrath, Minister Provincial of the Irish Franciscans, said the announcement of the Friars’ exit from Athlone was “very difficult and sad”. Fr McGrath confirmed the order will be leaving Athlone on the 6th January 2023, and at present, the main concern is for the Friars and staff who will be impacted.
In the statement, read at Masses on Tuesday, Fr McGrath said: “We, the Irish Franciscans, must make a very difficult and sad announcement today, namely that we must withdraw from Athlone.
“We have given this decision much consideration in recent years, but regretfully we must now face our present-day reality and leave a town where we have enjoyed and valued such support and friendship for close to 800 years. Like so many religious bodies, we must make these difficult decisions as we deal with and respond to our ageing and reducing membership,” he added.
“At this time, our main concern is for the Friars and staff who will be impacted by this decision, as we will be leaving Athlone on the 6th January 2023.
“We will be engaging immediately in discussions to ensure that the consequences of this announcement are dealt with in the best way possible for all involved”.
He extended a special thanks to the Friars for the work done in the local area dating back to 1241, adding: “I want to thank in a special way our Friars and staff for the wonderful work they have done here and the relationships they have cultivated and developed in the local area.
“Some of the Friars here today have dedicated the greater part of their lives to serving the people of Athlone and for them this is a particularly sad day.
“I acknowledge with great pride all the work done and the various struggles faced by the Friars in Athlone, dating back to 1241. As many of you will be aware, the first Friary Church was consecrated in 1241. We were expelled from Athlone in 1651, taking refuge in the locality, as the stones in the sanctuary testify, but we came back to the town soon after and as recently as 1930-2 built this splendid Church dedicated to St. Anthony .
“Many of your parents fundraised for this church. We Franciscans are very proud of our history here in Athlone, a history and a presence only made possible by the welcome and support received from and so generously given by the local people.
“I want to thank the people of Athlone for their support – and I will also remember and acknowledge today all those who have gone before; the generations of people in this town and the surrounding area who worked and prayed with us through the good and the difficult times.
“I want to pay a particular tribute today to those who gave so generously of their time in supporting our work in Athlone; their collaboration and voluntary commitment was so important, valued and appreciated.
Fr McGrath also asked for prayers from mass-goers, adding:
“And finally I ask for your support and prayers as we deal with the outcomes of this most difficult and unavoidable announcement. Thank you”.
HISTORY OF THE FRIARS IN ATHLONE
The Franciscans first arrived in Athlone, a town in County Roscommon and Westmeath, in c. 1235 as the Normans gathered for the final onslaught on Connaught. The first friary in Athlone was established in roughly 1235, located on the site of the present Silver Quay complex on Northgate Street. It was possibly under the patronage of the Burkes, O’Fallons and Dillons.
On that site, the friars, followers of St Francis who commit their lives to living out Christ’s presence and action among the people, would build a church in honour of St. Mary’s Assumption. The new church was consecrated by the Archbishop of Armagh on the 15ht August, 1241. Nestled by the river to the north of the bridge, it would be the only church on the Leinster side for 200 years.
Records estimate that there were around 16 friars in Athlone at this time. The men were able to combine their impactful apostolic work with prayerful seclusion. The selection of their first site in Athlone was motivated by two things – the availability to the people for pastoral service, and securing enough privacy to make sure that their own life of prayer and contemplation would not suffer. Because of this, the church and friary were outside but quite close to the town limits.
The friars would suffer great persecution with the heralding in of the reformation, inaugurated by King Henry VII in 1539. They were forced to abandon their friary, however, they kept up a presence in Athlone and the surrounding countryside. The men would remain ministering in secret from hiding places located in Clonekill, Kilmacuagh, and Kilkenny West. They eventually settled at Friars Island in Killinure. A path ‘Sli an Aifrinn’ bridged a connection between the island and the town of Athlone. It was here that Brother John Claffey was martyred during the Cromwellian persecution.
During penal times, the Friars worked in the diocese of Clonmacnois, with Thomas Quinn being elected Bishop of the diocese in 1252. A total of eight other Franciscans held that office, including Bishop Athony MacGeoghegan who ordained Saint Oliver Plunkett. As well as serving as Bishops, the Friars also worked as clergy in parishes during the penal times.
Flash forward to 1723, and despite enormous challenges, the order remained standing strong. Friar John Farrell became Parish priest of St. Mary’s in 1723, using the old chapel in Irishtown. To this day, the ruins of a 17th century Friary Church remain and can be seen at the old Abbey graveyard in Abbey Road in Athlone.
The order underwent a period of rebirth, coming to the present site around 1723. They opened a new church which was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception in 1815. That church was demolished in 1930, making way for the present-day church of Saint Anthony of Padua, which opened its doors to the parish in 1931.
The stained windows in the church include St. Francis of Assisi; St. Louis lX, King of France (Patron of the Secular Francis can Order); St. Anthony of Padua; St. Elizabeth of Hungary (Patroness of the Secular Franciscan Order) and St. Clare of Assisi.
The original friary on the present site was started in 1812, and the oldest part of the present Friary dates from 1869.
Two venerable churches in Athlone, St Peter and Paul's overlooking the Shannon and the Franciscan friars. The Franciscans have been in the town for almost 800 years pic.twitter.com/q0AJKsCTpv
— Ruadhan Jones (@RuadhanJ) June 18, 2022
On social media, the news of the Friars exit from the town after more than eight centuries was met with great sadness. Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, described the news as ‘heart-breaking’.
“Heart-breaking to hear that the Franciscans are leaving Athlone after 800 years – the friars survived everything, including the Reformation, but not the vocations crisis. A sad day for Ireland,” he said.
Heart-breaking to hear that the Franciscans are leaving Athlone after 800 years – the friars survived everything, including the Reformation but not the vocations crisis. A sad day for Ireland.
— Michael Kelly ن (@MichaelKellyIC) October 18, 2022
Fr Brian McKevitt, editor of Alive Magazine and Dominican Friar, said the shortage of vocations which prompted the closure was reflective of a “wider loss of faith” in Ireland.
“Shortage of vocations reflects country’s wider loss of faith. Much of that is Church’s own doing, scandals but especially refusal to preach Gospel,” he said.
“Jesus proposed just 1 remedy, prayer, for vocations. So is Church conducting major campaign of prayer for priests? I don’t think so.”
Shortage of vocations reflects country's wider loss of faith. Much of that is Church's own doing, scandals but especially refusal to preach Gospel.
Jesus proposed just 1 remedy, prayer, for vocations. So is Church conducting major campaign of prayer for priests? I don't think so.
— Brian McKevitt (@BMcKev) October 18, 2022
A Mass of thanksgiving will be celebrated in Athlone Friary Church on Sunday 8th January 2023. In a statement, the Friars in Athlone said that the future of Athlone Friary and Church has not at present been decided, and various possibilities in this regard will be explored in the coming months. A further announcement will be made once a decision has been reached on the future use of the buildings.