Posted: 18th September 2014

Clongowes Wood College SJ

Last Sunday, 14th September, Mass was celebrated in the college to mark the bicentenary of the foundation of Clongowes in 1814. The Celebration of the Eucharist was led by Fr Dermot Preston SJ, Provincial of the British Province. The presence of Fr Preston commemorated the debt the Irish Province owes to its British neighbour, which was key to its survival during the years of suppression between 1773 and 1814. Fr Bruce Bradley, erstwhile Headmaster of Clongowes (1992-2000) and editor of ‘Studies’ tells us more…

“After piecemeal suppressions in various countries, the Jesuits were suppressed worldwide by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Paradoxically, he was forced to take this harsh measure under pressure from the church’s own political enemies in Europe. For complex reasons, the suppression did not ‘take’ in White Russia and Prussia and the restoration began step by step, with a new pope’s approval, from direct contact with these continuing centres of Jesuit activity.

‘Provinces’ are the standard unit of organisation, wherever Jesuit numbers are sufficient and their presence well enough established in a given country. Irish Jesuits, given the political situation here from the time the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540, had never formed a ‘province’ as such. Irishmen therefore joined the Society in various European provinces and served on ‘the Irish mission’, according as the – usually very hostile – conditions at home permitted. In 1773, the seventeen then operating in the country had to accept the decree of suppression and lived thereafter as diocesan priests.

English Jesuits had had a largely similar experience over the centuries, but were more numerous and had formally become a province in 1623. Persecution in their own country, however, meant that their dangerous missions had to be organised from the continent. In 1794, although by now ex-Jesuits owing to the suppression twenty years earlier, they had finally been able to return as a group and without concealment. They took refuge in a (safely remote) Lancashire estate given to them by a benefactor, where they continued the educational work they had been doing on the continent, not now formally as Jesuits but as ‘the gentlemen of Stonyhurst’. In 1803, as part of the step by step restoration and having made contact with the acting Fr General in White Russia, thirty-five of them renewed their vows as Jesuits under Fr Marmaduke Stone, named in that year as first provincial of the restored English Jesuits.

Meanwhile, what moneys the Irish survivors had in their possession were passed on in trust from man to man over the decades since 1773, always in hope that restoration might come and the money be used for new Jesuit ministry in Ireland. The small group gradually died off, one by one, but not before a few young Irish candidates, including Peter Kenney (born 1779), had been identified as possible future Jesuits and sent to become novices at Stonyhurst in 1804. Before his own death in 1807, the last surviving trustee, Fr Richard Callaghan, passed the Irish funds for safe keeping to Fr Stone.

Kenney returned to Dublin from Sicily (by then part of the restored Society) in 1811, now ordained and missioned by the acting General to set up a college in Ireland ‘as soon as possible’. After a careful search, he bought the recently vacated Castle Browne with the funds which Fr Stone readily handed over, and founded Clongowes in the spring of 1814 – not for a wealthy middle-class clientèle as such, as is sometimes suggested, but, as one commentator has more accurately put it, specifically in aid of ‘the gradual infiltration of the system by highly-educated Irish Catholics’. This is its continuing purpose in these increasingly secularised times in Ireland today. The Jesuits were restored worldwide a few months after the foundation of Clongowes on 7th August by Pope Pius VII. Fr Kenney was named superior of the small but growing Irish mission. It was made a vice-province (he was the first vice-provincial) in 1830 and finally became a province in 1860.

In 1985, the English Province was renamed the British Province (out of deference to the Scots – what will they want next?!). The presence of Fr Stone’s successor as provincial in Britain, Fr Dermot Preston (himself Irish on his mother’s side), chief celebrant and (very eloquent) preacher at the Bicentenary Mass in Clongowes on 14th September 2014, was in recognition of the vital role his province played in enabling this school’s foundation two hundred years ago.”

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