History of the SSPX in Ireland

Compiled by Kenneth Morgan

The Beginnings

On 16 November 1976, Ms Bernadette Hamill, Newry, became the first Irish person to receive a sacrament from the SSPX, when she was sent to the Great Western Hotel, London, to receive the Archbishop’s Confirmation.[1]  This was followed up by their friends, the Mc Keown family of Andersonstown, West Belfast, who requested Fr Michael Cresswell to come to Newry, Co. Down to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction to a dying priest friend of theirs, Fr Thomas Cunningham of St Agnes’ Church in Belfast.  Afterwards he celebrated a private Mass for them and their friends.  During this visit Fr Cresswell was asked about the possibility of providing Mass on a more regular basis in Belfast.[2]  These events set in motion traditional activity in the north.

In a separate, and unrelated initiative, Mrs Helen Fitzpatrick placed an advert with contact details in a Dublin evening newspaper on 19 June 1978: ‘“Interested in the Latin Tridentine Mass?” … to which over three dozen people replied.’[3]  Out of these replies a meeting was held in the North Star Hotel, Dublin.  At this meeting it was decided to approach the SSPX in London to request a priest.  These were the events which set in motion traditional activity in the south.  

The priest who was sent was Englishman, Fr Michael Cresswell.  It is Fr Cresswell who can be regarded as a pioneer priest for traditionalists in Ireland as it is he who celebrated the first public Old Masses in both Belfast and Dublin and gives the initial advice and clerical impetus to the Irish mission.  Fr. Cresswell was an English diocesan priest but who lived at the English SSPX Headquarters in Highclere, without sanction from his bishop.  Between 1978 and 1988 there were numerous instances of this assistance for Irish SSPX activity e.g. Frs. Cresswell, Foley, Wilders, Mc Grath and O’Rourke. 

The initiative, commitment and conviction of a small number of Catholic families and individuals in the early days of both missions was central. For the first seven years in Ireland, there was no resident SSPX priest.  This difference meant that the role of the laity in establishing its mission has been more pronounced.  The Irish laity who played this central role were Mr and Mrs Hugh McKeown, Mr and Mrs Hamill, Mrs Helen Fitzpatrick, John Power, Gerry Murphy, Kieron Wood and Sean MacEochaidh, to name but a few.

Characteristic of these early activities is a strong spirit of recusancy.  By 1978 Archbishop Lefebvre had already been suspended for two years which meant that Irish traditionalists could expect no support from the main body of the Church.  If Irish traditionalist activity was to be maintained, it needed structure, direction and organisation.  This was achieved with the establishment of the lay co-ordinating group ‘Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X’ in January 1979.  This registered charitable trust mirrored but was separate from the activities of the English branch of the same name.  The first, Dublin-based committee, chaired by John Power with Patrick Curran as secretary, organised and directed SSPX activities in Ireland until August 1983.  Despite the fact that the Belfast connection with the SSPX was established first, Dublin traditionalists became organised earlier and their greater numbers led to a gravitation towards Dublin as the main centre for activity. 

These early activities were rather nomadic.  Between 1 July 1978 and 9 December 1979, there were 17 Masses celebrated in Dublin in four different locations.[4]  The first two Masses were celebrated in two Dublin hotels: the North Star Hotel and Powers Hotel.  Between September 1979 and August 1983, the Rathmines and Rathgar Music Hall offered a semi-permanent base.  In addition to these Masses in Dublin, these priests made efforts to get to Belfast, Newry, Drogheda and Cork to say both public and private Masses.  This was not always possible as the priests were normally only in Ireland for a weekend before flying back to either England or Scotland.  From the very first SSPX Masses in Ireland, there has always been a strong symbolism to location: rented hotel rooms, front living rooms, windowless basements, attic rooms and rented music halls were a physical manifestation of their fractured relationship with the Holy See. 

In addition to finding locations for the Mass, there were other issues which had to be addressed to ensure the survival of the SSPX Irish Mission.  Communication networks, liturgical items, transport and accommodation for priests all had to be organised for what were basically flying visits.  From a standing start, this lay initiative had to accumulate the items necessary for the celebration of Mass.  From 1977 – 2007, the SSPX has had to be resourceful in building up its mission.  Items were purchased from religious distributors whilst other items were obtained via donations from religious groups and those which could be made, were made.  Patrick Morgan, after being approached to design and build a lectern and statue pillars, commented upon their donation:

It was the least I could do in view of the substantial sacrifices which others, before me, had made.  The attic chapel, which we were forced to use, was not the most glamorous location for the Sacrifice of the Mass and any ornamentation to our Spartan surroundings was welcomed.  I also felt that looking at these items might take people’s minds off the problematic electrics and damp on the walls.[5]

Bernadette Hamill, who was confirmed by Archbishop Lefebvre in London in 1976, commented on the contribution of her mother:

From the early 1990s to 2003, my mother painstakingly restored many vestments for the SSPX.  Some of these are treasures and can no longer be found.  This intricate work she undertook, in her own time, and at her own expense.  She also made new altar linens and sewed altar frontals, tabernacle veils and soutanes.[6]

The gravitation towards Dublin as the main Mass centre meant that many of those desiring to attend Mass had to travel considerable distances.  In 1980 those who had been travelling from Belfast to Dublin for Masses established the Belfast-based Latin Mass Apostolate (LMA) and sought permission for Masses from the Down and Connor diocesan authorities.  (See Chapter Three).  These efforts were unsuccessful and they had to return to the SSPX.  The LMA then requested Fr Alan Wilders to celebrate Mass in Belfast.  Fr Wilders had been coming to Ireland, from England to celebrate the Mass for the SSPX since December 1980.  This approach was successful and initially Masses were said in the Dawson, McDonald and MacEochaidh households.  However, a more suitable venue needed to be obtained.   The New Plaza in Lower Donegal Street, Belfast, was soon sourced and then rented and, for over a year, Fr. Wilders travelled here weekly to say Mass for congregations of approximately forty people. 

The small Irish traditionalist community received a good deal of moral support with an early visit from Archbishop Lefebvre 7-9 May 1980.  During this short three-day trip, the Archbishop gave a press conference, a public lecture in Liberty Hall, Dublin, and celebrated Mass in the Central Hotel in Exchequer Street, Dublin:

A congregation of 250 people … crowded into a room in a city centre hotel to hear the dissident French-born Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre celebrate the banned Tridentine Mass.[7] 

The sizeable interest which this visit created obviously caught the organisers unaware as at the Mass on 8 May they ran out of Consecrated Hosts and had to ask four people to return to their seats.[8] 


Difficulty & Growth

Despite early successes and growth, the 1980 visit of Archbishop Lefebvre and the frenetic organisational activities of the Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X, a crisis loomed towards the end of 1980.  Fr Black (English SSPX Superior, in Highclere) noted that he was unable to send priests to Ireland due to manpower issues.[9]  The severity of the situation was summed up by the chairman of the committee, John Power:

Because of the inability of Fr Black to supply us with a priest, which is very much regretted, in view of the size of our congregation, second only to London, we had to decide between closing our doors or putting our trust in God and looking after our own future.  It was the unanimous decision of the January meeting that we look after our own affairs.[10] 

However, the central issue was not one of manpower but of finance.  Irish traditionalist activity between 1977 and 1984 was primarily a lay initiative.  All activity, except the sacramental functions of the priest, was carried out by laity and, when SSPX priests came from England to say Masses, their travel expenses were paid from the money received from Irish Mass collections.  Kieron Wood (traditionalist and RTÉ Religious Affairs Correspondent) noted:

Fr Black, the Superior in England, said that we should give them the money directly.  We didn’t want to lose control over an initiative which we had started and built up.  We decided, as this was a lay initiative, we would keep control of the finances in order to retain a degree of independence.[11] 

As a result of Fr Black’s refusal to send SSPX priests, alternative priests needed to be found.  Advertisements requesting priests were placed in Irish daily newspapers which, unsurprisingly, proved unsuccessful.  However, three priests were sourced through personal connections: a retired Irish Holy Ghost priest, Fr Foley; Fr Patrick O’Rourke and an English-based priest, Fr Alan Wilders. 

The connection with the English priest, Fr Wilders, was a fortuitous one and came about through another Englishman, Kieron Wood.  Wood, who had moved to Ireland in 1978, noted: ‘I told the Committee that I knew a priest in Rochester, England, who might be willing to come over.  Fr Wilders came over and we continued, almost unaffected.’[12]   Between 5 October 1980 – 4 April 1982 Masses were kept going in Ireland by these three, non-SSPX, priests.  Once again, their collusion with the SSPX was frowned upon by the Irish hierarchy and they requested that their names not be disclosed.  It should be noted that only for the assistance of these priests the SSPX’s Irish mission may have collapsed at this juncture. 

This commitment and re-establishment of communications obviously impressed Archbishop Lefebvre as, soon after his visit in October 1982, the English Superior, Fr Black, announced on 13 November that they were considering appointing a permanent priest to Ireland.  This announcement focused the committee’s activities on acquiring a Dublin residence for this priest.  Eventually a house, 12 Crawford Avenue in Dublin, was purchased for £48,500.  This sum was raised in two ways: donations from the congregation (approximately £28,000) and through loans, from banks and Ecône.[13]  The purchase of this house was a sizeable achievement for a small congregation of approximately 150 and the last Mass was celebrated in Rathmines and Rathgar Hall on 14 August 1983.  The promised priest, Father John Emerson, celebrated the first mass in this new residence on 11 September 1983.  With a significant slice of irony Fr Emerson requested, in the August 1983 Newsletter that, due to restricted parking facilities in this residential area, the car park of the local Catholic Church could be used!  Archbishop Lefebvre’s personal attitude to Ireland was important in his decision to send a priest.  Gerry Murphy noted:

He was very supportive of our efforts … this was disproportionate in regard to the enormous demands on his time and resources from all over the world.  To the Society in General, Ireland would not have had that prominent a place but the Archbishop’s disposition towards Ireland meant that he was willing to send priests to Ireland so early.  He may have had a romanticised view of Ireland.  His practice of sending two priests to any location may have been overcome by his personal disposition to Ireland, resulting in the sending of John Emerson.[14] 

This purchase marks a significant turning point in the history of the SSPX Irish mission.  Whilst the congregation size remains fairly static (approximately 150) the provision of Masses was substantially increased, with daily Masses and three on a Sunday.  Fr Emerson’s arrival also meant that the Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X were now redundant as an executive committee: ‘with the arrival of Fr Emerson all matters regarding the Dublin Mass Centre will now be in his hands.’[15]  This charismatic Californian remained in Ireland for the next four years and established a strong base for the SSPX:

He really attracted people in a way that succeeding Superiors haven’t been able to.  When Fr Emerson moved to [St John’s] Mounttown [1985 – 1987] he was drawing a substantial crowd possibly up to 500.’[16] 

However, this figure of five hundred was not representative of weekly congregation sizes and was only reached on special occasions.  A more accurate estimation of weekly congregation sizes in Dublin was approximately three hundred. Despite the acquisition of a house in Dublin, the Mass centres in Belfast and Newry struggled to establish accommodation of similar quality.  In response to Fr Emerson’s offer to travel to say private Masses requests came from Drogheda, Newry and Belfast.  The Hamill family (previously resident in Belfast) requested that a Mass be said in their new residence in Newry:

We established a small chapel in our house which was to become the Newry Mass Centre for a further nine years.  At the first Mass on 7 October 1983, there were approximately 20 in the congregation.[17] 

Among the congregation of this first Mass were the committee members of the Belfast-based Latin Mass Apostolate who travelled when Mass was not available there.  In Belfast, Mr Hugh McKeown proved to be the most proactive individual for the SSPX and was able to procure premises for their Masses: ‘Initially, a hall in Andersonstown was acquired and then a basement room in 78 Andersonstown Rd, Belfast.’[18]  This basement room continues to be the SSPX base in Belfast.  The SSPX Irish presence was further strengthened by the arrival of another priest, Fr Walter Ranger, in August 1984.  Additionally, in 1985, Ireland sent her first two successful seminarians, Leo Boyle and Francis Gallagher, to Ecône. 

In 1985, SSPX Ireland made possibly their biggest single strategic advancement by purchasing St John’s Church in Mounttown, Dun Laoghaire.  This former Church of Ireland building, consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre on 29 September 1985, made redundant the house in Crawford Avenue, facilitated greater congregation sizes, provided accommodation for priests and was still the headquarters for SSPX Ireland in 2007.  On the day it was blessed by Archbishop Lefebvre, there took place in Dublin a separate ecclesial event which many traditionalists pointed to as evidence of how the increased ecumenism initiated by Vatican II was not only a false ecumenism but was also hypocritical.  On this day, in Christchurch Cathedral, Rev Donald Caird was enthroned as Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin.  This service was attended by the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Kevin McNamara, and other representatives of both Church and State, whilst the consecration of St John’s by Archbishop Lefebvre was officially ignored.  It should be noted that Archbishop Lefebvre was no minor figure in the Church, having been Apostolic Delegate for all of French-speaking Africa, Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers and at one stage considered for the Cardinal’s red hat.  A commonly held belief within Irish traditionalism was that ecumenism seemed to apply to everyone but them. 


After the Consecrations

On 29 June 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four Bishops, of his choosing, without the necessary permission of the Holy See. Sermons were read out condemning the consecrations throughout Ireland.  Dr Michael Murphy, Bishop of Cork and Ross, said that the schism was an issue of ‘deep regret.’[19]  Echoing these same sentiments, Bishop John Magee of Cloyne stated that the consecrations were ‘a stabbing in the back [for Pope John Paul II]. I know how the Holy Father must feel after this rejection.’[20]  In addition to this Ecclesial condemnation, the SSPX suffered the loss of its first Irish Superior, Fr John Emerson, who left to join the newly established Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP).

Unsurprisingly, the congregation of the SSPX Ireland was also reduced in number.  However, what is more surprising is the fact that it did not decrease drastically.  Vatican spokesman Dr Joaquin Navarro Vals predicted an eighty percent worldwide exodus from the SSPX.[21]  Despite his and others predictions, a massive worldwide exodus did not materialise. At the time of the consecrations the Irish SSPX congregation was approximately five hundred and was subsequently reduced to about three hundred.  Some of the most proactive members of the congregation left, most notably, Gerry Murphy, Kieron Wood, Michael Dawson and Seán MacEochaidh.  Despite this loss, many remained loyal.  After Mass on the first Sunday of July, many of the congregation, in language typical of battles for the orthodox high ground, voiced their disdain for the previous week’s excommunications; Thomas Pim noted: ‘we haven’t left Rome; it’s Rome that has left us.’

The excommunications are pivotal in understanding the limited nature of the SSPX’s growth since 1988; by 2007, numbers still had not reached their pre-1988 levels.  Whilst SSPX congregations grew little over the next five years, the SSPX property and clerical growth was more substantial.  A new priory in Tivoli Terrace, Dublin, was purchased in 1990 and, under the Superior Generalship of Fr Franz Schmidberger, the SSPX would, in 1992, acquire another two chapels: Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Shankiel Road, in Cork, (March) then Corpus Christi Church in Athlone (July).  The Mass centre which was based at the Hamill’s residence in Newry was transferred, in March 1993, to rented premises in the town centre and would stay there with a permanent chapel for thirteen years until March 2006 when it relocated to Richmond Business Park, in nearby Bessbrook. There was also a continuation of the increased frequency of visiting SSPX hierarchy.  Fr Franz Schmidberger, Superior General of the SSPX, visited in February 1987, April 1989 and May 1990, giving lectures and celebrating Masses in Dublin, Belfast and Dun Laoghaire.  Archbishop Lefebvre also visited again, for the last time, between 27 October – 3 November 1990, stopping at Mass centres in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Cashel and Drogheda.  His death in March 1991 brought with it more predictions of terminal decline.  However, the five years which followed the SSPX Irish mission showed surprising resilience.  The Irish mission received its first ordinations with Leo Boyle and Francis Gallagher being ordained in 1991 and 1993 respectively.  The Newry Mass Centre (over its three locations) has been consistently the best attended SSPX centre in Ireland outside Dublin, experiencing expansion rather than the trend of general contraction that would become evident from the late 1990s on.  Its congregation has increased from almost twenty in the residence of the Hamill family to over fifty in its 2007 Bessbrook location. 

Part of the resilience of the SSPX has been its ability to establish a community.  Commenting on his attendance at early SSPX Masses in Belfast, Francis Gallagher (latterly Fr. Gallagher, SSPX) noted: ‘There was now a sense of belonging to a community and no longer being an isolated individual.’Throughout its time in Ireland, the SSPX has striven to establish just such a ‘tightly knit subculture.’  Along with Masses, all other sacraments have been provided.  They have also at various times had confraternities, youth groups, catechism classes, retreats and choir practice, in addition to the standard devotional activities of Rosaries, benediction etc.  However, the most ambitious and symbolic of all these activities was its attempt to establish a traditional school in Dublin.  The St. Thomas Aquinas School was established in 1994/5 by the ambitious young Superior of Ireland, Fr Daniel Couture.  However, the school was short lived and had to close in 2003, ‘due to lack of numbers.’[22]  Fr Couture commented that the school, which started with fourteen and closed with around twenty pupils, ‘had faced many problems such as; commitment on the part of parents, money to finance it, the availability of suitable teachers and transport to and from the school.[23]

The oldest Mass Centres established in Dublin, Belfast and Newry remain busy, with Athlone active also and in 2001 with the appointment of Zimbabwean, Craig Buffé, the SSPX had for the first time four priests resident in Ireland.

 

[1] Interview with Ms Bernadette Hamill, Newry, County Down (25 Jan. 2009).

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Friends of the Society of St. Pius X , Aug. 1983.

[5] Interview with Mr Patrick Morgan, Newry, County Down (13 Feb. 2009).

[6] Interview with Ms Bernadette Hamill, Newry, County Down (25 Jan. 2009).

[7] Irish Independent, 8 May 1980.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X, Feb. 1981.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Interview with Kieron Wood, Rathfarnham, Dublin (23 Feb. 2009).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X, May 1983.

[14] Interview with Gerry Murphy, Dublin (9 Mar. 2009).

[15] Friends of the Society of Saint Pius X, Aug. 1983.

[16] Interview with Peadar Laighleis, Inse, County Meath (15 Feb. 2009).

[17] Correspondence with Ms Bernadette Hamill, Newry, County Down (10 Oct. 2008).

[18] Interview with Seán Mac Eochaidh, Kansas Avenue, Belfast, County Antrim (8 Nov. 2008).

[19] Irish Catholic, 7 July 1988.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Irish Times, 4 July 1988.

[22] Interview with Ms Bernadete Hamill, Newry, County Down (25 Jan. 2009).

[23] E Mail from Fr Daniel Couture to Kenneth Morgan, 28 Mar. 2009 (Quezon City, Philippines)