Clonard Monastery and Church: City of Belfast
The Redemptorists are a congregation of priests and brothers living in a monastic community. They were founded in 1732 in the Kingdom of Naples at a village called Scala on the Amalfi Coast by a Neapolitan priest Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787). Shocked by the ignorance and spiritual neglect of the local herdsmen and their families, despite their proximity to the great city of Naples, Alphonsus resolved to minister to them and other ‘most abandoned souls’.
For fifty years the Redemptorists were confined to the Kingdom of Naples, but in 1783 they established a monastery in Rome, then in Vienna in 1820, the first north of the Alps. Others followed quickly in France and, with particular success, in Belgium from 1833 onwards. In the following century, Belgian Redemptorists were responsible for no less than 88 new foundations.
The first major house in England was in the London borough of Clapham in 1848. It was from England that the first foundations were made in Ireland; in Limerick (1852), Dundalk (1874) and Clonard (1896). In 1898 the Irish Redemptorist province separated from the English province, so by the time Esker (Athenry, Co. Galway) was founded (1901) Ireland was a separate ‘province’, formally called the Dublin Province.
Construction of the monastery began in June 1898 and the building was occupied in 1900. The Redemptorist authorities in Rome stipulated that the cost should not exceed £11,000. The tender by William Campbell of Ravenhill Road for £10,500, the lowest of eight submitted, was accepted. From 1900 to 1905, the monastery was a house for Irish students who had previously studied in England.
City of Belfast
The Redemptorists came to Belfast in 1895 at the invitation of the newly appointed Bishop of Down and Connor, Bishop Henry (1895-1908). Bishop Henry was well disposed to receive them having made his pre-ordination retreat in the Redemptorist monastery in Dundalk. Shortly after he became bishop in September 1895, he announced his intention to establish a Redemptorist house near the Falls Road, where, he said ‘there is a vast Catholic population, some 30,000’ in need of church and priest, for the existing churches St. Peter and St. Paul could not cope.
According to the chronicles of Clonard monastery, once Clonard House was occupied, the people of the Falls Road were generous to the Redemptorists from the very beginning – “the inhabitants of the Falls Road and its neighbourhood gave money every day out of their scanty earnings and constant offerings flowed in for the support of the house and towards building the new ‘tin’ church … in particular the mill women and girls, on their own initiative, formed ‘The pious union of the Most Holy Redeemer’ providing a constant though moderate source of income”.
When approaching the Clonard monastery from the Falls Road via Clonard Street, there is a splendid view of the front of both church and monastery. The monastery was completed in red brick some years before the church. Shortage of money was to dog the early years of Clonard, and it was only by slow stages that many of the features originally planned for the church were to be added. The Church of the Most Holy Redeemer at Clonard is widely acknowledged as a beautiful building, a haven of peace in a bustling city and, above all, a place of prayer. It has a long established mission of spiritual and social outreach across the divide of the local community.
Given the troubled context of Belfast and division of the communities, a particularly adventurous apostolate was the launch of a mission for non-Catholics in 1948. It was made possible, in great part, by the shared experience of danger between Belfast Catholics and Protestants during the Second World War. Against great odds, the mission was very successful and continued in various forms until the mid-1960s.
Strangers to the geographical and ‘cultural’ location of Clonard Church and monastery might easily misunderstand the inevitable and profound involvement of the Clonard community in every aspect of ‘The Troubles’. Bombay Street which was ravaged by fire in August 1969 is, literally, at the back gate of the monastery.
The Redemptorists are located in the heart of a strongly Nationalist-Republican-Catholic community. Many of their neighbours were drawn actively into every phase of the conflict - former altar boys, former and current members of the Men’s confraternity or their families known personally to the priests and brothers, those whose homes had been reduced to rubble, the maimed, the dead, the imprisoned, the interned, those who had, through membership of paramilitary groups, called ‘war’ against their neighbours, the Unionist-Loyalist-Protestant people of the Shankill area, many of whom were less than a stone’s throw away, and many of whom suffered the same fate.
Throughout the decades of the ‘Troubles’, the Redemptorists maintained a sacramental ministry to the imprisoned and interned, in support of priests of the Diocese of Down and Connor and others. A short synopsis could never do justice to those who have served at Clonard and the people they have served. Each decade saw the ministry of the Clonard community adjust to take account of the changing situation around them. Currently the Redemptorists at Clonard are being drawn to serve the local parishes, including St. Peter and St. Paul. As in the past they continue to serve part-time in Maghaberry Prison as well as in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
For many years Redemptorist missioners from Clonard have conducted parish missions around the North of Ireland and farther afield. In the past number of decades Clonard has built up a vibrant youth ministry which serves local schools with retreats, parishes with youth missions, and the local community around Clonard with social outreach at various times and across the religious divide with common projects and shared training.
A consistent theme running through over a century of the monastic chronicles of Clonard is the high regard in which the ‘people of Clonard’ were held by the Redemptorists in their midst - for their generosity, the solidity of their faith, and their loyalty to monastery and church. The Clonard Redemptorist Legacy continues to provide a listening ear to all in need and still tries to live up to the Redemptorist tradition of serving the poor and abandoned.
Clonard Church Centenary Guide
The Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard, was opened on Rosary Sunday, 1 October 1911. In the hundred years since, Clonard has become one of the best-loved churches in the city of Belfast. Some six months before it opened, the Titanic was launched at Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast. Over the course of the century, Clonard would witness the horrors of the two world wars, the ‘troubles’ in Belfast in the 1920s and again for almost three decades at the end of the century.
A Centenary Guide with extensive text and pictorial was published on the occasion of the Re-opening and Dedication of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on 25 March 2012. It includes a history of the Redemptorists, the monastery and the … ‘light and beautiful’ church … ‘the people’s house’ … ‘teach an phobail’ … in Irish.
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text drawn from the Centenary Guide. It follows a visit to Belfast and to the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard (August 2012).