Statue marking 500th anniversary of conversion of Jesuit founder to be unveiled in Dublin

‘Contribution of Jesuits to lives of countless generations of young people was and still is immense,’ says Jesuit-educated Bishop of Waterford and Lismore

A new sculpture depicting an “approachable” figure of Jesuits’ founder, St Ignatius Loyola, will be unveiled at Belvedere College in Dublin this week to mark the 500th anniversary of his conversion.

The bronze image was created by sculptor John Coll, also responsible for the Dublin statues of Patrick Kavanagh at the Grand Canal and of Brendan Behan at the Royal Canal.

It too features the saint sitting on a bench and Mr Coll, himself educated by the Jesuits at Coláiste Iognáid in Galway, said he had a clear concept of the kind of image that he wanted to portray.

“Being a ‘Jes boy’ from Galway I had a bit of an idea on the life of Ignatius Loyola. Further research revealed that his death mask existed in Rome as did his shoes which spoke to me of humility and hard work. So, with these aspects in mind, I sculpted an older Ignatius, an approachable figure relaxing at the end of the day’s work. So my plan is to echo the past in the figure of Ignatius in bronze and the future in the modern medium of [a] stainless steel bench,” he said.

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He was commissioned two years ago by the order to prepare the bronze sculpture as part of widespread celebrations of the saint, who converted during recovery after being hit by a cannon ball at the Battle of Pamplona in Spain.

The statue and bench are being installed in the courtyard of Belvedere College on a raised plinth overlooking the yard where students and staff gather every day.

The first Catholic teaching order, the history of Jesuit education goes back almost 500 years. The first Jesuit to arrive in Ireland, Fr David Wolfe, did so in Limerick in 1561 where he established a school in 1572. The first Jesuit presence in Galway was in 1620, and the first school there was set up in 1645.

Cromwell and the penal laws put paid to all of that until Fr Peter Kenney SJ came to Ireland and opened Clongowes Wood College in 1814. It is one of the three fee-paying schools run by the Jesuits in Ireland today; the other two being Belvedere College, established in 1832, and Gonzaga College in 1950.

Coláiste Iognáid in Galway is a non-fee-paying co-ed secondary school known locally as “the Jes” and there is the adjacent Gaelscoil primary school, Scoil Iognáid, while the Jesuits opened Limerick’s Mungret school in 1882, now the co-ed comprehensive school, Crescent College Comprehensive Limerick, at Dooradoyle.

In total, the Jesuits have three primary schools and five secondary schools in Ireland serving 5,000 students. A majority of their schools are coeducational and free, with a Gaelscoil, a special school and a school in the Deis initiative (aimed at lessening educational disadvantage) making up the main cohort.

Two of Ireland’s Catholic bishops were Jesuit-educated. Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Phonsie Cullinan is a past pupil of Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick. His education there “blessed me in many ways”, he said, while “the contribution of the Jesuits to the lives of countless generations of young people was and still is immense”. He was “grateful to the Jesuit priests and lay staff for having offered us such a broad and deep education which set us up for life”.

Ireland’s only Jesuit bishop, Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian, said: “I stand in awe of the way some of our men embody the ‘preferential option for the poor’, especially the homeless and the displaced, here and overseas.”

The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius were “in the foreground and the background of everything the Jesuits do”, he said. “They have helped me make sense of my life as a Christian and as a man. I have seen it work for many others. That is a Jesuit service that, by definition, goes on quietly and confidentially.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times