‘It’s probably Ireland’s busiest church,” says Fr Christopher Clarke, the prior of St Teresa’s Church and Monastery on Clarendon Street in Dublin. Tucked just a few metres from designer stores, buskers and throngs of shoppers, St Teresa’s is a haven of serenity. “When you’re in here you don’t imagine you’re anywhere near Grafton Street,” says Clarke.
The church has seen plenty of changes through the centuries. This year was the fifth centenary of St Teresa’s birth. When the Discalced Carmelites, led by Fr Paul Browne, first arrived, in 1625, they had to set up church in Browne’s mother’s house on Cook Street, saying Mass in the front room. Four years later the civil authorities shut down all chapels – but the order just moved to another part of the city.
They gradually made their way from the Liberties towards Clarendon Street, battling increasing rents, unscrupulous landlords, the Penal Laws and a lack of funding, to finally move into their own church and monastery in 1797.
Once there they played a key role in the Catholic emancipation movement, allowing Daniel O’Connell to hold political meetings in the chapel between 1813 and 1829. O’Connell was a friend of the friars, particularly Fr John Francis Lestrange, whom he chose as his confessor. Lestrange also took on the position of secretary of O’Connell’s Catholic Association group, which campaigned for emancipation.
St Teresa’s continued to keep an interest in politics into the late 19th century. It dared to hold the funeral of a Fenian, Charles McCarthy, in 1878. At the time the local church authorities had condemned Fenianism and declared all its members excommunicate.
The friars pressed ahead with accepting his body but managed to avoid all-out confrontation with the archbishop by holding the funeral in a hall off the main church, not the church itself, thus getting around canon law.
Today the order is focused on the spiritual. Even though it has experienced a drop in its congregation over the past few years, its location has allowed it to remain more active than most churches.
“We have six Masses a day, and we do nearly 30 hours of confession every week. Because of the location we get a lot of tourists in, and this year we’ve had many requests from bus tours to have Mass. Normally you’d get about one or two groups, but this year I had to make a list out to keep track of them all,” says Clarke. “We also get a lot of people in on a Sunday afternoon. They pop in to light a candle. A lot of that goes on. It’s a lovely place to just take a breath.”
From 23 to 89
Clarke is one of 11 friars at St Teresa’s, ranging in age from 23 to 89. They tend to come and go. Clarke was there in the 1990s before moving to a mission in Nigeria for 12 years. He came back eight years ago and has been prior for four.
“It’s an office you hold for three years, and it can be held for another three, but after that you’re finished. I’ve two more to do. It’s a good system, in that you have a contribution to make and then someone else has another contribution to make.”
It was during Clarke’s first term as prior that St Teresa’s decided to livestream its Mass. “Some of the friars’ relations in Australia tune in, and when it breaks down we get calls from America telling us to fix the camera or asking what’s wrong with our livestream. We have people watching in from around the world. We started about a year and half ago. For people who are housebound, and who have an attachment to the church, they are able get it at home, which is great.”
Last year St Teresa’s was able to livestream the funerals of Kevin Devine and his Australian partner, John Lynch, who drowned on holiday in Crete, allowing those who couldn’t travel to take part in the service. “All of his [Lynch’s] friends were able to follow the Mass at home, and we got a lot of letters back afterwards saying that it greatly helped them to be part of the funeral,” says Clarke.
The Discalced Carmelite friars have also reached out to a modern audience through social media. They have almost 4,000 followers between Facebook and Twitter – but remain focused on their main remit of a life of prayer.
“We are strongly community based, stronger than most religious orders. We live a common life together. We gather to pray and for recreation. We get up around 6.30am and are in the prayer room at 7am. We then have the office readings and quiet prayer, after which we’d have morning prayer. Then somebody might have a Mass, so that would have to be covered. At 1.15 we have midday prayer, then lunch, evening prayer, and night prayer.”
St Teresa’s employs about 20 part-time and full-time staff, between the office, its public cafe, the repository, cleaners, security and the friars’ cook. They also have a full-time choirmaster; the church is well known for its music under the direction of Ronan McDonagh, who has worked there for more than 20 years and keeps alive the tradition of a classical Mass.
For him the shift away from the dominance of the church in people’s lives has opened up a new challenge in his work. “I think a generation ago a lot of people knew some hymns from school, so it was a case of what people knew. There’s a certain disconnect from what the younger people know now, and so there may be a chance to develop a new type of music. Most of my work in the afternoons would be writing the church music, setting the music for solo singers and choirs, and I hope that’s a way of bringing new life to it for people.”
Even as attendance at Mass continues to dwindle, and numbers joining the order remain low, the friars at St Teresa’s remain unperturbed about the future.
“We have to learn to put our cloth to the measure, and we also depend more on people coming from outside,” says Clarke. “For example, we have a mission from Nigeria and we have a lot of younger priests there. We have two of them here at the moment, and that may be a sign of what the future will hold. The fruits of the missions that went before will pay off.
“It’s not a worry. We’re not meant to worry. You just do what you are meant to be doing now, and we believe God knows what he is doing.”