The Icon drew a huge response in Limerick this week Picture Sean Curtin/FusionShooters
“THE main thing is,” says an elderly lady, as she clutches the sleeve of my jacket in a near lethal grip, and pauses for added emphasis, “it kept dry.”
She whispers it as if revealing a secret in Confession. But she is here to worship, not confess.
“Are they the lads from the Jesuits?” she asks.
“Aren’t they gone from Limerick?” I reply.
“They are – but you know who I mean,” she says, getting a little frustrated.
She’s referring, of course, to a religious order whose name doesn’t roll off the tongue – the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest – now based at the former Jesuit Church at the Crescent. It’s Canon Lebocq from France who catches her eye – a Catholic just by another name.
Her gaze moves to the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, from New York, and onto those closer to home – the Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy, and his predecessor, Donal Murray, and the rector, Fr Seamus Enright.
There are others whom she can’t place, priests from up the country, but they all hold an allure – the men closest to Our Lady, amongst a sea of mere mortals.
En masse, they prepared to vacate Quin Street, where they gathered for the procession of a replica of an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which was blessed by Pope Francis in the Vatican in Rome in recent weeks.
An “historic event”, as part of the worldwide celebrations by the Redemptorists in marking 150 years of devotion to Our Lady, it moved through the city in the back of a white Toyota Hilux.
The band starts, the bells ring out again after six o’clock mass, and my friend is off, with a fierce wave of her umbrella, determined not to miss a beat.
Charlotte Touhy, from Raheen, sidesteps the crowd to greet a friend.
“I’ve been coming here since I was two. Tonight is just the most wonderful thing. What’s going to happen from this is fantastic – and it’s happening already.”
Theresa Delaney, a long standing volunteer with the Redemptorists, concurs: “Tonight is most important. It’s the highlight of years and years of prayer to Our Lady, and this is the icing of the cake. It’s very emotional because people have a great devotion to Our Lady and this is going to rekindle of those feelings of love for Our Lady and what she has done for the city and the world.”
The first copy of the Icon to arrive in Ireland has been venerated in Limerick since Decem-ber 1867. Such has been the devotion to Our Lady that in the late 1950s the women of Limerick donated wedding and engagement rings, to make crowns for the images of Jesus and Mary in a shrine in the Redemptorist.
Monday evening for many was the culmination of years of faith and hope and prayer, and they were all there, said Fr Enright, “all streams of religious life coming together.” The Filipino community was there, as were the Polish and the Indian.
Jose Lukose from Kerala in south India was among the first to gather outside the church, sheltering under a string of colourful umbrellas as the rain threatened.
Religion is their key to integrating in Ireland, and the new wave of Catholics coming here from foreign shores is the key to keeping the church alive.
Fianna Fail was represented, as was Sinn Fein. Our Lady, once again, became the great equaliser, and not a divider.
Sinn Fein city councillor Malachy McCreesh said he wouldn’t be “overly religious” but has always been attracted to the Redemptorists.
“All the work they have done in Limerick in the past few years has been amazing. You can see from tonight’s congregation that it’s a very open congregation and you have to give them their dues. They’re there for one reason only and that’s to help.”
Pat Brosnahan, from Janesboro, but a proud Kerry native, was keeping a close eye on the proceedings, as a member of the O.N.E. and the Naval Association.
“Faith has always stood to the Irish, especially the military in the world wars,” he says, on the footsteps of the church. “Fr Browne, in the first World War, would say a prayer to Our Lady with the soldiers before they went into battle, saying they could meet her within the hour. Always in a time of strife, people’s faith will strengthen.”
As a rendition of Ave Maria rang out from the church, William O’Brien from Rathkeale, was waiting out by the gates with his sons, John, aged six and William, ten.
“I’m very religious and I just came to see Our Lady here tonight, and to follow it the whole way through tonight, with mass in St John’s. It doesn’t make a difference how long it takes, as long as we do it.”
Sr Josephine Dempsey, 78, of Laurel Hill, said “devotion to Our Lady has always been important to us, and to our generation, so we wouldn’t miss tonight. When you think of the icon going around to all the dioceses, I think it’s wonderful.”
“Isn’t it a great exhibition of faith in Limerick? It’s beautiful. I went on the bus up to Dublin last Thursday week to welcome the icon home. It’s a very special occasion,” added Sr Clare Stapleton, based in Limerick.
Marie Byrne, from Westbury, who was there with her daughter, said: “It’s absolutely wonderful. I think it’s just great for the city. It has brought everyone out, and we could do with more of it. This is the first time it has happened, and we won’t be around for the next event. It really shows the good side of Limerick.”
A slightly exhausted, if exalted, Fr Enright, paused for breath outside the Augustinians, where the Bishop led the congregation in a decade of the Rosary.
“There’s a joyous, festive atmosphere. It’s not often we see an event like this through the city’s streets. It gives people the opportunity to profess their faith. We’re delighted that the Indian Catholic community, a very old community which can trace its origins back to St Thomas, one of the apostles, have joined us.
“There has been great representation from the Filipino community and the Polish community. It’s an opportunity for the new Catholic communities who have arrived in Limerick to celebrate their faith in a public way,” he told the Leader.
Bishop Leahy was among those who met the Pope in the Holy City recently, and said his eyes again lit up when Limerick was mentioned. What exactly he was thinking of when Limerick was mentioned no one seems to knows.
“He has a soft spot for Limerick, and why wouldn’t he, of course,” the bishop told the congregation at the South Circular Road church.
“I think it really is a providential sign for us – Our Lady is with us in Limerick. She will untie any knots that occur in our lives. This day, this moment, this occasion is an opportunity for us to entrust ourselves in a new way, in the presence of the Papal Nuncio. Let’s go forward together.”
The Papal Nuncio, who was previously in Limerick for Bishop Leahy’s ordination, said it was his first time in the Redemptorist church, and said his “breath was taken away by the beauty of this house of God.”
Outside the Augustinians, Sr Mary Columba, now retired and home to Nenagh from England, raced to meet him and pose for a picture.
“I’ve met him before. He’s a lovely man, a man of the people,” she enthused.
The former rector, Fr Adrian Egan, posed for a selfie outside the church with Fr Seamus Campion from County Laois, who has been with the Redemptorists for 55 years and in Limerick for the past 30.
“Ah sure it’s marvellous really, just marvellous,” he said, smiling skyward as Our Lady was hoisted up above.