Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Finding the relics of saints in churches,
but who was the boy in Wexford Friary?

The reliquary of Saint Adjutor in the Franciscan Friary Church in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of All Saints [1 November], and one of the major feasts in the calendar of the Church.

It is a constant source of amazement to realise how many saints’ bodies and parts of their bodies are kept in churches throughout Ireland. They include the head of Oliver Plunkett in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, the remains of Saint Valentine in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, until recently the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the bodies of two child martyrs from Rome: Saint Victoria in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, and Saint Adjutor in the Franciscan Friary in Wexford.

I remember children in Wexford being teased: ‘What did the boy in the Friary die of?’

‘He died of eating an egg on a Friday.’

But people from throughout Ireland and beyond visit the Friary to see Saint Adjutor, the boy martyr, killed by his own father. The shrine was once listed in the Lonely Planet, and the life-like waxen figure shows the wounds inflicted by the young boy’s father.

It is said Saint Adjutor was martyred in the third century by his own father, who dealt a hatchet blow to his head when he heard that young Adjutor had attended the confirmation of a Christian friend.

The figure was brought to Wexford in 1856 by Richard Devereux, who was presented with the relic by Pope Pius IX during a trip to Rome. Richard Joseph Devereux (1829-1883) was a Liberal MP for Wexford (1865-1872) while his brother, John Thomas Devereux, was MP for Wexford (1847-1857) before him.

The Devereux brothers were the merchant princes of Wexford in the Victorian era. Richard Devereux owned one of the largest fleets of sailing ships in Ireland and brought the first cargo of Indian corn to Wexford during the Famine.

When Richard Devereux died in 1883, the reliquary was moved from his house to the friary, and the waxen figure of Saint Adjutor is now enshrined in a glassed, enclosed reliquary at the back of the Friary Church.

On a wall beside the shrine, a typed explanatory note reads:

The Reliquary of St Adjutor

The waxen figure which is enclosed in the casket contains a relic of St Adjutor.

The 3rd century was a very difficult one for the church. Many Christians were martyred by order of the Emperor. Very little is known about the life of Adjutor, but it is said that he was one of these martyrs.

During the pontificate of Pope Pius IX the relic of St Adjutor was taken from the cemetery of Preatextatus in Rome about the year 1850. The relic was placed in the wax figure and this wax figure was then clothed in cloth of gold texture.

The relic was given as a token of appreciation to Richard Devereux of Wexford while he was on a pilgrimage to Rome in the 19th century. After some years in his keeping, the reliquary was transferred to the friary in 1883.

Very little is known about the 3rd century martyrs. Some legends have been passed down about some of them, including St Adjutor. They persevered in the faith in very difficult times.


The tomb of Canon John Corrin in the Friary was designed by AWN Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Whether Saint Adjutor ever existed is a topic for another debate. Visitors who come to see his shrine only are likely to pass by the more interesting monument designed by AWN Pugin to commemorate Canon John Corrin, who was parish priest of Wexford throughout 1798 and who died on 4 April 1835, at the age of 86.

The inscription reads:

Of your charity
Pray for the repose of the soul of
Very Rev John Corrin, VG [Vicar General] of Ferns,
Who lieth buried under this stone.


Canon Corrin used the Friary Church as his parish church as there was no Roman Catholic parish church in the town until 1858 and the completion of the Twin Churches in Rowe Street and Bride Street.

Shortly after his appointment as parish priest in 1781, Canon Corrin rebuilt the Friary chapel with the support of the Franciscans and the parish. It was enlarged in 1812 and again in 1827.

The the Italianate tower of the Friary seen from High Street through the houses of Mary Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Franciscan Friars have been an intrinsic part of life in Wexford town for almost eight centuries. They first arrived in Wexford in 1230 or 1240, when a friary was founded by William Marshall and they have been present in the town ever since.

The Franciscans survived throughout the ages through the collection of alms, and donations from the townspeople of Wexford. Their friary was suppressed at the Reformation, the friars were expelled in 1540, and stones of the old friary were used to repair Wexford Castle in 1560.

But the friars remained in Wexford, and in the early 17th century were renting a house in Archer's Lane, off High Street, on the site of the present Opera House, and opposite the house I once lived in on High Street.

In 1649, Father Raymond Stafford, a Franciscan was killed in the Bull Ring as he pleaded with Cromwell’s soldiers to stop the slaughter of the people of the town. Six other friars – Richard Sinnott, John Esmonde, Paulinus Sinnott, Peter Stafford, James Rochford and the blind Didacus Cheevers – died at the altar in their church as they led the people in prayer before the onslaught of the Puritans.

Local lore says a shot fired at a crucifix held up by Father Raymond Stafford in the Bull Ring was deflected and killed a Cromwellian captain. There are also tales that other shots failed to penetrate the habits of some of the Friars.

Despite the sacking of Wexford, some Franciscans remained in the community incognito. At Easter 1654, four Franciscans were captured and hanged near Wexford Friary. In 1658, a Franciscan Guardian was re-appointed in Wexford, and with the restoration of King Charles II in 1660 the Franciscans were free to come out of hiding.

By 1690, the Franciscans had returned to the site of their original friary, renting it at a nominal rent until they were able to purchase the site where School Street meets John Street. An 18th century member of the Franciscan community in Co Wexford was Father James Comerford, who was parish priest of Tagoat and Rosslare from 1709 to 1734.

The striking interior of the Friary Church with its exquisite stucco work and panelled ceiling (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The present church is largely an 18th century building, when extensive renovation work took place, although two of the walls date from pre-Cromwellian times. The church is architecturally striking with its exquisite stucco work decorating the panelled ceiling, on which the brothers Richard, Robert and James Comerford worked in the early 19th century.

The grounds of the church hosted huge Temperance rallies addressed by Father Theobald Mathew in the 1840s.

Before the Twin Churches were built in Wexford in 1851-1858, the Friary Church also served as the parish church in the town.

The Franciscans led the way in terms of ecumenism in Wexford town, and during major renovations of the Friary Church in the 1980s, they accepted the friendship and hospitality offered by the Church of Ireland parish, and celebrated their Masses in Saint Iberius’s Church.

In 2007, the Franciscans of the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM or brown friars) left the Friary, and the Franciscan presence in Wexford is now maintained by the Conventual Franciscans or grey friars.

The spire of Rowe Street church glimpsed through a window in the Friary church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)