20 February 2018

A revolutionary and strange priest
who moved from Boston to Limerick

The Limerick Civic Trust plaque in Arthur’s Quay shopping centre commemorating John Thayer … but who was he and who were the Thayerites? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On a stroll through Arthur’s Quay shopping centre in Limerick after presiding at the Sung Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, I noticed a plaque erected by Limerick Civic Trust at the Patrick Street entrance that reads:

Rev. John Thayer
Born in Boston,
chaplain to George Washington’s
army before he came to Limerick.
A most dedicated clergyman
who was so popular that
his followers were known
as the “Thayerites”.
He died here.

The plaque does not say which Church Thayer had ministered in, I had never heard of him before, and I had never heard of the ‘Thayerites.’

My curiosity was sparked, and I decided to find out more about this American chaplain who had died in Limerick over two centuries ago. It is a story that stretches from Boston to Paris, Rome and London, before returning to America and eventually ending in Limerick.

John Thayer (1755-1815) was the first native-born man from New England to be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Thayer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1755. His family were among the early Puritan settlers of New England and throughout his career, it is said, he continued to display a stern, unbending Puritan character.

He was educated at Yale and was ordained as a Congregationalist minister and during the American Revolutionary War he was chaplain to a company organised for the defence of Boston and commanded by John Hancock. But he had never been a chaplain to George Washington.

After the American War of Independence, Thayer embarked on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe to better prepare himself for a teaching career at Harvard. He travelled throughout Europe, and he was in Rome in 1783 when the mendicant, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, died that year. Thayer became a Roman Catholic, saying his conversion was brought about by the miracles attributed to the saint.

Thayer tried to dispute some of the miracles attributed to the monk, who was later canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1883. Instead, he became convinced of the man’s saintliness and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius VI on 25 May 1783.

His account of his conversion was printed in 1787 and went through several editions in the US, London and Ireland, and was also translated into French and Spanish. His conversion was one of the first of prominent New England Protestants, and caused a sensation in New England: both Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster scoffed at Thayer’s conversion, and one of his former Congregationalist colleagues called him ‘John Turncoat.’

Thayer studied for the priesthood with the Sulpician order in Paris, and was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Paris on the Ember Saturday of Pentecost 1787, and celebrated his first Mass the next day, Trinity Sunday.

He worked among the poor in Southwark in London for less than three years before returning to America in December 1789. On his arrival back at Baltimore, Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815), the Jesuit and founder of Georgetown University, sent him to Boston, where his congregation consisted of one American, four Frenchmen, and about 24 poor Irish immigrants.

Thayer had a chequered career, mainly due to his erratic and confrontational temperament. He was a forceful and not always tactful polemicist in his sermons, printed tracts, and frequent newspaper articles. After a brief and difficult time in Boston, he was sent to the scattered Catholic communities first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then in Kentucky.

He made a name for himself as a Catholic voice against slavery. But his travels in the South were short-lived, and within four years he had left again for Europe in 1803.

He visited London, La Trappe in France, and Dublin, and in 1811 he settled in Limerick, where he lived the life of an ascetic and where he was much more successful in his ministry. In Limerick, he was regarded as a priest of edifying piety and ascetic life. But he had no charge, as parish priest or curate, although he said Mass and heard confessions in Saint Michael’s Parish and Saint John’s Parish and often preached sermons that were controversial.

When he first came to Limerick, confessions were rare except at Easter. But his sermons encouraged many to confess monthly and even more frequently. His large number of penitents were nicknamed Thayerites by those who opposed this form of piety.

Father Thayer stayed at Patrick Street in Limerick in the home of James Ryan, a prosperous cloth merchant, and was French tutor to the youngest daughter in the family, Margaret.

He died in Limerick on 15 February 1815 in the Ryan house, which stood on the site of the entrance to Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre. He was buried in the churchyard at Saint John’s Church of Ireland parish church in Limerick. Since his death, he has been compared at times with the Curé of Ars.

After his death, Thayer’s estate was used by James Ryan’s three daughters to found an Ursuline convent, Mount Benedict, near Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts. They moved from Limerick to Boston in 1819, and founded their convent, the first established in New England, in 1826. However, their convent was burned down in anti-Catholic rioting on the night of 11 August 1834. The mob was ‘incited by Lyman Beecher and whiskey,’ in the words of Daniel Sargent.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … I visited the site of the house where John Thayer died after presiding at the Sung Eucharist on Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Following the Stations
of the Cross in Lent 7:
Longford 5: Simon of Cyrene
helps Jesus carry the Cross

Station 5 in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford … Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in Lent, as part of my meditations and reflections for Lent this year, I am being guided by the Stations of the Cross from three locations.

The idea for this series of morning Lenten meditations came from reading about Peter Walker’s new exhibition, ‘Imagining the Crucifixion,’ inspired by the Stations of the Cross, which opened in Lichfield Cathedral last week on Ash Wednesday and continues throughout Lent.

Throughout Lent, my meditations each morning are inspired by three sets of Stations of the Cross that I have found either inspiring or unusual. They are the stations in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, at Saint John’s Well on a mountainside near Millstreet, Co Cork, and in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

In my meditations, I am drawing on portions of the Stabat Mater, the 12th century hymn of the Crucifixion (‘At the cross her station keeping’) attributed to the Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi. Some prayers are traditional, some are from the Book of Common Prayer, and other meditations and prayers are by Canon Frank Logue and the Revd Victoria Logue of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.

For two weeks, I am looking at the 14 Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, sculpted by Ken Thompson in Bath stone with chisel and mallet, with lettering inspired by the work of Eric Gill and haloes picked out in gold leaf.

He uses blue to give a background dimension that works almost like a shadow in itself, providing the foreground figures with greater relief. The bright gold leaf haloes establish the central image of Christ as well as his mother and disciples or saints.

Rather than using the traditional title for each station, the text at the foot of each panel is allusive. He has chosen two lines of scripture for each panel, cut them in lettering inspired by Eric Gill, and highlighted them in terracotta.

Station 5: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross

Station 5 illustrates the story of Simon of Cyrene, who is compelled by the Romans to carry Christ’s Cross, according to all three Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 27: 32; Mark 15: 21-22; Luke 23-26).

The inscription in terracotta capital letters below the panel reads: ‘But he asked Jesus who is my neighbour’ (see Luke 10: 29).

The full verse in Saint Luke’s Gospel reads: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ The question is put by a lawyer who ‘stood up to test Jesus’ (verse 25). The answer Jesus provides is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 30-37).

The neighbour is ‘the one who showed him mercy’ (verse 37).

Simon the Cyrene is neither a lawyer nor a Samaritan, but shows himself to be a neighbour to the man who is beaten up on his journey in Jerusalem.

Cyrene was a Greek settlement in the province of Cyrenaica in east Libya in north Africa. it had a Jewish community where 100,000 Judean Jews had been forced to settle during the reign of Ptolemy Soter (323-285 BC) and later it was an early centre of Christianity. The Cyrenian Jews had a synagogue in Jerusalem, where many went for annual feasts.

Cyrene was supposedly the destination of many Sicari or rebels who fled the Roman legions at the time of the Jewish Revolt.

Some commentators suggest Simon was chosen because he may have shown sympathy for Jesus. Others point out that the text says nothing, that Simon had no choice, and that there is no basis to consider carrying the cross an act of sympathetic generosity.

In this station, Simon has a golden halo used by Ken Thompson to indicate saints. Saint Mark identifies Simon as ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mark 15: 21). Tradition says they became missionaries, and identifies Rufus with the Rufus named by Saint Paul (see Romans 16: 13). Some traditions also link Simon with the ‘men of Cyrene’ who preached the Gospel to the Greeks (see Acts 11: 20).

Simon is depicted holding the cross with two hands, balancing the weight of the cross which has been crushing Christ’s shoulders and back as he begins to climb some steps. The cross is inscribed with the acronym or Christogram IHS. In Latin, IHS means Jesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus, Saviour of Humanity, although it is also interpreted as In Hoc Signo, ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ In Greek, ΙΗΣ or IHC denotes the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, Ιησούς; the normal equivalent Christogram in Greek is the four-letter abbreviation, ΙϹ ΧϹ, representing the first and last letters of each word in the name Ιησούς Χριστός.

There is a contrast between Simon who is free to wear sandals on his feet, and Christ whose feet are bare. In this station, there are signs of spring and of hope in the two daffodils that are blooming on either side of Simon.

At Simon’s heel in Station V, and again in Station XIII, a mouse appears as a reminder of a tradition that as a carpenter Saint Joseph made mousetraps – the mousetrap can be seen in Station XIII. But there is a less benign legend in which a mouse appears as the devil in disguise.

The Cyrenian and Simon movements in Britain and Ireland take their names from Simon of Cyrene. The guiding principle is ‘sharing the burden’ in providing services to homeless and disadvantaged groups in society.

From Stabat Mater:

Jesus Christ, crucified, have mercy on us!
Is there one who would not weep
Whelmed in miseries so deep
Christ’s dear Mother to Behold?


Stranger. Neighbour. Friend.
Simon takes up your cross. In so doing takes up his own.
Another innocent man joins the procession to Calvary.


Suffering Servant, beaten beyond human semblance, through the Good Samaritan you taught us that everyone in need is our neighbour. Help us to follow in your way of love that we do not need be compelled to take up the cross of another when they cannot bear their burdens alone. This we pray in the name of Jesus, our crucified Lord, the King of Glory, the King of Peace. Amen.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.
Because by your holy cross You have redeemed the world.

Jesus, the soldiers are becoming impatient. This is taking longer than they wanted it to. They are afraid you will not make it to the hill where you will be crucified. As you grow weaker, they grab a man out of the crowd and make him help you carry your cross. He was just watching what was happening, but all of a sudden he is helping you carry your cross.

A prayer before walking to the next station:

Holy God,
Holy and mighty Holy immortal one,
Have mercy on us.

Tomorrow: Station 6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

Yesterday’s reflection