15 June 2021

The Carmelite churches in
Loughrea: a continuous
presence for 700 years

The Carmelite Church, monastery and abbey ruins in Loughrea … a continuous presence since 1300 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Carmelite Church and Abbey on Abbey Street, Loughrea, sit on the northern edges of the town in Co Galway, close to the shores of Lough Rea, and date from 1300.

The Carmelites first came to Ireland in 1270, and they were invited to Loughrea at the end of the 13th century by the local Anglo-Norman leader, Richard de Burgh, who founded a monastery for them. The church and abbey are just outside the mediaeval town moat.

With a few interruptions, the Carmelites have continued to live in the town, providing a continuity of over 700 years.

The square tower was added and the abbey and church were enlarged ca 1437.

The mediaeval Carmelite abbey church ruins in Loughrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the wake of the Reformations, the Carmelites left the abbey in 1618. The abandoned buildings soon fell into disrepair and ruin, although some of the friars continued to live in Loughrea.

A new order arrived in 1643, and Loughrea abbey was formally designated a Carmelite priory and novitiate in 1672.

General Charles Chalmot de Saint-Ruhe, Marquis de St Ruth, the French commander of some of the Jacobite forces at the Battle of Aughrim on 12 July 1691, is said to have been buried here secretly at night. This defeat led to the collapse of the Jacobite cause.

The east end of the mediaeval abbey church ruins in Loughrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The architecture of the surviving abbey buildings reflect the simple style favoured by the mendicant orders, but there are some elegant tracery windows.

Inside, there are tombs decorated with elegant carvings, and in the surrounding churchyard there are graves and tombs representing many old Loughrea families.

The Carmelites began working on new buildings beside the mediaeval monastic site in 1785. A new church was completed in 1820 under the supervision of Father Gannon, the superior at the time, who also supervised the construction of the monastery and the convent.

The Carmelite nuns continued to live in Barrack Street, Loughrea, until Mount Carmel Monastery was built in 1831. As they were engaged in teaching, the nuns did not become an enclosed order until 1859.

General St Ruth was buried at night in the abbey church after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The new abbey church was almost completely rebuilt in the Romanesque style in 1897, to designs by William Henry Byrne, who also designed Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, at the same time.

The intricate foliate detailing on this church in the Italian Romanesque style illustrates the artistic skills of stone carvers of the late 19th century. This delicate carving can be seen throughout the church, from the ornate façade to the tracery windows, making it a natural focal point for the monastic complex as well as one of the finest buildings in Loughrea.

The marble altar is by Edmund Sharp.

Inside the abbey church, rebuilt in 1897 by William Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The gable-front presents a highly decorative appearance, emphasised by its elaborate arcaded entrance, and the decorative tower knits it to the other monastic buildings. The buildings are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south.

Around the same time, a national school was built close to the entrance gate.

Successive alterations and additions have taken place since then, with the addition of a new residence in 1991.

Today, the Teresian Carmelite nuns who live in the monastery are dedicated to a life of prayer.

The existence of the ‘new’ abbey beside the mediaeval ruin bears testimony to an almost continued presence of Carmelites in Loughrea since the 1300s.

The Carmelite buildings on Abbey Street are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
17, Cattedrale di San Martino, Lucca

Lucca Cathedral or the Duomo di Lucca or Cattedrale di San Martino is dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week my photographs are of seven cathedrals in Italy. This morning (15 June 2021), my photographs are of the duomo or Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca.

The building of Lucca Cathedral began in 1063 under Bishop Anselm of Lucca, later Pope Alexander II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lucca was saved from bombing during World War II, leaving intact the walls, the tiny squares, the narrow streets and the alleyways, with their fountains, statues, and mediaeval churches.

Lucca was the birthplace of Puccini, and there is a bronze statue of the composer in the square close to the house where he was born. The squares of Lucca have statues of Garibaldi and links with Napoleon, and there are many churches in the narrow streets and alleyways, including the Church of San Michele, the duomo or Cattedrale di San Martino.

Lucca Cathedral or the Duomo di Lucca or Cattedrale di San Martino is dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. Building work was begun in 1063 by Bishop Anselm of Lucca, later Pope Alexander II.

The great apse, with its tall columns and arcades, and the campanile survive from the original building. The nave and transepts were rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 14th century. The west front was begun in 1204 by Guido Bigarelli of Como, and has a vast portico of three magnificent arches, with three ranges of open galleries filled with sculptures above.

A small shrine in the nave holds the Volto Santo di Lucca (‘Holy Face of Lucca’), said to be an image of Christ carved from cedar-wood for a crucifix by Nicodemus, and brought miraculously to Lucca in 782. The figure of Christ is clothed in a long sleeveless garment. The cathedral also has works by Matteo Civitali, Jacopo della Quercia, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Federico Zuccari, Jacopo Tintoretto and Fra Bartolomeo.

Each column of the façade is different. According to local lore, when they were about to be decorated, the people of Lucca announced a contest for the best column. Each artist made a column, but the people decided to take all of them without paying the artists and used all the columns.

A labyrinth embedded in the right pier of the portico and is believed to date from the 12th or 13th century, and may pre-date the labyrinth in Chartres. The Latin inscription translates: ‘This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s thread.’

The Church of Santi Giovanni e Reparata in Piazza San Giovanni was the first seat of the Bishops of Lucca, and was the cathedral from the eighth century until the cathedra was transferred to San Martino. Since then, the two churches have retained a close relationship.

The Santa Reparata complex was built in the fifth century on the site of an earlier Roman settlement. The area became a cemetery in the sixth century, and a church was built here in the eighth century.

The crypt dates from the ninth century, and the relics of San Pantaleone were found there in 1714. The church was altered at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, and the present layout dates from rebuilding in the second half of the 12th century.

The new church – with three naves supported by columns with composite capitals, with an apse and transept – was similar in size to the earlier church. The decorative figures on the capitals inside the church include leafy masks, harpies and dragons. However, little remains today of the works from the second half of the 14th century.

The church was refurbished in the late 16th and early 17th century. The most striking result of this work is the new façade, which reuses most of the mediaeval façade. Inside, the coffered ceiling and the decoration of the apse date from this phase.

The Chapel of Sant’Ignazio, one of the most interesting baroque creations of Lucca, dates from the end of the 17th century. It is entirely covered in polychrome marble with fresco decorations in the dome, attributed to Ippolito Marracci, depicting the Glory of Saint Ignatius.

The church was confiscated during the Napoleonic occupation in the early 19th century and all its furnishings were lost in the plans to convert into an archive. When it reopened for worship in 1821, it was a very changed church, with new altars and new paintings.

The Church of Santi Giovanni e Reparata in Piazza San Giovanni was the first cathedral in Lucca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 43-48 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

Religious symbolism in the narrow streets and lanes of Lucca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (15 June 2021, Beginning of Refugee Week) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for all displaced people, refugees and migrants. May we offer them hospitality and refuge from danger and fear.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The statue of Puccini in the square in Lucca close to the house where the composer was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org