Tuesday, May 19, 2020

19th century Schism in Callan

‘During the course of this year most Rev. Dr. Moran Bishop of Ossory applied for a branch of the community for Callan Co. Kilkenny’. Behind that simple entry in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy, Athy which was made in 1872 is the story of a 19th century schism which divided the people of Callan for almost a decade. The Parish Priest of Callan since 1863 was Fr. Robert O’Keeffe who had succeeded in bringing the Christian Brothers to his parish to provide schooling for young boys. He then turned his attention to the need for educational facilities for local girls and extended an invitation to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to come to Callan. Dr. Walsh, the Bishop of Ossory, whose permission to open a girls school was sought, delayed his decision. The Bishop eventually refused to allow the nuns to open a school in Callan, despite Fr. O’Keeffe having expended a considerable amount of money in refurbishing a building for use by the nuns. The ensuing animosity between the Parish Priest and the Bishop resulted in defamation proceedings taken by Fr. O’Keeffe against Bishop Walsh. Those proceedings were settled out of court but the parties would continue to be in dispute. The Parish Priest next fell out with his two curates as a result of statements made by them from the parish church pulpit during Sunday Mass. Those statements concerning Fr. O’Keeffe’s dispute with the Bishop were not withdrawn when requested by the Parish Priest, leading to further defamation proceedings against the Bishop. Fr. O’Keeffe lost his case but then issued a fresh set of proceedings against the two curates which he won in the courts. As a result Fr. O’Keeffe was suspended by his Bishop and as the row escalated the two curates were withdrawn from the parish church and directed to say Mass only in the nearby Augustinian friary. The Callan parishioners were divided between supporters of Fr. O’Keeffe and supporters of the Bishop and the curates. The local and national Press reported fisticuffs and running battles on the streets of Callan between the rival groups of supporters. Cardinal Paul Cullen sought to intervene but to no avail. The Ballytore born Cardinal had no option but to formally issue an edict declaring that Fr. O’Keeffe was no longer the Parish Priest of Callan and that parishioners were not to attend his Masses in the parish church. As a result Fr. O’Keeffe issued his third set of defamation proceedings, this time against Cardinal Cullen. The case was heard over ten days in May 1873 in the Court of Queen’s Bench, Dublin and resulted in a victory for the Plaintiff Fr. O’Keeffe. However the damages awarded against Cardinal Cullen were one farthing. Long before the trial took place Cardinal Cullen’s nephew, Dr. Patrick Moran, was appointed Bishop of Ossory. Following his consecration in March 1872 he tried, as had his predecessor Bishop Walsh, to take possession of the parish church in Callan. He failed and during one of the many street rows between the opposing factions a young man was killed. His death had a sobering effect on many of Fr. O’Keeffe’s supporters, some of whom no longer continued to support him. It was following the young man’s death that Bishop Moran approached the Sisters of Mercy in Athy to open a convent in Callan. Five nuns, Sisters Magdalen O’Grady Dillon, Michael of the Sacred Heart Maher, Joseph Magdalen Rice, Stanislaus Joseph Meehan and Raphael Joseph Cummins left the Athy Convent to form the first Sisters of Mercy Community in Callan. The Athy Convent Annals noted ‘the (Callan) convent had been a private residence with spacious grounds and a good garden attached. The nuns had difficulties due to a schism in the parish in which the Parish Priest was the chief party concerned. Happily after some time things were peaceably adjusted and everything settled down to their normal condition.’ In fact it was some years before the Callan dispute was resolved and not before Fr. O’Keeffe’s opponents attacked and destroyed the Parochial House adjoining the parish church where the Parish Priest had continued to live. This happened in 1875 while the Sisters of Mercy lived close by in the former Callan Lodge. Police arrested many of the rioters who were later charged and convicted. Their legal defence team was led by Isaac Butt M.P. who succeeded in having the charges reduced resulting in fines rather than imprisonment. This court case appears to have marked the beginning of the end of the dispute between Fr. O’Keeffe and his clerical superiors. In the summer of 1879 Fr. O’Keeffe left Callan to live with a relation in Thomastown. He is believed to have apologised to Bishop Moran for the scandal he caused before he died in February 1881. The Callan Sisters of Mercy led by Sr. Michael Maher, whose own sibling Mother Theresa Maher was superior of the Athy Convent, won the hearts of the local people and helped to heal the lingering wounds of the Callan schism.

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