The Franciscans have been in Ireland over 750 years, living out a Christian presence and action among the people.
It all began in Italy where Francis Bernardone was born about 1182 in the town of Assisi .
He seemed to many in his day a new kind of Christian, one who did not fit easily within the categories of his time. Instead of accepting one of the well-established forms of Christian life available in the early 1200s, he chose the more difficult way, creating a new “form of life”, as he called it, different from the prevailing monastic and canonical forms then in favour. And what drove that desire to create something new was his deep conviction that it was “the Lord Jesus Christ” himself who was guiding him. Followers soon arrived: “The Lord gave me brothers,” he said. They formed a fraternity and followed a form of life based on the gospel. In part contemplatives, in part popular preachers, they lived by the work of their hands, frequently with the sick, and begged when they needed to.
That early fraternity soon assumed the form of a Religious Order (the “Friars Minor”) with a rule, officially approved a few years before Francis’s death. Many of its members were learned, many were priests.
In 1226, as St Francis lay dying, a small group of his followers were already on their way to Ireland. They landed at Youghal, Co Cork, and
from there made progress through the country. Theirs was a simple way of life dedicated to God and to the service of the Lord in people. So great was the impression they made that within a decade or so they were being invited into the territories of local rulers and being aided financially to found friaries.
The Franciscans first came to Athlone c.235 as the Normans gathered for the final onslaught on Connaught. The first friary in Athlone was established around 1235 on the site of the present Silver Quay complex (Northgate Street) possibly under the patronage of the Burkes,
O’ Fallons, and Dillons. There the friars built a church in honour of St. Mary’s Assumption and it was consecrated by Archbishop Sucrbccr of Armagh on Aug. 15th 1241. Situated by the river to the north of the bridge, it was the only church on the Leinster side for 200 years.
The Friars were to move to several other locations during their continuous presence in Athlone over the following 750 years.
The decades that followed witnessed Athlone’s gradual growth as an urban centre of English civilisation. It became a royal town of potential importance, both militarily and commercially. In 1251, the castle was renovated and the building of the defensive walls on the Leinster side was commenced by order of King Henry III.
It is estimated that the number of friars in Athlone was around sixteen at this time. They were able to combine effective apostolic work with prayerful seclusion. In choosing their first site the friars were motivated by two factors; availability to the people for pastoral ser
vice and enough privacy to ensure that their own life of prayer would not suffer. For this reason the church and friary were outside but quite near the town limits.
With the coming of the reformation inaugurated by King Henry VIII in 1539 the friars were forced to abandon their friary but continued to maintain a presence in the town and surrounding country side.
They continued to minister in secret from hiding places in Clonekill, Kilmacuagh and Kilkenny West. Eventually they settled at Friars Island, Killinure. A path ‘ Sli an Aifrinn’ connected the island and town. Here Brother John Claffey was martyred during the Cromwellian persecution.
Over the centuries the Friars laboured in the diocese of Clonmacnois.
Thomas Quinn was elected Bishop of the diocese in 1252. Eight other Franciscans held that office. The last, Bishop Anthony MacGeoghegan ordained St. Oliver Plunkett.
Friars also served as parish clergy, especially in penal times.
The ruins of a I 7th century Friary church can be seen at the old Abbey graveyard in Abbey road.
When Friar John Farrell became P.P. of St. Mary’s in 1723, he used the old chapel in Irishtown.
The Friars came to the present site about then. They opened a new church , dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, in 1815.
This was demolished in 1930 to make way for the present church of St. Anthony.
This Hibeno-Romanesque church dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, was opened in 1931 as a memorial to the Four Masters who began their work on the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ in Athlone in 1628.
For those familiar with nearby Clonmacnois ruins, the exterior recalls, in motif and design, the golden age of Celtic Christianity: the Round Tower belfry, the semi-circular recessed door ways, the central rose window and the gable Celtic Cross.
The stained glass comes from the Harry Clarke Studios and the Craftworkers of Dublin. The Clarke windows include: St. Francis of Assisi; St. Louis lX, King of France (Patron of the Secular Francis can Order); St. Anthony of Padua; St. Elizabeth of Hungary (Patroness of the Secular Franciscan Order) and St. Clare of Assisi.
The Stations of the Cross (in opus-sextile) are by Ethel Rhind, while the opus-sextile work on the facade is by Catherine O’Brien. Over the main en trance there is the Last Supper; over the left side aisle entrance the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, and over the right aisle entrance the Mass in Penal Days. The two marble statues of St. Francis and St. Anthony, now in St Paschal ‘s Shrine , were donated in 1937 by Archbishop Curley of Baltimore, a native of Golden Island.
In the apse, there is a copy of the San Damiano Crucifix, executed by Muriel Brandt in 1975.
The following year 1976, statues of St. Francis and the Boy with the Doves were placed in the forecourt of the church to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the death of St. Francis (1226 -1976). This shrine was greatly enhanced in 1977 with the addition of a background ‘ cloister’ of eight lime stone Romanesque arches which came from the burnt-out ruin of Tipperary military barracks.
Stones from each of the foundations are mounted in the apse of the church and a sho1i history is to be found engraved in the ‘cloister’ area in the forecourt of the church.
The original friary on the present site was sta1ied in 1812. The oldest part of the present Friary dates from 1869.