To mark their exceptional contribution to the community, Athlone-Moate Municipal District hosted an Address of Recognition in honour of the Franciscan Friars in the Council Chamber in recent times.
When it was confirmed in October that the Franciscan Friars would withdraw from the Friary Church in Athlone in January 2023, the news was received with much dismay in Athlone and its immediate environs.
It has emerged, within the intervening period, that the church will remain open for private prayer and a reduced celebration of mass, a situation which will be reviewed when a new Bishop has been appointed to Ardagh and Clonmacnoise diocese.
A statement issued by the Franciscan Province Ireland to the Athlone Advertiser this week, noted that the Franciscans have received inquiries from a number of groups and individuals offering suggestions about the future use of the building.
‘At present, an agreement is being finalised with one of these groups and an announcement will be made within a few weeks. At this stage, it can be stated that the property is not being sold,’ the statement confirmed.
Address of Recognition
Addressing those present in the Council chamber, Deputy Mayor, Cllr Frankie Keena, welcoming the guests of honour Fr Gabriel, Brother Salvador, Fr Seamus and Fr Ulic, detailing the history of the Franciscan Friars community in Athlone.
“The Friars came to Ireland in the wake of the Norman invasion and arrived in Athlone in the late 13th Century living in various locations along the river. Throughout the following decades and centuries, the Franciscans in Athlone continued to minister to the spiritual needs of the people during much oppression and suppression.
“A prime example of this was evident with the coming of the Reformation, inaugurated by King Henry V111 in 1539 when the Friars were forced to abandon their Friary but continued to maintain a presence in Athlone and its environs. In defiance to the King’s order, they ministered in secret hiding places in Clonekill, Kilmacuagh and Kilkenny West. Eventually they settled at Friars Island, Killinure.
“The Franciscan way of life has its 12th century origins in the Lord’s call to St Francis to ‘rebuild my church”. They fulfilled this from the start when they arrived in Athlone by building the first Franciscan Friary, most likely, on a site in Northgate Street close to the town bridge.
“In the 1680s they started to build a church at the present Abbey Graveyard site but due to the Siege of Athlone, it was never completed. This structure is still visible to this present day. Then, around the era of 1800s, the time of Catholic Emancipation, the Friars opened a new church on The Strand c1812 to 1815. This was demolished in 1930 to make way for the present church of St Anthony which was built in 1932, the year of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
“Over the centuries the Franciscans supplied parish priests and curates to St. Mary’s Parish and indeed several Franciscan abbots worked in Clonmacnoise and served as bishops of the diocese, the Friary church of today continuing to be a location for the provision of pastoral services, such as Confession, Mass and spiritual direction,” Cllr Keena said.
Noting the shock and dismay which seeped through the community upon the October announcement, Cllr Keena expressed his gratitude to the Friars present for their years of pastoral service in Athlone.
“Collectively, as elected members of this Municipal District, we are deeply saddened with the news that Athlone will no longer have your presence in the town. We thank you so much for your spiritual direction, your warm comfort and fantastic endless support provided to the people of Athlone and district over the last eight centuries.
“It is so important to say that there will always be a place in Athlone for the Franciscan Friars. To the fabulous staff, volunteers, eucharistic ministers, choir, gardeners, singers we say thank you for giving such marvellous support to the Friars over the years and indeed for your ongoing care of the church, residence and gardens, while a special word of gratitude is afforded to Sr Anne who has played the organ for 31 years in the Friary.
“I would like to take this opportunity to wish the Friars every success and good health as they embark on the next journey of their lives,” Cllr Keena concluded.