Fr Francis Donnelly

Devotion to the Holy Name was revitalised in Ireland by one Franciscan, Fr Francis Donnelly. Born on the west side of Athlone in 1863, he joined the Franciscans in Ennis in 1882 and was professed in 1883. He then went to Saint Isidore’s Irish Franciscan College in Rome for his studies. At this time German friars from Saxony were guiding a reform of the Irish Franciscans. Donnelly was on the side of the reformers and was highly valued by the leader of the German friars. He was ordained in 1889 but had to remain in Italy. It was the policy of the reformers (the Brown Friars, who wore habits) to build up numbers in Italy so that the newly trained friars could return to Ireland in blocks sufficiently large to take over houses one by one from the unreformed friars (the Black friars who dressed in clerical blacks). The reformers had two other Irish houses in Italy, a hermitage and sanctuary at Castel Sant’Elia and the friary of Our Lady at Capranica. Fr Francis was appointed superior in Sant’Elia for a short while in 1893 and then went to Capranica. Here he underwent a crisis of conscience. He had intended going on the Irish Franciscan mission in Australia but the superiors in Rome wanted him to remain there and later return to Ireland. In 1899 he joined the group that returned to Ireland and proclaimed Ennis for the Reform. It then became the noviciate house for the Brown Friars. He moved to Cork in 1908 and then through a series of other houses – Athlone, Killarney and Limerick before returning to settle in Cork.

At the end of 1913, he gave a retreat to the Poor Clare Nuns in Galway. The retreat focused on the power of the Holy Name of Jesus and on the devotion and zeal of St. Bernardine of Siena. At the end of the retreat a monogram of the Holy Name, painted by one of the sisters, was hung in the chapel. Recently, a note was found behind a print of the Holy Name in the Monastery stating that ‘It was in this convent of St. Clare the devotion was begun in Ireland , Jan ‘14’

Fr Francis had a flash of inspiration after World War I broke out in 1914. He was disappointed at the number of drunken Irishmen that he saw around him. In Cork he decided to form the Total Abstinence Society of the Holy Name of Jesus. He assembled a collection of holy pictures and booklet with the help of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary at Loughglynn in Roscommon. He tried to get some rooms in the friary in Cork for his society but this did not work out. He got the Holy Name Hall at 20 Sheares Street across the road from the friary. High on the front was the IHS and the date of the foundation, 1914. His leaflets, medals, writings and later his plaques could be got from the Hall. Members of the Third Order of Saint Francis were prominent in organising the society in Cork and spreading it to other Franciscan centres. The Hall continued in use for many decades but is now gone. The society remained in Cork under it was finally wound up around 1990.

Fr Francis did not rest on his laurels. Around 1918 he got a supply of IHS plaques from Italy and began to promote their use in Ireland. Even today then can be seen over the doors of old houses in those towns associated with Franciscan friaries. He also wrote a book Ainm Naomhta, Crusade for Ireland, or the Holy Name of Jesus – the standard for battle and the pledge of victory. Published in Cork in 1920, it promoted both the doctrine of the Holy Name and also the custom of placing a family home under the protection of the Holy Name by placing a plaque over the door. It also laid great stress on the power of the Holy Name to overcome intemperance. Fr Francis moved to Limerick in 1921, to Galway in 1922, back to Limerick in 1924 and finally to Galway in 1927. He died while visiting Cork in 1929. There were huge crowds at his funeral mass in the old St Francis Church and his burial in the Franciscan plot in St Joseph’s in Cork.

In the introduction to his book Fr Francis writes of his hope that God would bless his weak endeavour to make known a little better the Name of His Divine Son. Not only does the Name of Jesus bring light and strength to the mind and soul but also health to the body and peace to peoples. The Holy Name has wrought such wonders before, as in the case of St John Capistran, O.F.M. over the Turks and of St Joan of Arc over the English. She had the names of Jesus and Mary on her banner but not in the form of the sacred monogram. Fr Francis quotes a prayer of St Bernardine to the Holy Name: O Name most glorious! O Name most gracious! O Name of love and power: – through You our sins and forgiven – Through You our enemies are conquered – Through You are infirmities are cured – Through You those who suffer are refreshed – You are the glory of those who believe in You – You are the Teacher of those who preach You – You are the strength of those who work for You – You are the support of those who languish in Your service – By You the soul is filled with holy desire – By You all petitions are obtained – By You contemplative souls overflow with sweetness – By You the blessed are crowned with heavenly glory …Amen. Fr Francis goes on to describe devotion to the Holy Name particularly as preached by St Bernardine of Sienna. Hr goes on to compare the evils of the time when St Bernardine was alive with those of Ireland in Fr Donnelly’s time. In the Saint’s time Italy was overwhelmed with internal strife and war. The preaching of St Bernadine on the Holy Name brought justice and peace. In 1920 Ireland was a country at war. The Holy Name would bring consolation for those seeking justice. Fr Francis continued to place his efforts under the guidance of the Holy Name of Jesus and got on with his crusade to make that Name better known and appreciated in Ireland.

As the decades passed, devotion to the Sacred Heart replaced that to the Holy Name. A Franciscan book of prayer was first published in 1924 and was often re-edited. By 1951 it had twenty pages of prayers to the Sacred Heart but only three to the Holy Name. Another element in the decline of devotion to the Holy Name was an increase in that to the Eucharist. Among the Franciscans this was initially due to efforts to promote devotion to St Pashal Baylon, patron of Eucharistic devotions, but particularly after the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 concentrated on devotions such as Exposition, the Forty Hours or Eucharistic Processions around the church each month.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was the general misunderstanding of the decrees of Vatican 2 on the liturgy and prayer life. It was taken, incorrectly, that the Council wished to get rid of all private devotions in a return to scripture-based prayers and devotions. Bible Study and Prayer Groups emerged as even the Sacred Heart moved into the background. While this trend did a lot of good with those able to cope with Bible reading, it left a hole for simple devotions that fulfilled the simple needs of the faithful. As the centenary of the efforts of Fr Francis Donnelly to popularise devotion to the Holy Name approaches, perhaps it is time for a renewal. After all what could be more Biblical that the Name of Jesus and what could be easier to pray. It is a powerful name and by invoking it we can expect great graces.

Pat Conlan, OFM