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A brief history of our parish
altThe “mother house” of our Parish is the church in the Caís do Sodré area of Lisbon dedicated to our Lady of the Rosary and St. Dominic and usually known as “Corpo Santo”.

Why “Corpo Santo”? Centuries ago, before ever the Irish Fathers came to Portugal, there was a small chapel close to the river shore, just beyond the royal palace in the Terreiro do Paço, dedicated to St. Telmo, or St. Elmo, a Dominican from the Northern part of Iberia who eventually became Bishop of Tuy (Galicia). For some reason St. Elmo became the patron of mariners working in coastal waters whilst at the same time he is credited with saving ships from damage when electrical storms produce a ball of fire on the mast head. This ball of fire is known as St. Elmo´s Fire or the “Corpo Santo”. When the Irish Fathers settled in Lisbon they were given the property which included the Chapel of Corpo Santo – and the name stayed with us!

During a period which began in the 16th century reign of Henry VIII of England and continued until the end of the mid-17th century Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, the Catholic Church suffered terrible persecution in Ireland. Priests were not allowed to minister freely to the people. They were forced to live and work in hiding and were often martyred when discovered. It was virtually impossible to train new candidates for the priesthood and the Dominicans, in common with other Orders and Dioceses, looked around for safe havens in Europe where boys might be educated and ordained. Irish Dominican priests and students went to Belgium, France, Spain and Italy and, in 1600, several arrived in Portugal where they were warmly welcomed by various local Dominican foundations. By 1615 they had identified a piece of land in Loures where they were able to set up temporary accommodation and classrooms. The new “house” received a Papal Bull of Foundation in November of that same year.

The foundation was very poor and life was hard for both priests and students, but all that changed in 1629 with the arrival of Father Dominic O’Daly O.P., a man of dynamic energy who recognised what needed to be done and knew how to set about it. In 1634 the Master of the Order authorised the building of a college for the education of exiled Irish students and appointed Father O’Daly as Rector. Ten years later, a General Chapter in Rome classified the college as a House of Studies (Studium Generale) for the training of young men for the priesthood. After several moves around the Lisbon area, the little group finally obtained a site close to the Tagus and the foundation stone of the Church and College of Corpo Santo was laid in 1659, although the community was only able to move in several years later. Meanwhile the Cromwellian persecutions in Ireland meant that more and more young men were fleeing here for refuge, a tradition which still continues, though nowadays our parish receives English-speaking refugees fleeing from religious and economic persecution, not in Ireland nor even in Europe, but in other continents. The young men who trained here in penal times returned to Ireland to suffer for their faith whilst preaching the gospel and so desperately high was the rate of executions that Lisbon people often referred to Corpo Santo as “The Martyrs’ Seminary”.

altFather Dominic O’Daly also had a hand in the founding of the Convent of Bom Sucesso in Belém, opened in 1639 to provide a home for Irish girls who wished to follow the religious life. A full history of Bom Sucesso can be found in “A Light Undimmed: The Convent of Our Lady of Bom Sucesso, Lisbon” by Honor McCabe O.P.

Down the years, the Irish Fathers were able to respond to the generous welcome they received in this country by ministering to Portuguese parishioners as well as to English speakers, especially when the terrible earthquake, tidal wave and fire occurred on 1st November 1755. The area around Corpo Santo was devastated with the church and college reduced to a heap of rubble and four of the priests were killed by falling masonry whilst ministering to the injured in the streets.

The Irish Fathers were authorised to rebuild on a site a little further from the river, at the foot of the steep cliff which held the upper part of the city. No funds were available in Portugal during that disastrous period and the Prior, Father O’Kelly, who had suffered only slight injuries during the aftermath of the earthquake, appealed to Pope Benedict XIV for help. The Holy Father authorised him to appeal to all the dioceses of Spain and also to the newly-discovered rich territories overseas and thanks to their donations and to generous aid from South America and Ireland itself, the new college and church were ready for dedication on 13th October 1770. Boys were once again trained for the Irish province and the Fathers continued their work amongst the English-speaking and Portuguese communities.

With the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1856 it finally became possible for students for the priesthood to be educated in Ireland. A great part of the Lisbon college building was sold and most of the money raised was used to build a new House of Studies on the outskirts of Dublin. Five or six Irish priests stayed on in Lisbon, however, and continued to minister to English-speaking residents and to the Portuguese community.

In 1832 the Irish Fathers had already had an opportunity to repay their Portuguese hosts for the generous welcome given them, when an anti-clerical government banished all religious orders from the country. Thanks to the protection of the British government the Irish Fathers were able to stay on, ministering to the people and teaching the children. With the end of the monarchy and implantation of the Republic in 1910, a new wave of anti-clericalism swept over the country and again the Irish Fathers were able to provide spiritual comfort and support to their Portuguese friends. An important event which took place in this period shows how vital was the continued presence of the Irish Fathers: In December 1916, during the papacy of Benedict XV, Dominicans all over the world celebrated the 700th anniversary of the date on which the founding of the Order of Preachers received papal approval. In Portugal the Dominicans, like other religious orders, had been forced by anti-clericalism to close their houses and so it was in Corpo Santo Church, that a great triduum of celebrations was held from 12th to 14th December 1916.

altIt was in the first half of the 20th century that Father Paul O’Sullivan, another outstanding Dominican, came into his own. Recognising the great needs of the people for religious instruction, and the fact that the local church was powerless to help, he backed up the evangelising efforts of his community by setting up a printing press in Corpo Santo, where he published four monthly magazines and any number of booklets on religious themes.

From having been a place of refuge for Irish men and boys fleeing from persecution at home, Corpo Santo had become a refuge for Portuguese Catholics deprived of religious education in their own churches and schools. In the 1950’s and 60’s the church became a place of refuge for refugees from Shanghai and Goa and members of those two groups are now pillars of the English-speaking community at Corpo Santo. In recent years the tradition of refuge has continued with the arrival of people from various African countries and from Asia who, we hope, find a home-from-home in a church where they are able to worship God in a tongue common to all who worship there.

In the 1970’s there was a trend towards a populational move out of central Lisbon and along the coast towards Estoril and Cascais, abandoning downtown Lisbon to business and shops. The English-speaking community joined this trend and in the 1980’s the Irish Dominican Fathers took the difficult decision to move the centre of the Parish out to São Pedro do Estoril, whilst still keeping a foothold in Lisbon by maintaining the English-language Sunday Mass in Corpo Santo. The move had evolved gradually, with Masses initially being held in Carcavelos, Parede, Estoril or Cascais by priests who travelled out from Lisbon for the purpose, but with the acquisition in 1982 of the building in São Pedro do Estoril which now houses St. Mary’s Parish Centre the move became definitive.

Presently we have two weekend Masses at the 18th century Church of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes in Cascais. St. Mary’s Parish Centre has one Sunday morning Mass and is also used as a base for Prayer Groups, Marriage Courses and other parish activities, both pastoral and social. We owe a debt of heartfelt gratitude to the Fathers of the Portuguese Dominican Province for the tremendous support they have given us in recent years in maintaining our Sunday morning Mass at Corpo Santo, a church which has once again become a refuge for emigrant communities, this time from Asia and Africa.

NOTE: For a more complete account of the life of Father Dominic O’Daly, priest and diplomat, and of the work of Father Paul O’Sullivan, master communicator, try typing their names into Google and you will find several pages of references to these two great Irishmen.