Saint Francis of Assisi (b. 1182 - d. 1226) established the Franciscan Order as we know it today, or in the middle-ages "Friars Minor". The Franciscan Province of Ireland was founded in 1230 when Albrecht Suerbeer became Archbishop of Armagh in 1239.
Suerbeer was a friend of the Franciscans, introducing them to the 2 principal towns of his diocese Drogheda and Dundalk. It is most likely that the Franciscans first came to Drogheda at the invitation of Lord Ralph Pippard in 1240, with the medieval friary located on the northern bank of the River Boyne, near St Laurence’s Gate.
The church ran parallel to the river, with a tower in the middle, the sanctuary located at the eastern end with the east window forming part of the town wall with the cloister between church and river.
Small boats could enter the friary through a water gate and the friars had a small gate in the town walls for access to their gardens. At that stage this Friary was the ‘head house’ of a custody that included Carrickfergus, Downpatrick, Dundalk, Multyfarnham and Trim; thus confirming the town’s pre-eminence in medieval ecclesiastical politics of Ireland.
The friars lived a life of prayer and penance, fostering masses, popular devotions, preaching regularly and were liked as confessors. The Friary was a place of refuge and on at least two occasions escaped prisoners found refuge in the friary.
With the coming of the Black Death – believed to have been introduced to Ireland through Drogheda’s busy port – 25 of Franciscans died before Christmas 1347.
The friars were close to Anglo-Irish authorities, for instance, two of them traveled to England on royal business in 1317; King Richard II stayed at the friary for 18 days in 1395, when he received the submission of Niall Mór O’Neill. It was also a place for the meeting of the King’s Council, effectively Parliament. Sessions of the Irish Parliament were held regularly in the town, either at the Franciscan Friary or at the Tholsel of ‘Drogheda in Meath’ – at the town’s Bull Ring – Poynings Law (which made the Irish Parliament subservient to the English Parliament) was enacted in 1494, in the Tholsel.
During the late middle ages, the Franciscans went through a period of organisational turbulence; the Observant Reform began on the Continent around 1400. Not all Irish friars favoured this reform however; leading to a split in the Order and its provinces (organizational divisions) splitting into two groups ‘the Observant’ and ‘the Conventual’ - with the Drogheda community in the latter grouping.
The Reformation in England following the Act of Supremacy (1534) led to the seizure of monastic property and whole scale changes in religious practices began to feed into Ireland three years later, with the Irish parliament suppressing the monasteries in 1537. The guardian of the Franciscan Friary in Drogheda, Richard Molane surrendered the friary in March 1540. The commission appointed to seize the property (valued at £20) sold it and was quickly demolished leading to the dispersal of the community. While the Reformation under Henry VIII was almost a political subterfuge with an opportunity to effectively ‘nationalise church wealth’, patterns of religious persecution became more acute during the reign of Edward VI and during periods of Elizabeth I on the English throne.
Following the appointment of Fr. Florence Conry as appointed Franciscan provincial in 1606, he opened the Irish College in Louvain, Belgium to train priests in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. This lead in 1609 to a decision by the provincial chapter to re-open four old houses, including Drogheda, under Fr Donagh Moone in 1610. Despite persecution, the friars settled in. Four friars were living in a rented house and used another as their chapel. They wore the habit within the Friary, recited the divine office in choir and meditated regularly. The annals indicate that the chapel was raided and the ornaments on its were altar seized, with one Friar being captured in 1613 and another in 1614.
Following the execution of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s seizure of Drogheda in September 1649, Cromwell’s own letters to William Lenthall (1591/1662) Speaker of the House of Commons confirms the resulting deaths of members of the Franciscan community. Any remaining Friars were likely to have gone into hiding in South Armagh until 1660. By 1673 there were 7 in the community, but were forced into hiding again by the Act of Banishment (1697) however they returned to Drogheda with around four friars.
It is likely they moved to the site of the Highlanes Gallery between 1766 - 1798 when they acquired a corn store at Keyser’s Lane (High Lanes) in 1798 and adapted it as a chapel. The friars lived below the barn and slowly acquired more property. As is common in from the late 18th Century, the first signs of a more relaxed religious practices and early 19th Church buildings began to emerge with the Catholic Relief Act (1798) leading eventually to full religious freedom with final the Catholic Relief Act (1829).
The Franciscans of Drogheda were no different in their church building style than Catholic and Dissenter Churches of North Leinister and East Ulster. The effective former plan of the early Church emerging in the ‘T barn’ of today’s structure can still be seen. Major fund raising for a new church began in 1829, with the earlier building demolished in 1830 and the current structure was built around those remains. The new church officially opened on August 22nd 1830, while the original stone floor was replaced by a wooden one in 1835 with galleries were added in the north and south wings later that year. The architect was J. Butterly and the builder was Michael Callin.
A new friary (residence) opened on St. Laurence Street in 1840, when the church was further extended and a tower built. A new high altar and two side altars were added in 1855. By that point, the Franciscan community consisted of four priests assisted by two tertiaries. The friars were moving towards a stricter form of religious life, with Drogheda becoming the Noviciate (a training school or university for members of religious orders) in 1860 and remained so until 1877. There were 3 masses each weekday, 4 masses on Sunday morning, with a Rosary, sermon and benediction on Sunday evenings.
As in the middle ages, the Franciscans faced internal divisions again with the reform movement gaining the upper hand. The older men of the Province or Black Friars were not allowed to accept new entrants, thus cutting off the possibility of their renewal. While the reformers or Brown Friars were training in continental friaries and taking over Irish Franciscan houses one-by- one, leading to Drogheda proclaiming for Reform in 1923. In physical terms, much of the change came about in church renovations and differing forms of religious devotion.
The Franciscans have always been held in popular affection in Drogheda as have other mendicant orders, with individual members attracting great local followings; one of whom was the west Cork born Br Paschal Burke who came to the town in 1927, remaining until his death in 1958.
The Franciscans planned to replace the current church as early as 1943; temporary changes were made to the sanctuary in 1969, following the Second Vatican Council, in anticipation of rebuilding. During this period the Friary Church’s distinctive tower was removed, leaving the shorter tower that we have today. After 1970 the Friars began to be involved in running the ancient adjacent parish of Mell; however the decline in religious vocations led to the friars reorganizing and deciding to keep viable communities in as many places as possible rather than have a couple of friars everywhere.
The provincial chapter went on to make major strategic decisions in 1999 - parishes would be handed back to the dioceses and one friary, Drogheda, would be closed leading to the end of almost 800 years of history when the Friary Church closed for the last time in 2000. Though the Friars have now departed, the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi remains in the town and the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood still occupy one of the friary buildings adjoining the Gallery and the Secular Third Order still meet in the town.
The friars returned the church to the people who had contributed to it over many years donating it to the Corporation of Drogheda (now Drogheda Borough Council) for public use as the town’s Art Gallery. Friars remain involved on the Gallery’s board of management, contributing and encouraging in a new mission that their former Church can provide the best possible venue for creative visual arts in the north east.
PAT CONLON O.F.M., - Franciscan Province of Ireland
Additional research by Nick Reilly.