The exact date when the Franciscans founded their friary in Limerick is unknown. According to some historians, they were founded by William de Burgho prior to 1287, by Donogh Cairbreach O'Brien before 1241 or Mary, Countess of Desmond in 1350. De Burgho was the son-in-law of Donald O'Brien. Thomas Johnson Westropp asserts that the date 1241 is in fact the correct date, with the later dates referring to times when the original building was restored. The Franciscans were located between Sir Harry's Mall and Athlunkard St. St Francis' Abbey was founded in 1279 in Goal Lane, off Mary St. but nothing remains of it today.
Like most of the religious orders, the Franciscans were suppressed between 1539/48 and most of the buildings were knocked. Edmund Sexton got the land when it was confiscated. Some of the Franciscans stayed around the city after the suppression. The Franciscans took possession of their house in 1642 during the Confederate war. There was also an oratory to St Anthony on the island in what is now called St Mary's parish.
Over the years three chalices were given to the order - the Farrell Chalice (1619), the Creagh Chalice (1627) and the Rice Chalice (1626). The Creagh Chalice is now in the possession of the Bishop of Killaloe while the other chalices are still in use in the Friary.
On July 17th 1651, the Blessed Virgin Mary reputedly appeared over St Mary's Cathedral with St Francis and St Dominic as well as other friars from the two orders. The vision in the sky then moved onto the Dominican Priory and finally to the Franciscan church.
In 1687 the Franciscans rented the site of their old abbey from a descendant of Sexton, a man called Pery. It is believed that they remained at this site until 1691. By 1698 all religious orders had been expelled from Limerick city. By 1732 the Franciscans had moved to Burke's House in Athlunkard St. In 1745 Fr James White erected a small chapel at this location.
On Christmas Day, 1782 the Franciscans opened a small chapel in Newgate Lane, behind St Mary's Cathedral. A window from this chapel is now in Kilrush church ruin on the North Circular Road. This chapel remained in use until 1822 when the lease expired and the landlord, Major George P. Drew told the Franciscans that he would not renew the lease. The Franciscans took the church fittings with them and the building was then destroyed.
The Franciscans had a temporary house and chapel in Bank Place in 1825. They acquired ground in Henry St at a cost of £53 and began to build a church in 1824/25. The architect for the building was Mr O'Brien and the builders were Raleigh and Slattery. However they ran into trouble with the financing of the building. Many individuals gave money for the completion of the church and Dr. Laffan, the Archbishop of Cashel, blessed it on March 18th 1826. The church was opened to the public in May 1827. Over the next few years, a sanctuary was built and a belfry was added in 1837.
As the church was also in need of constant repair, it was decided to build a new church at the same location. Dr. Butler, Bishop of Limerick, laid the foundation stone for a new church on the same site on May 28th 1876. The builders were Messers. McCarthy and Guerin, and the architect of the church was William Corbett. This church was completed in 1886 and is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The church was extended and enlarged in 1930 when the present Apse and Sanctuary were added under the Guardianship of Fr Fridolin Fehily OFM. The architects were A.E. Jones and S.S. Kelly. The Most Rev. Dr. Keane DD, Bishop of Limerick on 12 December 1930, consecrated the new high altar. The apse of the church was not completed until 1942, in which year the lands behind the church were bought. The church is situated in St Michael's parish.
While visiting Ireland His Excellency, Most Rev. Giovanni Batista Montini, who was Papal under-secretary of State, said Mass in the Friary. He was later to become Pope Paul IV.
The façade of the church consists of four huge limestone pillars, which support an entablature and pediment. The statues on top of this are of St Francis, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Anthony. Inside the church, large granite pillars support the nave. The clerestory consists of round-headed windows in sets of three, which are also supported by granite pillars. Around the walls of the clerestory are the words of a Latin hymn that the Franciscans used to sing.
At the back of the left aisle of the church there is a stained glass window of St Bernardine of Siena, Italy. St Bernardine is known as the Apostle of Italy. Next to this is a painting that depicts different scenes of St Francis' life. It features the town of Assisi, St Francis receiving the Indulgence of Portiuncula from the Blessed Virgin and St Francis blessing Assisi before his death. Next, there is a stained glass window to St Louis of France and there is another stained glass window to St Elizabeth of Hungary who is Patroness of the Secular Franciscan Order (Third Order)
There is a chapel to St Anthony in the middle of the left-hand aisle that contains two phrases in Old Gaelic script. One phrase states "St Anthony preaching to the fish in Rimini". The second phrase commemorates the Miracle of the Blessed Sacrament.
Further on this aisle there is a stained glass window to St Paschal Boylan OFM who was a Franciscan Brother. He is the Patron of Eucharistic Devotion. Joseph P. Lynch erected this stained glass window to the memory of the Lynch family. There is a mosaic of St Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland. Mary B. Lynch presented this in memory of her parents and brothers. On the left of the main altar there is an altar to the Sacred Heart.
The apse of the church is tiled with coloured marbles and mosaics. The mosaics and marble work were carried out in Venice and Pietra Santa. The ceiling of the apse depicts the granting of the Portiuncula Indulgence by Our Lord to St Francis. A number of Franciscan saints are also depicted on the ceiling of the apse. They are (from left to right) St Bonaventura, St Bernardine, St Clare, St Agnes, and St Louis of France and St Elizabeth of Hungary. The central panel shows Mary Immaculate.
To the left of the main altar, there is a statue of St Joseph and the Infant Jesus, while to the right of the altar, there is a statue of St Francis. Further right, there is a side altar to the Immaculate Conception.
In the right aisle near the entrance of the church, there is a stained glass window of St Leonard of Port Maurice, who was a Franciscan friar. St Leonard is the patron saint of Missions & Retreats and he is also responsible for the Devotion of the Stations of the Cross as we know it today. St Leonard died in 1751. On the right wall, there is a stained glass window to St Anthony and the Child of Jesus. The window was erected by Michael Coffey in memory of his father John and his sister Augustine, who died in 1861 and 1889 respectively. There are also stained glass windows to St Bonaventure, St Claire of Assisi and St Francis. Under the stained glass window to St Francis, there is a shrine to Blessed Pope John XIII.
There is a stained glass window of the Sacred Heart and St Margaret Mary Alacoque, which was erected by Catherine Mary Roche in memory of her parents. St Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French nun to whom the Sacred Heart revealed the devotion of the First Fridays and the 12 Promises.
There is also a stained glass window of St Joseph and the Infant Jesus. Mrs. O'Kelly erected this window in memory of her husband Daniel who died May 14 1886 and her son Joseph who died on August 1st 1887. There is a shrine to Matt Talbot at the top of the aisle under this stain glass window.
Towards the top of the right aisle, there is a stained glass window of Mary ascending into Heaven. Catherine Mary Roche donated this window to the memory of her husband John who died on November 15 1858. The window was erected in 1883. The Catholic Literary Institute donated the statue of St Joseph in 1908, while the statue of St Francis was erected in 1931.
The church has been renovated twice since its completion,
in 1928/30 and in 1968 after the Second Vatican Council. At the base of the
high altar there is Latin inscription on the stone which when translated reads:
This Church was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 18 May 1876 by Most Rev. Dr. Gregory Butler, Bishop of Limerick.
The Guardian at the time of the dedication was Fr Bonaventure McDermott OFM.
We would like to thank Br. Bonaventure Ward OFM for giving
us information on the details of the Franciscan church.
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