Today Rome has two churches dedicated to St. Patrick.  Given the number of churches dedicated to St. Patrick throughout the Catholic world, this is hardly a surprise.  What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that for over 1,500 years Rome was without a church of dedicated to the Irish national saint. This was rectified on 1 February 1888, when the foundation stone of the present church was laid.  This was the brainchild of Fr. Patrick Glynn from Limerick.  But it would take more than 20 years and another hand, Dr Alphonsus Maurice McGrath from Waterford, before the church was completed.  It was officially opened on St Patrick’s Day 1911.

It is no accident that both Fr. Glynn and Dr. McGrath were members of the Augustinian Order (OSA).  For St. Patrick’s church is intimately connected with the history of the Irish Augustinians, who still own the property and administer the church.  But the history of the Irish Augustinians in Rome goes back more than 200 years before 1888, and the present site at St Patrick’s is but the fifth location in Rome where the Irish Augustinians have been based.

The beginnings of the Irish Augustinian association with Rome go back to a more troubled period of Irish history when the Catholic faith was under threat in the British Isles.  The training of priests – to take one example – was forbidden by the Penal Laws.  The Irish Colleges which dotted Europe in the wake of these laws reflect one solution to the problem.  To this day in Rome, there are colleges which belong to the Irish bishops, the Irish Dominicans and the Irish Franciscans as well as the Augustinians.

In the case of the Irish Augustinians, there were several unsuccessful attempts to establish a college in various parts of Europe.  But the various efforts eventually bore fruit in 1656.  There is a document in the archives of the Augustinians in Rome, dated 2 July 1656, in which Fr. James McCarthy OSA is given responsibility for the church and priory of San Matteo in Merulana in Rome.  San Matteo was to be the first base for the Irish Augustinians in Rome.

This important development could not have taken place without the good graces of the current Pope, Alexander VII.  He had, as nuncio and papal secretary of state, become familiar with the situation of the church in Ireland, and he and his family continued to have associations with the Augustinians.   A visit to Santa Maria del Popolo, another Augustinian church in Rome, will confirm this.  A papal decree of 1658 lent the authority of the Pope to the earlier decree.

Though the Augustinian presence in San Matteo was not without its vicissitudes, the end came in 1798 with the Napoleonic invasion of Rome.  Not only did the Augustinians lose their property as did the other colleges, but San Matteo suffered the fate of some 30 other churches in Rome: it was razed to the ground. 

Nevertheless, some of the community remained on in Rome and they were given possession of the church and priory of San Eusebio, a short distance from San Matteo.  For at least some of the relatively short time spent at San Eusebio, the superior was Fr. John Rice OSA, who was a brother of the more famous Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Irish Christian Brothers.

In 1819, the community moved to a new home in Santa Maria in Posterula.  This was situated near what is now Ponte Umberto on the other side of the river from Castel Sant Angelo, and therefore closer to the Vatican. The community was to remain here for the greater part of the century

The period was however not without some troubling moments.  But Santa Maria survived the political turmoil of 1870 which marked the end of the Papal States.  It might have gone the way of other religious houses in Rome, which were suppressed by the new political authorities.  But Santa Maria was spared, as were other Irish houses in Rome, as being under the jurisdiction of the British government.

But it did not survive another initiative of the new political authorities.  Flooding of the Tiber had been a perennial problem.  In a successful effort to address it, a new embankment of the river was undertaken.  Santa Maria was one of the buildings which had to be demolished as part of the project.  Specifically, the razing of the building made way for the new bridge over the Tiber, the present Ponte Umberto.  The final evacuation of Santa Maria took place in 1888, though the Augustinians had been given timely warning of what was in store.

In the meantime, developments had been taking place elsewhere in Rome. Prior to 1870, the area where St. Patrick’s now stands was part of the Villa Ludovisi.  This was a suburban villa, consisting of gardens and fruit and vegetable plots, in an area once occupied by the Gardens of Sallust.  In 1885, Prince Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludoisi sold the property to the city of Rome, not without a certain amount of opposition. It was then divided into building lots, and the resultant development lead to some well known tourist attractions, such as the Via Veneto and what is now the American Embassy.

In any case, this turned out to be a godsend for Fr. Glynn OSA, the prior of Santa Maria.  With the compensation he had received from the Roman authorities for Santa Maria, he was able to acquire a plot of land in the Villa Ludovisi.  Furthermore in a letter issued on 21 July 1886, the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, on behalf of Pope Leo XIII, endorsed Fr. Glynn’s project to build a college and a national church on the new site.

But the compensation for Santa Maria was not sufficient to cover the expenses of building on the site.  And so we find Fr. Glynn in New York in June 1887.  The New York Times reported that he had “been deputed by the Pope to collect funds for the work”.  This was but part of a very widespread and international funding campaign, which reflects very favourably on Prior Glynn’s organizational skills.

And so it was that on 1 February 1888, the Feast of St. Brigid, the foundation stone of the new church of St. Patrick’s was laid.

But this new development did not solve the immediate problem.  By the time Santa Maria was demolished, there was still no building in the new site into which the community could move.

The problem was solved when Leo XIII, a good friend of the Augustinians, gave the community temporary possession of the church and presbytery of San Carlo al Corso.  So it was that in 1888 the community moved into what was to be the fourth home of the Irish Augustinians in Rome.

Meanwhile, work had been going on apace, not on the church, but on the residential quarters adjoining what was to be the church.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1891, the archbishop of Dublin, was at hand to celebrate the first Mass in a temporary chapel in the college.

A year later, the building was ready for occupation, and on 5 March 1892 the community of 12 moved from San Carlo to their new quarters.  In February 1893, there was a formal blessing of the temporary chapel by Cardinal Logue of Armagh, “in the presence of a large number of pilgrims from Ireland”

By this time, practically no progress had been made in the building of the church since the laying of the foundation stone in 1888.  So it was now time to turn attention to the church – except that the funds had dried up!

When, for the first time since 1656, the Irish Augustinians seemed to have a permanent home in Rome, suddenly all seemed to fall apart.  In 1896 the students were transferred to Ireland.  Two years later, the property was sold and a community of Benedictine nuns moved in 1899. The only reason the property was not permanently lost to the Augustinians was because the nuns found they were unable to pay in keeping with the agreement.  In 1901 the property was returned to the Augustinians who then rented it to an  Italian body.

But equally suddenly, in 1907 light began to appear at the end of the tunnel.  This was the year when Fr. A. M. McGrath arrived in Rome as prior.  Dr. McGrath, as he was known, proved to be a resourceful person.  By 1908, work had finally begun on the church and it was officially opened on St. Patrick’s Day, 1911.

As a further indication of the resourcefulness of Dr. McGrath, residential quarters were incorporated into the church building.  This meant that the original building could be rented out, thus ensuring a steady income, while the new residential quarters were occupied by the community.  And so it was that in October 1913 a group of 5 students again took up residence in time for the beginning of the new academic year.

This situation continued until 1931.  By this time there was a significant increase in the number of students and they could no longer be accommodated in the church building.  The rented property was repossessed and  used for its original purpose, as the living quarters for the student community.

This was the situation until relatively recent times, with a slight hiccup during the Second World War.  At the outset of the war, there were 47 students in the college, but there was no further intake until September 1946.  Those who were in residence at the beginning of the war gradually departed, by various means, according as they completed their studies.  By the end of the war, there was little more than a skeleton community in St. Patrick’s.

St. Patrick’s has, inevitably, been affected by the recent decline in religious vocations in the English speaking world.  Another turning point came in 1986 when St. Patrick’s ceased to be a college and the few remaining students were transferred to the Augustinian international college across town beside St. Peter’s.  Since then the greater part of the property has been rented out, with one wing retained for a small resident community.

But perhaps such things go in circles and who is to say what role is destined for St. Patrick’s in the future.

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