How the Light of the Gospel is Returning to Limerick
by Donna Sue Berry
Canon Wulfran Lebocq, choirmaster of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP), spoke with Regina Magazine about the ongoing restoration of Sacred Heart, one of the most beautiful churches in Limerick, which was falling into ruins when the Institute bought it in 2012.
The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest is a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right whose goal is “the honor of God and the sanctification of priests in the service of the Church and souls.” Its specific aim is to spread the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ in all spheres of human life, under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception, to Whom the Institute is consecrated.
In 1990, Monsignor Gilles Wach and Father Philippe Mora founded the Institute in Gabon, on the west coast of central Africa, where they still have missions. Today, the motherhouse and international seminary of the Institute is located in Gricigliano, in the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy.
History of Sacred Heart Church in Limerick The Jesuit Order began building Sacred Heart Church in Limerick in 1865 and completed in 1868. Sacred Heart is the first church in Ireland to be dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and features exquisite the mosaics and shrines, as well as a large choir loft and a superb organ installed by Telford organ builders of Dublin in 1924. Although the bulk of his organ building was in Ireland, Telford was known and respected in England and abroad. He was a close personal friend of the famous French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
The mechanism of the Telford organ was so well constructed that the Institute was able make the organ playable again, with minor repairs, thanks to the restoration work of Padraig O’Donovan, a young organ builder from Cork.
Q. I understand the church was purchased in 2012; how did that purchase come about? To answer this question fully, I must recount to you the details of this beautiful story written by hand of Divine Providence.
The Institute of Christ the King has had the joy to serve Ireland since early 2006. At the request of certain faithful, I began coming, monthly, then bi-monthly, to offer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on the Emerald Isle. The process of acquiring Sacred Heart Church began then when I first learned that the Jesuits were selling it. You can imagine what the sight of the closure of this magnificent church would do to a Catholic priest coming to Ireland for the first time.
If Sacred Heart Church is physically in the heart of Limerick, even more so was it in the very heart of the good people of Limerick. The initial step to the process was prayer: We began praying, then our religious sisters began praying, and then even the members of our lay branch, the Society of the Sacred Heart, began praying. We all confided our intention to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Many devout locals who had attended every-Friday devotions to the Sacred Heart were orphaned by the closure, but continued their devotions privately.
Q. In what condition did you find the complex at that time? When the Jesuit Fathers sold the buildings, they sold everything in it: All the furniture and liturgical items, even the altar and tabernacle, the Stations of the Cross, and the pews. Most distressing was the removal of the statue of the Sacred Heart overlooking the main doors of the church. This feature of the church façade always had been illuminated at night, and cherished by the people of Limerick for many decades.
In 2006, a developer purchased the church, planning to turn the property into a swimming pool and spa. Thanks be to God this project failed because the financial difficulties in Ireland at the time caused the developer to declare bankruptcy.
Several years passed, and the property fell more and more into decrepitude, under the assault of Ireland’s often-unforgiving climate. Divine Providence, though, is not without irony and had special plans for this once-venerated edifice. Thanks to many local benefactors and important loans from the United States as well as Germany, the Institute of Christ the King was able to purchase the property (a rare feat for our relatively new and small Institute). This allowed for the first Church in Ireland ever dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to be reopened for His greater glory and honor.
The church and the adjoining residence had been totally abandoned since 2006. The condition of the property was appalling. Once a building ceases to be heated, it immediately begins to fall into disrepair. Dampness penetrates every facet of the structure: First, the paint chips, and then the plaster falls. For Sacred Heart Church, the heating system itself became non-functional after six years of neglect and disuse. The roof of the attached residence had major leaks, which affected two stories of the building, and the broken gutters to broken windows. A tree was growing in one of the confessionals.
How has the renovation progressed? Our first step was to replace the statue of the Sacred Heart above the entrance. We then had the water turned on again and tried to clean up a bit. Next, we repaired the major leaks of the roofs and the gutters, for stopping any further damage was crucial to our restoration plans.
As soon as we began offering Holy Mass in the Church, we obtained temporary pews for the faithful. We also had to procure everything else necessary for Divine Worship. Before the original sacristy could be rendered even marginally suitable, it was necessary to use one of the rare dry rooms of the residence as a makeshift sacristy. Again, both the church and residence were without a functioning heating system, so during most of the first year we attempted to find a solution to this fundamental problem, but to no practical avail. Finally, by the fall of 2013 the old radiators in the church were reconnected with a new temporary boiler, providing much welcomed warmth for the liturgies and visits to Sacred Heart this past winter. Now we have also completely restored the sacristy, fabricated a laundry room in the residence, replaced several copper gutters, and redone the pointing on the brick exterior.
Are there any projects that are currently underway? Currently, our project is to install two marble adoring angels on each side of the high altar as well as a beautiful marble pulpit, saved from another closed church. In the end, we are not here simply to fix windows and boilers, but to integrally restore this church to its former nobility, beginning with the liturgy and ending in contemplation of Our Lord.
Q. Would you tell us about the response you have received from the local Irish community? The closure of the church was profoundly discouraging to the local community. It seemed to them that the light of the Gospel was being overcome by the darkness of the world.
Today, church’s resurrection has become a source of great hope and renewal for the faith of the local community, so sorely tried by the increasing antagonism of the modern culture and materialism.
After we had opened daily, we solemnly prayed the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament exposed for the month of October. The people were impressed by the reverence and beauty of the ceremonies, even if the condition of the church was dilapidated.
Many visitors who step into the church for the first time after several years are moved to tears to see such a young and vibrant community totally dedicated to the service of souls and the Church. For some, it is like a passage to a bygone era from their youth. People often share stories and happy memories with us about their receiving the sacraments or attending Mass as students, singing in choir, or listening to the organ play. To witness some of this again is a true source of inspiration for them, and their subsequent charity has been a grand consolation and motivation for us.
Q. Have you taken residence at Sacred Heart? In the winter of 2013, we decided to move permanently into the church residence, despite its condition. On January 29, 2013, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the community moved into the residence. As the first act in our new home, we sang the vespers of our patron and doctor of charity. The building was without heat and the conditions rough. It would be more accurate to say we camped in the building for several months before it could be considered habitable. Even today, we still live with very basic bathrooms, the entire living quarters lack heat, and what we call a kitchen more nearly resembles a campsite, with a sink and propane gas stove.
Q. What is daily life like at the Priory? We work and pray, gently and without haste, transforming the residence and church. Personal sacrifices are necessary in reviving a dead building, and making the church truly suitable for Divine Worship.
Despite the ever-present cold and damp of the residence and church, we keep and maintain as much as possible the order of our daily community life. Our days are rooted in the Sacred Liturgy: Lauds, Meditation, Holy Mass, Studies, Sext, work in the church or residence, Vespers, Adoration, and Devotions to the Sacred Heart on Friday. Likewise, we have Mass not only here in Limerick, but also in Galway city every Sunday and occasionally masses elsewhere in Ireland – sometimes as far as Belfast.
Q. As vocations to the priesthood and religious life are flourishing among those orders that celebrate the traditional form of the Mass, has there been interest amongst the faithful who may be discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life? Have you received any pre-seminary candidates? We have received possible vocations that have come to Limerick in discernment. Two of these may go to the United States in September as part of the pre-formation program for our seminary. The Institute is blessed with an Irish religious sister who has been with us for four years. She received the habit from Cardinal Canizares, and now is preparing for her final vows.
Considering the much larger spectrum of Irish heritage, the picture is more interesting. The Institute has a number of canons, seminarians, oblates and sisters of Irish ancestry. Ireland, in former times a “model nation” sent out priests and missionaries across the world. Now, many members of the Institute have are thrilled to be able to give back to a country that has given the world so much.
Q. As choirmaster for the Institute, what can you tell us about the Sacred Music program at the Irish apostolate? In spite of the many urgent and pressing restoration needs, one of the very first things we did last year was to restore the organ, considered by experts as one of the finest in Ireland.
As the choirmaster for the Institute, I understand very personally the importance of music in the liturgy. For many years now I have had the joy to train our seminarians and priests in the subtle art of Gregorian chant. As much as possible, I have tried to bring this rich treasure to our liturgy here: We sing the Divine Office together, which is open to the public. This is definitely our most important and efficacious apostolate. A Gregorian Schola has been established to train anyone interested in the theory of chant, especially according the beautiful classic method of Solesmes, in which I was trained and that the Institute encourages as much as possible. We also have a choral ensemble, Cor Jesu Singers, who specialize in the polyphony of the Renaissance.
A highlight of this was our first Sacred Music Week held last year, each evening a concert of various forms of sacred music: chant, organ, sacred polyphony, and vocal solo music. Thus the treasure as you say of the Church’s heritage is offered to all as a means of reaching God. All our work here is directed to this end: to bring souls to God by means of the Sacred Liturgy, in all its beauty, consolations, and encouragement to keep us moving towards our true home in heaven.
(Editor's Note: To support the restoration of Sacred Heart Church go to their website to make a donation or download the “Trifolium Romanum” their monthly newsletter. You can also follow the Institute in Ireland on Facebook and Twitter!)