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Herald of hope: reflections on the life and spirit of St Charles of Mount Argus

30 November, 1999

The Passionist Fathers have put together nine meditations which were give during the Novena of Hope in the Church of St Paul of the Cross. They commemorate the life and spirit of the man who by his simple holiness captivated the people who came to the same church during his lifetime. Below is the contribution of writer and broadcaster Brian D’Arcy CP.

69pp. Ovada Books. To purchase this book online, go to www.ovadabooks.com


List of Contributors

  2. Uplifted in Prayer – PAUL FRANCIS SPENCER CP
  3. The Presence of God – PAUL FRANCIS SPENCER CP
  4. A Mystery of Suffering – AIDAN TROY CP
  5. Doing God’s Will – BRIAN D’ARCY CP
  6. The Passion-Pattern in Life – IGNATIUS WATERS CP
  7. A Healing Blessing – FRANK KEEVINS CP
  8. The Stranger Among Us – MARTIN COFFEYCP
  9. A Mother’s Love – MARTIN COFFEY






When I was asked to preach at the thanksgiving novena in Mount Argus, I felt I had to do something special.

But when I sat down to write a sermon about Father Charles, I found I had absolutely nothing new to say. It was then I accidentally saw an advertisement for cheap flights to Amsterdam. And I recognised instantly that ‘Charlie’ was guiding me. I did something I never do. I booked a flight with an overnight stay in Amsterdam. A nurse in Enniskillen, who has great devotion to Blessed Charles, had a friend in Holland. She got the instructions. I went to Amsterdam airport, caught a train and three hours later ended up in Sittard, the nearest large town to his birthplace.

There, a taxi driver took me to Munstergeleen and that is how I got to the wee country place Father Charles came from. There I discovered his house and the little church, a delightful oasis of peace. It was heavenly. And I knew that I would get the inspiration to tell, not what I wanted to say, but what Father Charles wanted people to hear.

I sat and prayed most of the morning. I talked to everybody who came in and there were many, most them on bicycles. He is not forgotten.

I met the local priest and he was most welcoming. He was the priest responsible for pushing the miracle now accepted for the canonisation of Father Charles. He knew Dolf Dormans, the cured man, from seeing him at morning Mass and was the one who blessed him with a relic of Saint Charles. He brought me to the cured man’s house.

It struck me how fitting it was that I should visit the home of Saint Charles and discover how, step-by-step, God led him from an obscure village to heaven, via Ireland.

I’m sure many a day Father Charles, walking the corridors of Mount ArguS, yearned to do what I did — go back and spend a morning in the little peaceful village where he grew up. But he gave his life to God and accepted the consequences.

The Passionists, an Italian order, came to Ireland over a hundred and fifty years ago. We arrived in Mount Argun on 15 August 1856. Our most famous member was that Dutchman Father Charles Houben. He is a perfect example of God writing straight on crooked lines. Traditionally Passionists are supposed to conduct missions and retreats and, through our preaching, spread devotion to the Passion of Christ. Too often our preaching may have emphasised that it was our sins which caused Christ’s suffering. That meant scrupulous people were left with a crippling sense of guilt. It is more encouraging and accurate to see Christ’s Passion as the ultimate proof of God’s
love for us. That’s what Father Charles always got right.

Father Charles was born in the quiet village of Munstergeleen and his life could be seen as a series of failures. He was a slow learner in his youth, one of eleven children in a poor family. It was only after his mother died that he could think about entering the priesthood. First, though, he was conscripted into the army and he was a failure there, too. But out of that failure he discovered a Passionist monastery and felt the call to become a Passionist. And he did. Before his ordination, however, his father died. The family were so poor they couldn’t afford to go to his ordination, because of the expense of the funeral. Even happy days were lonely days. After ordination he was sent to England to help establish the Passionists there.

The priest whom the Passionists sent to found Mount Argun was a member of the English aristocracy, Lord Longford’s great-uncle, Paul Mary Pakenham. He was a young man in his early thirties, a former officer in the British Army, highly intellectual and competent. A born leader, he was the ideal man to be the first rector of Mount Argus. However six months after he came to Ireland, he died unexpectedly. God’s ways are not our ways.
They had no one else to send in his place except this Dutchman who knew little English and was so pedantic they couldn’t allow him say a public Mass. He never conducted a mission and his only suitable tasks were blessing the sick and hearing confessions. Yet Mount Argus monastery was built on the reputation of this apparent failure, while the one the Passionists considered the ideal man was taken by God.

In spite his failures, Father Charles had something people identified with and they came in their thousands to him for healing.

Every day, up to 300 people came to Mount Argus. It didn’t impress his community in Mount Argus, many of whom didn’t understand him. He became so popular with the people that the diocesan authorities, not to mention the medical profession, grew suspicious of him. They got their opening when a couple of Dublin rogues came to Father Charles and asked him to bless a barrel of holy water for them. They then sold it at a shilling a bottle as being ‘blessed by the holy man of Mount Argus’. It’s hard to beat the Dubs.

Poor Father Charles was banished to England and the best known priest in Ireland at the time had no one to see him off on the boat, except his trusted friend Brother Michael. Before he left, there were elaborate plans to build a new church and retreat house at Mount Argus. The foundation stone was laid before Charles was sent away, but during his eight years away Mount Argus went downhill and nearly closed.

Eventually it was decided to bring him back to Dublin. When he came back, Mount Argus took off. Once more people returned and Charles took up his healing ministry again. Mount Argus once more became so popular that they decided to resume building the church. The problem was nobody could remember where the foundation stone was laid, it was so overgrown. Nevertheless, because of Father Charles’ ministry, Mount Argus was saved and the buildings we know today were completed. God allows us to make mistakes but when our foolishness has had its say, God will have his too.

When I entered the Passionists I had never heard of Father Charles of  Mount Argus. But as a student I soon understood his appeal. Compassion for the sick and dying were the hallmarks of his life.

In time I got to know the real Father Charles from Mrs Cranny. Her father brought him in a pony and trap to bless the sick around Dublin in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She herself was blessed and cured by him when she was a child. It was an effective blessing because she lived to be 107.

She remembered him clearly and insisted Father Charles wasn’t a severe old man, with dead eyes looking down at the ground as he is often portrayed. On the contrary he was a smiling, friendly man and good fun. When her father brought him around Dublin to heal the sick, Charles always encouraged people to trust God to walk with them in their suffering, whether they were cured or not. We don’t have to have answers to the problem of suffering but we should trust God not to abandon us.

For Charles, God isn’t the cause of suffering but neither is suffering a curse. If we accept God’s will, strength will come. He preached the Passion by telling simple stories about Christ’s suffering and by reassuring the sick that their pain was linked to Christ’s, and therefore never wasted. Mrs Cranny’s father memorised his stories and repeated them to the family when he came home.

Unusually for a healer, Charles sometimes told those who came for a blessing that they wouldn’t get better. There is a documented case where he said to a sick man, `It is not God’s will that you should get better, this is God’s gift to you so that you should go home and prepare for your death’. The man to his credit accepted his advice and died a month later.

I experienced Charles’s unusual way of answering prayers in my own life when as a young student my mother got sick. We prayed to Father Charles for guidance and healing, but Mammy died despite all our prayers.

I was devastated that my prayers weren’t answered then; later in life, I realised that all prayers are answered, but not necessarily in the way we want. As the song says: ‘Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers’. If my mother hadn’t died, I am not sure I would have been a priest and I certainly would not be the kind of priest that I am.

My father worked on the railway but in 1962 he was told the railway was closing and he’d have to change to be a bus conductor. A short time afterwards, conductors were done away with and he had to learn to drive a bus. My father was over fifty years of age without a job and he asked me to send him a relic of Father Charles. He trained as a bus driver even though the only thing he had ever driven before that was a tractor, He passed the test and for the rest of his working life drove safely. But he’d never leave home without the plastic covered relic of Father Charles in his coat pocket, which was his way of showing his appreciation of Charles’ intervention.

When I was Rector and parish priest of Mount Argus from 1983 to 1989, my biggest problem was the restoration of the monastery and church. In 1983 we discovered that the timbers and walls of the monastery and church were in an advanced state of dry rot. We had to take every slate off the roof, every rafter, every inch of plaster off the walls of both buildings. We had to lift all the floors in the monastery and restore the complete fabric from foundation to roof.

At first we thought about demolishing it, but because it was such an historic building, that was not possible and anyway the most economical solution by far was to restore it. It was a mammoth task.

But the reason it survived at all was Father Charles.

It’s difficult for somebody who wasn’t there to understand what an impossible task it was at the time. There were over eighty priests, brothers and students in the community.

In the 198os Ireland was an economic mess. Unemployment was high; the best of our young, educated people emigrated to find work and a future. A Government Minister actually said that the island was too small for the number of people living on it and that it was a good experience for our talented graduates to emigrate. It was the worst possible time to ask people for money to restore a church and monastery.

Father Charles was the man I put my trust in. I lived in a small room next to the room where he died. I discovered then what a friend I had in Father Charles. I had to raise two and a half million pounds to save the buildings. To me it was a miracle it was ever completed and Charles was the miracle man.

By 1987, goodwill towards Mount Argus was exhausted. We had been going for over four years and we simply succumbed to charity fatigue.

We ran one last draw, the fifth in all. Three thousand participants paid one hundred punts each into what was supposed to be a missive draw. It turned out to be a disaster. The committee was afraid to tell me how bad it was. The leader, Joe Morris, called me into the office one morning and told me we were going to lose thousands.

I had always said that if Father Charles wanted Mount Argus to be restored, it would happen. All we had to do was the same as he had done: trust in God. But I was in no humour for pious thoughts that morning and in an off-handed way I said to Joe: ‘Wouldn’t you think, if Charlie wanted Mount Argus restored, he would get off his backside and help us’.

Poor Joe was shocked at my disrespectful attitude to such a saintly figure.

I went on to RTE to do an interview with Mike Murphy, but when I came back two hours later I was told that Rome had phoned in my absence to inform us that Father Charles would be beatified in a few months. That was his way of telling me that he was still in charge.

Needless to say the draw was filled, the Church was completed and we were even able to build a shrine to Blessed Charles as well.

Father Charles had three simple rules about suffering. He told the sick to thank God in the midst of their suffering, to offer their suffering up to God and to expect God’s help and sometimes healing.

The great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh has a magnificent painting of an open Bible with a novel lying beside the Bible. The novel in question was a popular one at the time which his father, a minister, had banned him from reading. Van Gogh thought it was an excellent novel which chronicled family tragedies and family scandals. If you look closely you will see the Bible is open at Isaiah 53. It says: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows’. That was Van Gogh’s way of linking the tragedies of daily life to God’s journey with us.

Father Charles believed that Jesus walks with us during our suffering. It is a way of the cross. On the way of the cross Jesus fell three times but got up each time. He needed help. He needed Simon. He needed people. He needed a mother to touch him. He needed a towel from Veronica. He needed compassion from the women of Jerusalem. After his Resurrection he proudly displayed his wounds to Thomas.
Thomas is often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’ as if doubting was a sin. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is. Thomas wanted to see the wounds of Jesus. And when he did, he believed totally: ‘My Lord and my God’, he said, before going on to give his life to spreading the Gospel. Because of Thomas’ doubts, we know for certain that Jesus carried the wounds of his Passion after his Resurrection, showing that the new life of the risen Jesus was won by the wounds he still bore. Saint Peter later summed it up by saying: ‘By his wounds we are healed’. That’s what Charles believed and furthermore he was convinced that our own woundedness, as well as the wounds of Jesus, saves us.

He knew that we don’t need to be able to make sense of suffering, as long as we remember that ‘Nothing is impossible with God’.

Charles is not a remote saint with nothing to offer our generation. As a Passionist, I should learn to look at his life and discover that our greatest gift is to be people of compassion; to be willing to walk with people along their way of the cross, in search of meaning rather than handing out futile answers.

Van Gogh also said that God always sends works of art so that we might recognise ourselves in the works of art. `Christ is the greatest artist of all. He works not in canvas but with human flesh’, he concluded. Saint Charles, for me, is a wonderful example of a human canvas that God made into a work of art. He was a poor preacher, ridiculed by those who lived with him. At the end of his life he suffered pain but remained human enough to have a sing-song and a glass of whiskey when he needed it. He’s my kind of saint.

He called himself ‘poor old Charlie’ as he walked along the corridors. One lasting memory that Father Eugene Nevin (a contemporary in Mount Argus) had of Charles, was his fear of death as he hobbled down the fifty-nine steps from his cell on the top floor, to bless the sick in the parlours. All the while he repeated the second half of the Hail Mary: ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen’.

In theory, Charles was not the ideal model of the perfect Passionist. Yet of all the Passionists who’ve lived and worked at Mount Argus for over 150 years, he’s the only one to be canonised.

Through the bad times, Charles still keeps me going. There have been many times in the past, and I’m sure there will be many more in the future, when I wondered why I remained a priest or a Passionist. These days as I look back and reflect on my life honestly, there isn’t much to enthuse over. But then I think of Charlie. An old man full of pain praying for a happy death, recognised by the people as a holy man but not really by those in his own house. And now he’s a canonised saint in heaven. That’s what keeps me going. Even broken failures like me can be a work of art when I allow God to work through me.


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