Irish Dominicans in Rome: Community of SS. Sisto e Clemente

ITAThe Dominicans first arrived in Ireland in 1224, three years after the death of their founder Dominic (1170-1221) and the arrival of the friars in England. In the first year two foundations were established in Dublin and in Drogheda. There were twenty four in Ireland by the end of the thirteenth century, only five of which had Gaelic founders.

Less than 100 years previously the Anglo-Norman invasion and conquest of Ireland had begun. The division within the Irish Church was generally along cultural and linguistic lines. Irish and French/English was present in the Order up until the fifteenth century Observant movement. The General Chapter of 1484 saw the foundation of an independent Irish Province that became officially established in 1536.

Irish Dominicans in Rome

The Basilica of San Clemente is situated some three hundred yards above the Colosseum on the road that rises gradually to St John Lateran from the valley between the Coelian Hill on the south and the Oppian Hill on the north. It is named after Pope St Clement, the third successor of St Peter in the See of Rome, who died about 100 A.D. His Feast day is celebrated on 23 November, the date given in the fifth-century Italian Martyrology known as the Hieronymian Martyrology.

Amongst the many complex factors which make Rome the Eternal City, the Basilica of San Clemente has a special importance. The Dominicans came to understand part of their own history as an Order through this church and the priory of San Clemente. It was Fr. Antonius de Monroy of the Mexican Province, Master of the Order from 1677 to 1686, who gave the church to the Irish Dominicans in 1677. That many Irish Dominicans have lived there since gives an insight into the history of their Province. It is popularly called the ‘Lasagna Church’ because of the many layers over which the present Basilica has been built. Its numerous treasures, mosaics and different levels of pagan and Christian archaeological sites are universally renowned.

Difficult times for the Catholic Church in Ireland forced these friars to live outside their own country and to prepare abroad any new candidates for the Order. With the ending of religious persecution in Ireland, the Priory of San Clemente in Rome became for the Irish Province a house expressive of their vocation as part of the broader calling of the Order and the Church itself. They have administered the Basilica ever since and participate in the Pontifical institutions of academic teaching.

A guide of St Clement’s Rome (pp.80) provides text and pictorial with plans and sketches of levels below ground and major archaeological discoveries during the earlier and more recent excavations of the Basilica that continue. For the Tercentenary a book San Clemente Miscellany I: Irish Dominicans 1677-1977* (pp.276) is a history of the Basilica and the Order and its community in Rome. It is a scholarly reference work outlining in great detail the daily affairs of life and work of the community over the centuries with extensive reference notes, appendices, index and A Necrology of SS. Sisto e Clemente, 1645-1977 listing the names of Irish Dominicans and others.

One of the busiest parts of the fine San Sisto complex of today is the school for the apostolate of printing set up in 1929 behind the apse of the Basilica, on the Via delle Camene. Over the years it has worked hard to train young printers, compositors and editors producing admirable printing work. For years it has produced, with infinite patience, the Ordo for the whole Dominican Order. One of its greatest feats, perhaps, and a singular Tercentenary contribution was to have to have turned this long-winded and uneven history of the Irish Dominican community of SS. Sisto e Clemente, and of the various other communities which have inhabited it, into a printed book within the all too short space of some two months in the autumn of 1977.

Jubilee Year

Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Jubilee Year for Mercy in 2016 that coincides with the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Dominican Order. Special events for the ‘Order of Preachers’ will be held around the world with the theme “Set to preach the Gospel” to involve friars, sisters and the lay community. Under the banner Jubilium 800 1216-2016 the Jubilee proper will be officially celebrated between 7 November 2015 (Feast of All Saints of the Order) and 21 January 2017 (date of the Bulls Gratiarium omnium largitori of Pope Honorius III) in 1216 and 1217.

Ita Marguet, May 2015

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It is drawn from a guide to St Clement’s Rome and *San Clemente Miscellany I: The Community of SS. Sisto e Clemente in Rome, 1677-1977. Authors are Frs. Leonard Boyle and Hugh Fenning, Members of the Irish Dominican Province, who have made exceptional contributions to historical scholarship. The text follows a visit to Rome and the Basilica of San Clemente and its archaeological sites in May 2015. It succeeds a number of articles about Irish Colleges in Europe by Ita Marguet.