Saturday, 20 July 2013

Silverstream Priory

Fr Mark at the main entrance
Recently I had to make a visit to Ireland to visit a relative who was staying in Drogheda, a town I had never properly visited before. Since I was in the area, I took the opportunity to visit the little Benedictine community at Stamullen, where the prior, Fr Mark Daniel Kirby writes his blog Vultus Christi. I found the whole operation very appealing.

The house, well out into the lush County Meath countryside, is a very fine late-Georgian building with fine proportions and beautiful ceilings. The Visitation Sisters who were the previous inhabitants hadn't quite appreciated the building in the same way as the Benedictines, for they had installed suspended ceilings to halve the height of some of the rooms (including the entrance hallway) and hide the elegant plasterwork, something which perhaps served to protect it, too. These false ceilings have been removed, and work is carrying on to restore the house and make it fit for purpose as a Benedictine priory.
Bedroom for visiting priests
It's a big task, and the community are impressively confident in their plans. Not only is the house being restored and converted, but there is building taking place to create a refuge for priests who need a break or a retreat. Simple en-suite rooms are being constructed, a little apart from the main house, with a small chapel, library and refectory, and even a little hermitage.

You can read the story of how the little community from Tulsa, Oklahoma, came to be County Meath on the Priory's website. When I first read about this initiative, I was excited, but wondered whether it would work. Classic Benedictinism has never much appealed to the Irish, who have historically preferred the sparer Cistercian variant. That suspended ceiling hiding the elegant plasterwork is a good illustration of the general Irish preference for practicality over beauty. A weekday Mass with Gregorian chant, lasting the best part of an hour, is not calculated to appeal to the Irish. And yet, I gather there are several enquirers about vocations. And the point of a Benedictine house is to perform the opus Dei, to sing the liturgy, to pray; not primarily to run a parish.

Mass: the Introit
I assisted at the daily Missa Cantata at Silverstream; it was a very interesting experience. I liked the way the chant was done, neither being slavishly old-school Solesmes nor antiquarian, but nonetheless careful and well-modulated; they are clearly developing their own style. The celebrant himself acted as cantor for the Mass, from the sedilia. Though the Mass was basically Extraordinary Form, the readings were sung facing liturgical West in English (from the English Missal, therefore using the Authorised Version/King James!). Mass having been preceded by Terce, the prayers at the foot of the altar were omitted, but the celebrant began with Aufer a nobis in a medium voice while setting out the altar as at a low Mass, then returning to the sedilia to intone the Introit. The liturgical aesthetic is not the mediæval Gothicism of the French Benedictines, but rather has a counter-Reformation flavour, using Roman vestments and lace. This fits with their determination to make adoration of the Blessed Sacrament a key element in their spirituality, something not common among Benedictines.

Fr Mark with Hilda, the monastery dog
The Temporary Chapel
What particularly impressed me was Fr Mark's blithe confidence in God's Providence. The Priory has embarked on some serious building work, and still has to pay for the property itself. A lot of money is needed; for the time being, some important work has had to be halted for lack of an immediate €12.000. But the Prior is not daunted. He is confident that this work is of God, and that God will provide. So, if you can make a contribution, please do so. There is nothing approaching this foundation elsewhere in Ireland, and it has the capability of doing a great deal of good. You can use the 'Donate' button on this page. Dat Deus incrementum!


gemoftheocean said...

What a nice story. I think of all the religious orders the Benedictines are my absolute favorite. Practical, balanced, and as you mentioned an aesthetic that is pleasing, not "mean" and full of common sense and purpose.

Anonymous said...


I would take issue with your remarks about French Benedictines though. Very recently I visited N.D. de Triors, an Abbey which is part of the Solesmes congregation, and whose singing of the chant can be heard extensively on the 'Vimeo' website. This Abbey is a relatively new foundation and I found their plainsong unselfconscious, straightforward, and very beautiful - nothing Gothic or antiquarian about it. Have a listen to their recordings and judge for yourself.

Dom Benedict Andersen OSB said...

Thank you, Fr Finnegan, for your kind comments about our little community!

About liturgical aesthetic: That day, Father Prior was indeed looking rather "Counter-Reformation." We also have Gothic and conical style vestments (such as the full conical Fr Prior wore today, with a pre-WW2 era "Liturgical Movement" embroidered alb).

We have given some thought to liturgical aesthetic, in terms of the decoration of our future priory church, which has yet to be renovated. We have decided upon a fully "painted church" with iconography in an early medieval style. We believe that this would fit very well with the 1930's art deco marble altar we have recovered from a church in the Netherlands.

The style of vestments, therefore, which would fit best with this would be conical/semi-conical, Gothic, and perhaps even Borromean or 'S. Philip Neri' style.

Thanks again, and please God we will see you again soon here at Silverstream!

Pastor in Valle said...

Anonymous: I am very familiar with the chant of the 'Fontgombault' family of the Solesmes Congregation. It is lovely, and I'm not disputing that. My point is that it adheres to a rather nineteenth-century interpretation—the rigorous observation of the vertical episemas being one example. The antiquarian approach I also admire but do not feel drawn to is adhered to now at Solesmes itself: it rightly understands that the different shapes of the neumes reflect some interpretative differentiation but is, perhaps, over-nuanced in its approach. What I liked at Silverstream was that they take an intelligent middle course: rhomboid neumes are sung as being shorter than puncti (which I'm sure is right), but the general approach is refreshingly unfussy. I hope this explains.

GOR said...

Yes, it was great to see the Benedictines take over the vacant Stamullen convent in my home diocese in Ireland.

And kudos to Bishop Smith for facilitating their arrival.

Anonymous said...

There is a Benedictine community of priests and brothers at Glenstal near Limerick and a community of nuns in Co. Galway.
Re, the suspended ceilings, the poor Visitation sisters must have been trying to save on their heating bills during the cold Irish winters.