Tag Archives: Ireland

Father Charles of Mount Argus

Charles mt. argus

January 5 is the feast of the Passionist Father Charles Houben of Mount Argus in Ireland, who was known as a miracle-worker for the many miraculous cures attributed to him. He died in 1893. In 1892, one year earlier, Sherlock Holmes died, as fans of the master detective may know.

I mention Sherlock Holmes because he represents the English Enlightenment that believed everything can be explained by reason. On the case of Father Charles and his many miraculous cures, I’m sure Holmes would say to his colleague Dr. Watson “No such things as a miraculous cure. There’s a reason for it somewhere, and I’ll find it.”

Father Charles was born in Munstergeleen, Holland in 1821. During his time of compulsory military service he first heard about the Passionists. After completing military service and studies he was received into the community by Blessed Dominic Barberi. He made his novitiate in Belgium, ordained a priest and then sent to England. In 1856 he went to the newly established monastery of Mount Argus in Dublin, Ireland, where he ministered for most of his life till his death in 1893.

Charles was shy and timid, not learned or scholarly or a good preacher. He never spoke English well. At Mount Argus, he heard confessions and blessed people with a relic of the Passionist saints. Yet, people saw him as someone close to God and his blessing brought about cures. Increasing numbers of people came to him at Mount Argus seeking to be cured and he was called to homes and hospitals in Dublin to bless the sick.

His reputation grew. His funeral was attended by people from all of Ireland. A newspaper of the time said: “Never before has the memory of any man sparked an explosion of religious sentiment and profound veneration as that which we observed in the presence of the mortal remains of Father Charles,” the Superior of the monastery wrote to his family, “The people have already declared him a saint.”

In his lifetime, though, Charles met with criticism and humiliation, even from members of his own community. In 1866 because questions were raised about his curing ministry, particularly by the medical establishment, Charles was transferred to England, where he remained for a number of years before returning to Mount Argus.

In our enlightened age, we distrust cures.. Whether we’re aware of it or not, like the famous detective, we put our trust in science and reason to solve sickness and suffering. Someone will figure it out. Meantime take some pills.

We forget that cures were among the chief signs Jesus gave in his ministry. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” ( Matthew 4, 23) I notice recently pastoral care of the sick is getting dismissed more and more by the medical establishment. I also wonder if, in an “enlightened age” like ours, God might not work more cures, just to show us.

Charles was canonized June 2, 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peters Basilica, Rome. He’s still performing cures.

If you want to make a pilgrimage to Fr. Charles’ tomb start here.

Remembering My Grandfather


Neil O’Donnell, a small farmer from Donegal, Ireland, where the crops had failed for years, came to the United States in 1882 and landed at Castle Garden at the Battery in New York City along with countless others looking for work and a home.


Castle Garden 1880s

Castle Garden 1880s

Among my boyhood memories, I remember sitting in the summer on the front porch with the old man in the picture above with a pipe in his mouth. “Allo Bye,” he would shout out to passers-by in a thick Irish brogue. His sight was failing, but once the passer-by was known a lively conversation began about families, friends, the weather and everything else going on in close-knit Bayonne.

Neil died in 1942. I remember kneeling with my family, friends and neighbors outside his room next to the kitchen saying the Rosary as he was dying. I was at his big funeral at St. Mary’s church. Irish funerals were always big then, but this one was special I felt. A patriarch had died.

Neil didn’t look far for a job or a home when he got off the boat at Castle Garden. From the Staten Island Ferry, near the docks at St. George, you can still see today oil tanks at Constable Hook on the western shore of the harbor in Bayonne, NJ. In Neil’s day this was The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. For him, though, it was “Hughie Sharkey’s oil works” where he got the job he held all his working life. Hughie Sharkey was the guy who got Neil and Irishmen like him a job.img_1923

Neil married Sarah Givens, also from Donegal. They had six kids, four boys and two girls. Sarah died after the last was born and Neil brought his sister Mary out from Ireland to take care of the kids, but unfortunately she died shortly afterwards too.

“We made our way up in the world,” my mother often said. From a small house on 19th Street in Bayonne, they made their way to a two decker house on the Boulevard about a half-mile away. The first three kids had a minimal education, but the last three got more. My mother was the first to graduate from high school; the last two boys were sent to the Jesuit St. Peter’s High School in Jersey City. One became a priest, the other a New Jersey State Trooper.

A close immigrant family in a solidly Catholic neighborhood, the O’Donnells took care of each other and watched out for their neighbors too. Regularly, they brought others out from Ireland and helped them find jobs and homes of their own. They remembered where they came from.

With all our talk about immigrants these days, I think of Neil, the small farmer from Donegal where crops were failing, who found in America a job and a place to raise a family. His hours were long and his work was tough. The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey fiercely resisted workers’ demands for unionization and better working conditions in his day; in fact, it hired strike breakers to squash workers’ protests. Some workers were shot and killed. But Neil and his boys working at the Hook never missed a day.

They never missed church either. With simple unquestioning faith they prayed at St. Mary’s church on 14th. St. They reverenced the priests and sisters there; they were especially fond of the Passionists priests who preached and served the parishes of Hudson County from their monastery in nearby Union City. Faith was never a small part of their lives.

Neil could scarcely read when he came to this country, my mother said, and one thing he wanted was to read the Bayonne Times like everyone else. She taught him how to read. I remember the old man, paper in hand, bent on getting the news of the day, like everyone else.

Not everyone in America appreciated Neil and immigrants like him, however. Nativist sentiments affected much of the country then as large numbers of foreigners, especially Irish Catholics, came to our shores. To some they brought poverty, disease and crime to America. Laws were proposed advocating literacy requirements and denial of voting rights to them. Catholics were denied jobs and access to political offices. Neil would never have made it here if the Know-Nothings and nativists had their way.

We celebrate our country’s generosity and openness to the world; but we also can forget the ugly side of our history. You can see it here in some Nativist broadsheets and cartoons from the time, voices Neil must have heard. They’re still with us in more subtler forms.

Nativist 1

Nativist 1840



Nativist 4






Nativist 2







Among the anti-immigrant material I found, I came upon one that made me stop and wonder some more. In the 1880s the United States was pushing China for access to her markets. We wanted free ports and free trade with that land and demanded she take down her walls.

At the same time, Chinese laborers were entering our country, chiefly the west coast, to work on the railroads. They were cheap labor, competing with the Irish, the Italians and other immigrants for jobs. In 1882 Congress prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country.

A Punch cartoon from that time saw the irony of the situation. We demand walls be pulled down and put up walls ourselves. Look carefully, though, at who brings the bricks for our wall. Immigrants like the Irish and others who came here, often not welcomed themselves.

Nativist wall 1882

I wonder what Neil would say about this? I wonder what his descendants are saying about immigration today? We who come from an immigrant church.