Sunday 6 June 2021

Father Thomas Aquinas of Saint Teresa, O.D.C.: an Irish Carmelite Martyr


There are three Irish Carmelites whose names appear on the Official List of Irish Martyrs. I have previously written here about one of them - Englishman George Halley (Angelus of Saint Joseph in religion), who was killed in August 1642 at Drogheda. Today we turn to the case of Carmelite priest Father Thomas Aquinas of Saint Teresa, who was also martyred at Drogheda in 1642 with some sources giving June 6 as the date, others July 6. The account below has been taken from Father James P. Rushe's 1903 history of the Carmelite Order in Ireland. What is remarkable about the report of Father Thomas's martyrdom is that the Puritans who killed him not only subsequently accepted his innocence but also cherished the relics of his mantle and crucifix:
I. Father Thomas Aquinas of St. Teresa.

The signs of the vocation-grace must have been very evident in a postulant anxious to embrace the Teresian Reform at Dublin in the year 1635. For he was at once received into the community, being thenceforth known as Fra Thomas Aquinas of St. Teresa. The young novice was then in the twenty-third year of his age; his parents being Catholics, and residing in Dublin probably. From childhood Fra Thomas had been encouraged to devote himself to God in Religion; but it was after he had obtained a thorough education, and distinguished himself at college, that he felt called to the cloister. His fervour during the time of probation was most exemplary; not even the austerities of the Primitive Rule could satisfy his desire for mortification, which had, nevertheless, to be moderated by Obedience, — a virtue considered to be the basis of Religious perfection by the Discalced Carmelites. Having taken the Solemn Vows, Brother Thomas was sent to Drogheda to study for the priesthood. He must have been ordained there before the year 1641; because at the outbreak of the persecution in that city, he had already gained fame as a distinguished preacher.

The Puritans vainly thought that by arresting this popular Friar, and making an example of him, they could intimidate the resolute Catholics of Drogheda. But it was no easy matter to effect their purpose, as the Faithful grew daily more anxious for Father Thomas's safety; indeed his retreat might never have been discovered were it not for the treachery of a heretical servant.

Among the converts, whom the young priest had received into the Church, were the members of an influential family; a gentleman, his wife and son — an only child. On making open profession of their faith, the father and son were seized and cast into prison. Distracted with grief, the lady was on the point of simulating the errors of her persecutors, knowing that by doing so she could at least save the lives of her husband and son. Father Thomas heard of her deplorable state, and risking every peril, hastened at once to her assistance. He explained to her the grievous sinfulness of her design, which she immediately renounced, resolving to trust those dearest to her to God's loving care. And, acting on her director's advice, she resolved to escape the vengeance of the Puritans by flight. The annalists do not say whether so beautiful a spirit of Christian resignation was rewarded on earth by the happy reunion of those fervent converts.

While Father Thomas was still engaged in discharging this duty of charity, one of the lady's own servants summoned the soldiers of the garrison, who came and surrounded the house silently. Yet, the Friar might have eluded all their precautions, had he not the welfare of others to consider. They had searched for him in vain, and were about to set fire to the building, when he himself appeared and bade them desist. They did comply; surprised at this unexpected event, and giving loud expression to their grim satisfaction at having captured him so easily. They treated him most barbarously as they dragged him back to Drogheda to await there in prison his certain doom. 
Having then much work of a like gruesome kind on hand, the fanatics left Father Thomas to endure for a time the horrors of a cruel captivity. But in this they were disappointed. One of the Confessor's fellow-prisoners was a Franciscan Friar who had obtained favour with the governor, and who now secured for Father Thomas several of the privileges which he himself enjoyed; among others that of visiting the Catholics suffering for their faith, and of saying Mass almost every day. This zealous son of St. Francis was also able to procure the Teresian habit for the young Carmelite, who was very anxious to die clothed as became the members of his Order. Hence we may infer that there were other Discalced Carmelites in Drogheda with whom the Franciscan Father held secret communication. 
Early on the morning of the sixth day of his imprisonment a messenger came to tell Father Thomas that he had been sentenced to death, and that the soldiers would be ready to lead him to the scaffold within an hour. Happily he had just offered the Holy Sacrifice; so, merely inclining his head, in meek submission to God's will, he continued his prayer. He looked upon such a death as an exceeding great act of mercifulness; his life's work was well accomplished, nor could he reproach himself with having left anything undone. His only regret was at being taken away from the Faithful, who sadly needed the poor comfort his words - could give them in the hour of trial. On hearing of his terrible fate the Catholic prisoners raised a wail of bitter grief, and even many of the Puritans were touched with pity, so calm and fearless did the young Friar seem. But a crowd of heretics had assembled outside, clamouring for his death, and scoffing at his constancy. A number of pious people had also come to receive his blessing, for which they knelt, unmindful of the threats of their persecutors. 
When on his way to the place of execution, Father Thomas saw them lead forth a wretched woman who was about to suffer death for some crime. To his horror he distinctly heard the Puritans offer her life, and freedom, and wealth if she would only renounce her faith. Calling out to her, he warned her to beware lest she should forfeit eternal happiness by accepting those things that must pass with time. His zeal was well rewarded, for even before he himself reached the scaffold that woman's soul was safe with God. 
And yet his executioners tried to bribe him with the very allurements he had just exhorted a weak woman to despise! But he silenced them by asking whether they could think him so foolish as to reject doctrine which he knew to be infallibly true, in exchange for the mere invention of human caprice? He reminded them, moreover, of the dangers of their own state, and implored them to return to that Church to which their ancestors had once been so loyal. This filled them with unspeakable rage, making them still more eager for the Teresian Friar's death. 
The scene at the foot of the gibbet is not difficult to realise: the fierce soldiers dressed in buff jerkins, and wearing caps and breastplates of steel; in their midst the young priest, clothed with the lovely habit and mantle of Carmel, a crucifix and beads in his hands, his lips moving in earnest prayer; and the instrument of death reared against a fair summer sky. 
The Puritans themselves being the executioners, the final preparations were hastily gone through. The cord was fastened in its place, the signal impatiently given and eagerly obeyed. But Father Thomas did not die. The strong halter was wrenched in twain to the astonishment of all present, whose surprise gave place to awe when another rope yielded like the first, and they beheld the Confessor standing still uninjured before them. Raising his voice he asked them why they had condemned him to death, and he guilty of no crime. Then they accused him of being a Catholic, and a Priest, and a Monk. He joyfully admitted the charge, saying that he was now ready to lay down his life in testimony of his faith. They instantly placed him under the gibbet again, and, with a prayer for the conversion of his persecutors, this time Father Thomas received his Crown. 
The Catholics took his body away, no one trying to prevent them, and they interred it within the ruins of an Augustinian abbey, beyond the walls of Drogheda. They kept watch by the Confessor's grave until late in the evening, when soldiers were sent to drive them forth from that hallowed place. Late at night one of the sentinels saw the old abbey brilliantly lighted up by torches which appeared to be suspended in mid-air over the place where he knew the body of the martyred Friar had been laid, and having drawn a comrade's attention to the strange sight, they both deserted their posts, and hastened to report the matter to the officer in charge. Instead of reprimanding them for their cowardice, the captain went to see those lights for himself, but no sooner had he beheld them than he also was seized with a great dread. However, he dissembled his fear, and assigned an absurd reason for the apparition. Accompanied by the more courageous of his men, he paid a visit to the ruins to make sure that the Catholics had not removed the martyr's body. They found the grave undisturbed, and clearing away the loose stones and clay, they gazed once more on the young Friar's face, still most beautifully composed in the happy death-sleep. The soldiers then declared that a just man had been slain without cause, and while one of them took possession of the crucifix which Father Thomas had held clasped to his breast on the scaffold, another claimed the white mantle. And we are told that neither of the Puritans could ever be persuaded to part with those relics, although they had previously deemed Father Thomas worthy of death for having persevered in his holy profession.

Rev. James P. Rushe, Carmel in Ireland: A Narrative of the Irish Province of Teresian or Discalced Carmelites A.D. 1625-1896, (Dublin and London, 1903), 89-95.
Father Thomas Aquinas of Saint Theresa is number 148 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose causes were submitted for official consideration. No further progress has been made.

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