In 1832, a couple of years after the Catholic Relief Bill, four young men studying together at Maynooth came together with the same idea in mind; to form an institute which would combine the advantages of community life to preach missions to the Irish faithful and educate them in their faith. These men were James Lynch, Peter Kenrick, Anthony Reynolds and Michael Burke. They were joined by Fr. Phillip Dowley, Dean of Maynooth and later John McCann and Thomas McNamara. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Murray, having held close to his heart a desire to see the Congregation established in Ireland, was pleased to hear of their plan and presented them with a copy of the Rule of Vincent.
At this time, it was not known what the status of the Congregation in France was, having been dispossessed and dispersed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the little band of Irishmen did not join with the Congregation. Instead they would live together in community and run a school as a trial for living and working together under the patronage of St Vincent de Paul. They thought it prudent to postpone mission work until they could have the guidance of the Vincentians themselves for fear that youth and inexperience would lead them astray. In fact, James Lynch coined the phrase Vincentians drawing along similar lines of Dominicans and Franciscans, named after their founder and this is the name the Congregation is popularly known by in English speaking countries. In France, we are known as Lazaristes after the address of the Mother house, and in Spain, Padres Paúles to name a few of our aliases.
To return to our story; the work of the Christian Brothers and the Irish Sisters of Charity was held up as an example of work which could be undertaken in the meantime. After consulting with Dr. Murray, they decided to open a day-school for boys with particular emphasis on those who might be considering the priesthood at a later date. It was much down to the tireless work and generous pockets of Fr. McCann that they found a house at No. 34 Ushers Quay that was suitable for community residence and a school and were able to open its doors. Despite his ill-health and delicate disposition, Fr. McCann was a tower of strength but the little embryo community was dealt a number of blows before the opening of the school, including the announcement from Fr. Kenrick that he was leaving to join his brother in St. Louis. However, despite an inauspicious start, the school thrived and the little community soon learnt that teaching was an altogether different matter to studying.
Ontop of the work involved in preparing and giving lessons, this group of five priests were asked to be chaplains to the Magdalen Home in Mecklinburgh Street and instructed adults and children in the Mendicity Institute on Usher’s Island. The poor Law Relief and workhouses had not yet been established and the Mendicity Institute was always crowded with poor from the city and surrounding counties. Here they could attend public worship and receive religious instruction every Sunday from clergymen of their own faith. The bulk of this work fell on Fr. McNamara’s shoulders as the other priests were suffering form ill-health and overwork. The little band moved quarters to the North Circular Road hoping that the elevated site would improve their health.
They had initially been offered the little chapel of St Peter’s, Phibsboro at the time of setting up the school. At the time, St. Peter’s was annexed to St. Paul’s on Arran Quay and the parish priest was initially in favour of the little band taking St. Peter’s for mission work, he later saw reasons to change his mind. Although a blow at the outset, it turned out to be providential as there is much doubt as to whether they would have coped with this added workload.
They were not long installed here, when a former Protestant boarding school at Castleknock came on the market. And although they were kept quite busy with their work on Usher’s Quay, they had been considering for some time now, establishing a junior seminary for the Dublin Diocese. This was a cause close to Dr. Murray’s heart and when he heard they were contemplating the project, he immediately sent a generous donation towards the purchase of Castleknock grounds.
This little group continued to grow and take on more works. In 1839, Dr. Dowley and Fr. Kickham entered the Motherhouse of the Congregation in Paris and stayed for the six months that their works would allow. Here they did a portion of their novitiate and learned the usages and observations of the Congregation. On returning to Ireland, they requested of the Superior General, a French confrere to help in the formation of those who could not go to Pairs. By this time, their duties at Phibsboro had so increased, that they could not continue their work at Usher’s Quay. This school was after all, always supposed to have been temporary until they could definitively carry out the main purpose for which they had originally come together.
Dr. Dowley and Fr. Kickham made their vows and the others continued their novitiate under the direction of their superior, Dr. Dowley. On the Feast of All Saints, Frs. Burke, Kelly, Lynch and MacNamara became members of the Congregation of the Mission. Fr. McCann, owing to ill-health did not but continued to devote himself to the work of the little band. There was now a little community of six Vincentian priests continuing the work of the late Fr. Vincent de Paul CM in Ireland.