By 1653, the Catholic faith in the Isle of Man was dying. The Mass and priesthood had been banished from the island and although attempts to revive the faith occurred over the next two centuries, by the turn of the 19th century, it was estimated that there were only 200-300 Catholics left.
Over the years, priests had come to the Isle of Man to minister to the Catholic community but none had stayed long term. One priest Fr Mc Pharlan had served the Catholic community in the early 1800’s but then had moved to France leaving the island again without a priest. The Catholics contacted the Vicar Apostolic of the Northern Province of England to ask for help. A Fr Brown had volunteered to come to the island. However there was a delay until he was able to take up the post so the Vicar Apostolic asked the Irish Jesuit College in Clongowes Wood to provide a resident priest in the meantime. Fr Mathew Gahan SJ was one of the professors at the college and was asked if he would go to the Isle of Man.Fr Gahan was an Irishman, born in Dublin in 1782.He entered the Society for the Irish Mission, at Hodder in September 1805. After various positions in Dublin, and six years as minister in Clongowes, he got permission from his superiors to devote himself to the spiritual care of the Catholics in the Isle of Man as he was touched by their plight. This is how, in 1823, Rev Mathew Gahan, a Jesuit priest from Ireland, came to start work in Douglas.
Fr Mc Pharlan had already erected a temporary chapel in a disused quarry on the old Castletown Road. This chapel, dedicated to St Brigid, had been opened in 1814.In addition; Fr Gahan built a school beside the chapel in 1824 to make sure that the local children, Catholic and Protestant, got an education. He was nicknamed Kelly the Roman by the people of Douglas. Others called him the Apostle of the Isle of Man as he devoted his life to the Manx people amid extreme hardship, discouragement and difficulties which he accepted with great patience.
Fr Gahan saw the whole island as his parish and would regularly set off to visit the Catholic community in Castletown, Peel and Ramsey. Since there were no modern roads, only uneven bridle paths, he made these journeys on foot .Occasionally someone with a cart would pass by and give him a lift for a mile or two. The congregation was often small. Reverend Robert Gillow commented that often in the outlying places that Fr Gahan visited “the entire congregation for Mass did not number more than twelve.”
St Mary’s Castletown
r Gahan built St Mary’s Church in Castletown in 1826 as he has always wanted to build a church in the ancient capital of the island. This was largely funded by Catholics in Ireland and he made many trips there, often in poor weather in little fishing vessels, to get support. Fr Gahan was aware that the population in Douglas far outnumbered Castletown and that a larger church building than the little chapel dedicated to St Brigid was needed. Helped again by generous Irish friends, he bought an old theatre at the corner of Athol Street and Prospect Hill, which was altered to use as a Chapel and school. The chapel was dedicated to St Francis Xavier and in 1836, just a few months before he died, Fr Gahan said Mass there for the first time.
Fr Gahan’s tireless work took its toll on his health and he died in 1837 at the age of only 56. News reached Ireland of very bad weather and conditions in the Isle of |Man and a fellow Jesuit priest, Fr Aylmer was sent to the island to bring him home for a rest. When Fr Aylmer reached Douglas, Fr Gahan had only hours to live but Fr Aylmer were able to give him last sacraments. Fr Gahan was admired by all and this tribute, from the Mona's Herald (6 Oct 1837) was written by a prominent Protestant on the island-
“Among the recent deaths you have had to record in your journal, none has been more generally and severely felt than that of the Rev Gahan, the clergyman of the Roman Catholic chapel in this town…the Rev Gahan’s kind and amiable character in private life, his unostentatious and extended charity among the poor, without any invidious distinction, is scarcely equally and seldom excelled. It is now upwards of 12 years since this excellent man commenced his Christian labours in this Island, exposed to privations and vexations which few men but himself would have submitted to, and we have reason to believe his constitution suffered greatly from their baneful effects. His ardent desire was to finish his earthly career in the Island he had adopted, and his memory will long be revered by a numerous circle of friends and admirers of his private and public virtues. I am sure of this – the poor have lost a real benefactor and an indefatigable spiritual guide…”
Father Gahan is buried in the cemetery at Kirk Braddan. Until his death he remained at his solitary work and kept alive the faith among the people. The selfless way he lived his life and the affection in which he was held is demonstrated by the words on a marble tablet in the grounds of St Mary’s, Douglas -“Friends have erected this monument to the peaceful remembrance of the Reverend Mathew Joseph Gahan S.J. He left his own people in Ireland to devote himself to the salvation of the inhabitants of the Isle of Man. He was conspicuous for his piety towards God, for zeal towards his neighbour, for kindness to the poor and for charity towards all. Amidst the hardship of weak health he was ever unwearied. At length after building two churches he was struck down by fever whilst attending a dying bed and sweetly expired on February 22nd in the year of salvation 1837 at the age of 56.”
Fr Gahan, through his tireless and solitary work on the Isle of Man is credited with preserving the Catholic faith here during the 1800’s and the large Catholic community on the island now owes it’s existence to this humble unassuming Irish Jesuit.
“The story of the Catholic Church in the Isle of Man” Written by Rev.William S Dempsey
I also wrote to Father Kevin A. Laheen, S.J. in Dublin who kindly wrote back giving me information on the life of Father Gahan and the visit of Fr Aylmer at the end of his life.