Thursday, 18 January 2018

139 Fr Charles Kavanagh

139 Father Charles Kavanagh
In 1555 Bishop Robert Farrar was burned at the stake in Carmarthen’s Nott Square during the post-Reformation attempts of Henry VIII’s eldest daughter Queen Mary to restore Roman Catholicism.  In reaction against that time, and against the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Catholics were viewed with deep suspicion and endured centuries of persecution in Britain.  Excluded from public life and university education (as were Nonconformists), they faced prejudice and discrimination, even after the 1829 Emancipation Act had removed many barriers to their holding public office.  One man who did much to break down anti-Catholic prejudice in Swansea was the priest Charles Kavanagh, after whom a residential property in the Marina is named. 
Born in Denbighshire, Charles Kavanagh studied for the priesthood in Lisbon, before in 1838 being sent to Swansea to take responsibility for an extensive area which then included Llanelli, Aberafan and Neath.  In some areas anti-Catholic feeling even meant that a priest needed a bodyguard when going to say Mass.  From around 1797 Swansea had a Catholic place of worship, while by the 1840s most of the town’s three hundred Catholics were Irish, even before migration because of the Irish potato famines.  
A few years later, for the first time since the Reformation, a Roman Catholic bishop was made responsible for the whole of Wales, with in 1850 dioceses established in Newport and Wrexham.  Father Kavanagh witnessed the extensive growth of Swansea’s Irish community - from 1,369 in 1851 to 2,800 by 1859 - and he opened St David's Church in Rutland Place to replace the ruined chapel in Nelson Place near the docks.  Four years later a school was built nearby, and then another (aptly named after St Patrick) in the district of Greenhill, known as “Little Ireland”.  Father Kavanagh conducted a Sunday school in Gaelic in premises at the corner of Brook Street and Well Street.
The Irish in Swansea were concentrated in industrial areas to the north of the town, especially between Carmarthen Road and Neath Road, many in squalid living conditions.  The 1849 cholera epidemic was particularly virulent in the vicinity of Greenhill, where Father Kavanagh rented a room to be among the needy, and made himself available to assist Dr Long in visiting the sick, washing them and combing their hair (regardless of whether or not they were Catholics).  One account states, “Day and night he spent his time among the stricken, ministering to every want, and performing the most menial tasks for the sick and the dying.”  He also acted as interpreter, since many spoke only Gaelic.  In just two months he conducted as many as 170 funerals, and for his selfless service among cholera victims was awarded a testimonial purse of fifty sovereigns at the Town Hall.  
A man of wit and humour, Father Kavanagh was secretary to the Mechanics Institute, and served on the Council of the Royal Institution of South Wales.  He was instrumental in establishing the municipal graveyards at Oystermouth and Danygraig, and following his sudden death in 1856 aged forty-seven, he was the first person to be buried at Danygraig.  His funeral was virtually a civic occasion, with the Mayor and Corporation attending, while a plaque inside St David’s Church states that “he deservedly won the esteem of Catholics and non-Catholics alike”.
Before his death he had applied for the lease of land at Greenhill, where several years later what was then St Joseph’s Church was built at a cost of £10,000, designed by Peter Paul Pugin, son of the notable architect Augustus Pugin, who designed the Palace of Westminster.  St Joseph’s was opened in 1888, while still under construction, and became a Cathedral in 1987 when the Diocese of Menevia (the Roman name for St David’s) was re-defined.  
Could Father Kavanagh have ever envisaged that in Greenhill, where in 1849 he had ministered among the suffering of cholera victims, a Roman Catholic Cathedral would one day stand?                                                                              

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