St. Patrick, Relic of Faith of Our Fathers and Patrol Saint of All Exiles

By Caldarola, Effie Costello | National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

St. Patrick, Relic of Faith of Our Fathers and Patrol Saint of All Exiles


Caldarola, Effie Costello, National Catholic Reporter


The March 14 issue of NRC carried a photo of a statue of St. Patrick commissioned by the Irish government to replace a traditional one at Tara, the spot where Patrick converted the Irish high king to Christianity in 433.

The new statue, by artist Annette Hennessey, shows Patrick clad in a skimpy tunic, barefoot, holding a staff adorned by a small antler. Young beardless and broad-shouldered, this minimalist Patrick betrays nothing of his future glory, and has, not surprisingly, become a center of controversy in Ireland.

It's stretch to imagine Hennessey's Patrick conquering the pagan Celts for Christ, much less chasing any snakes off the isle. Nevertheless, he looks as if he's ready to try.

That photo brought a flood of memories. My St. Patrick stood on a pedestal outside the confessional. When I drew back the heavy purple curtain, his dark gaze seemed to follow me, a child of the 1950s, as I knelt to repent.

With flowing robes, a miter and crosier, gray hair and beard, this Patrick was made of sterner stuff, conceived as he was in a time of less moral ambiguity than our own.

Our tiny church was an immigrant church, built by my great-grandfather and other exiles from Ireland. It hovered on the edge of a Nebraska cornfield. In summer, humidity would ripple in the air above the golden corn tassels, and dust would roll off the gravel roads. In winter, the little whitewashed building was a beacon on the lonely gray horizon.

Life is changeless to a child, but with age I learned how little remains the same. The church each fixtures and board, is gone now. The statue of St. Patrick however, sits in a corner of my mom's basement. From there he provides a link to my great-grandfather and to the faith he gave me, which has proven more durable than any building.

Thomas Costello was a child of the Irish famine. Having seen his own mother die of hunger, he left the rugged coast of Galway at the age of 12 and eventually came to the fertile, unplowed Nebraska prairie, He prospered there, leaving each child farmland when he died. But even in old age he signed his will with the illiterate "x" of an Irish peasant.

Here was a man to whom faith was clearly important. He and his fellow immigrants settled the land in the 1870s and immediately asked the bishop of Omaha for a priest to say Mass in homes and schoolrooms. By 1885 the church was dedicated.

The statue of St. Patrick arrived later, between 1912 and 1917. It probably traveled by train and then wagon over the dirt roads. With their patron's arrival, it must have seemed all was in place. My father received his First Communion there in 1923, and I was baptized there many years later.

But as the winds of change swept American Catholicism in the 1970s, not even a little church on the edge of nowhere could escape. …

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