The Rev. Father John Spratt D.D. (1776-1871) was the Dubliner we can thank for bringing the relics of Saint Valentine from Rome to Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin.
To this day, the inner box of the shrine which contains "the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood" has never been opened nor seals broken to disturb the patron saint of lovers, who rests in Ireland.
John Spratt was best remembered however as a beloved philanthropist, famous for his work among the poor and destitute in the Liberties of Dublin. In addition to the building of Whitefriar St. Church in 1826, Spratt also founded St Peter’s Orphanage, St Joseph’s Night Refuge Cork St for the homeless poor, the Asylum for the Catholic Female Blind at Portobello, and the schools in Whitefriar St. He was one of the first to join Fr. Matthew's temperance movement in Ireland. Until his death, he worked tirelessly to the cause of total abstinence, on-call at any time to administer "the pledge". Spratt was also renowned in Europe for his skill as a preacher.
ST. VALENTINE AT WHITEFRIAR STREET CHURCH
In 1835, while visiting Rome, Spratt was invited to preach and the elite from the Church hierarchy flocked to hear him. As a gift of esteem, Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) gave him a reliquary containing the remains of Saint Valentine. On November 10, 1836, Saint Valentine's reliquary arrived in Dublin with a letter from Cardinal Odescalchi confirming its authenticity. It was brought in solemn procession to the Whitefriar Street Church where it was received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin.
Following the death of Fr. Spratt in 1871, interest in the relics waned and Saint Valentine went into storage until a major renovation in the church in the 1950s/60s returned them to prominence. An altar and shrine were constructed to house facilitate veneration of the relics, and Irene Broe (1923-1992) was commissioned to create the statue.
Today, the Shrine is visited year round by betrothed couples who ask the saint to bless their lives together. On St. Valentine's day, February 14, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and placed before the high altar for veneration. On this day, many couples about to be married, attend mass for a special blessing of their wedding rings.
BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SPRATT
Two years prior to the insurrection of 1798, John Spratt was born in Cork Street, Dublin and baptised in the parish church of St. Catherine’s, Meath Street. He attended school in Dolphin’s Barn nearby. Reared by respectable Catholic parents, he was introduced at an early age to the lives of the saints and martyrs. As a child was more attracted to private reading and church services than to playing outside. He was nicknamed “Fr. Spratt” by his brothers and sisters for often reading sermons aloud, standing on a chair. From his early childhood he developed a great love for the poor and, encouraged by his mother, he never refused them any help he could give them.
While still a youth he had occasion to exercise his charity in another sphere. He found a man under the influence of drink driving home a horse through the busy thoroughfare of Cork Street. The driver had fallen asleep and John, seeing the danger, led the animal into a nearby yard. He fed the horse and stood by till the man slept off the ill effects. On waking up the man noticed the strange surroundings and, remembering that he had received a large sum of money for sales made, instantly put his hand in his pocket to see if it was safe. Finding it there he understood what had taken place. Had he been allowed to continue his journey asleep he would almost certainly have been robbed. As a token of his gratitude, John asked him to promise to give up intoxicating liquor, which he did. This man called frequently to see his young benefactor and never lost interest in him when he joined the Order.
John served mass as an Altar boy at the Carmelite Friary on Ash Street (near the Coombe) a favourite of his mother's. In August 1816, he went to went to Spain as an aspirant in the Carmelite order (having no houses of formation in Ireland at the time) and completed his novitiate as a member of the Carmelite province of Castille. Spratt was ordained on 26 February 1820 by Petrus Antonius de Trevilla, bishop of Cordova. After further theological studies at Seville, he returned to Dublin (1822) and joined the community of Calced Carmelites in Cuffe Lane, off French St. Here, he found two special outlets for his zeal. He established a school in Longford Street in 1822 and he took an active part in the conversion of Protestants. We may surmise that the following notice from a daily newspaper refers to his activities:
“On last Saturday and Sunday, a clergyman of French Street Chapel received seven Protestants into the bosom of the Catholic Church and the same respectable clergyman received within the last six months upwards of sixty, who from pure conviction renounced the ‘Law Church’ and embraced the Catholic faith.”
WHITEFRIAR STREET CHURCH
In 1825 the site of the thirteenth century Carmelite monastery in Whitefriar Street, Dublin, had become vacant and Fr. Spratt availed of the opportunity immediately. Within two years, funds had been raised and the Carmelite church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel's, was built there. Building work was completed in 1826 to a design of George Papworth and On May 8th,1826 Fr. Spratt was reappointed as the First Prior of Whitefriar Street and made principal councillor. The church was consecrated in 1827. Due to Fr. Spratt’s foresight the ancient statue of Our Lady of Dublin, which had been desecrated in Reformation times, also finds its resting place in the Carmelite church.
In a local antique shop, Spratt acquired a wooden statue of the Virgin, which later proved to be of late medieval origin. It is believed that this statue came from St Mary's Abbey and was the one from which the crown was taken to crown the pretender Lambert Simnel in 1487.
On December 15th 1835, Fr. Spratt visited Rome for health reasons and on matters of business. On February 28th, 1836, he was invited to preach in the principal church of the Jesuits and was conveyed there in the carriage of Cardinal Weld – Pope Gregory XVI’s adviser on affairs in Ireland and England. He left Rome shortly after April 8th. It was due to Spratt's efforts that Pope Gregory XVI agreed to transfer the body of St. Valentine, a third century martyr, from the St. Hippolitus Cemetery in Rome to Dublin that year. It was brought to Whitefriar Street on the morning of November 10th, 1836 and laid on a special elevation in the sanctuary during the High Mass at which Dr. Murray presided and Fr. Spratt preached. Both of these features made the Whitefriar St. church the focus of popular pilgrimages in Ireland.
Spratt is perhaps best remembered, however, for his philanthropic work in Dublin:
He founded various charitable institutions such as St Peter's orphanage and the free schools at Whitefriar St.
He served as Commissary General of the Carmelite order in England (1838–44).
He was an associate of Fr Theobald Mathew and James Haughton and was among the first to become involved in the temperance movement. He founded the French St. Temperance Society in 1840.
During the famine, he organised an interdenominational relief committee and was appointed Secretary of the Royal Exchange or General Relief Committee in 1849.
He was also active politically and had been involved in both the emancipation and repeal campaigns. Engaged in the campaign to prevent the transportation of William Smith O'Brien in 1849, he was also profoundly interested in the plight of tenant farmers and attended the tenant-right conference held in Dublin in August 1850.
In 1860 he founded the Catholic Asylum for the Female Blind and rented Portobello House as the charity's premises. (Run by the Sisters of Charity, the institution moved to Merrion Gates in 1868).
In 1861 he rented Stove Tenter House off Cork St. and founded St Joseph's Night Refuge for women and children.
He was highly respected by Lord Cloncurry, a Protestant landlord in Co. Kildare. A friendship grew from the charitable interests they shared. Indeed the author of the book "Cloncurry and his Times" states that:
“Fr. Spratt had more of Cloncurry’s confidence from 1850 to 1853 than any Catholic prelate and many Protestant ones. His Temperance labours rank next to Fr. Mathew’s and he may be regarded as his authorised representative and successor. His exertions in philanthropy were inferior to none of his clerical contemporaries.”
To fit these properly into the picture we should remember that he still had his ordinary duties as a member of the Whitefriar Street community. He was available to give the pledge every day and he held a Temperance Meeting in French Street every Sunday and visited the Night Refuge nightly. He rarely missed the monthly meeting of the Sick and Indigent Room-keepers’ Society.
In 1863, Spratt was appointed Provincial of the Carmelite order in Ireland. By 1871 he began to suffer from ill-health. Four months before his death, aged 74, he consulted two eminent physicians respecting symptoms of gangrene in the toe, the result of languid circulation. The doctors prescribed alcohol. He reflected for a moment and said:
"I have spent my life in denouncing the use of alcohol, and it is better that I should now die than live a little longer by its help."
Fr. John Spratt was struck down suddenly by heart disease while administering the pledge in Whitefriar Street Church, on 27th May, 1871. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, near the tomb of Daniel O'Connell.
The Freeman’s Journal, to which he had frequently contributed, carried a touching and eloquent tribute:
“The mournful tidings of Father Spratt’s decease have reached before this the most distant corner of the land, and wherever they have been told, they have been received as the message of an almost national calamity.
There is scarcely one amongst the clergy of this country whose name was more widely known, and not even one whose name was linked with nobler works for God, for country and for kind, than that of the benevolent Carmelite whose death we all deplore today.
In this city where he was born and where he has been toiling for nearly half a century, that name has been familiar as a household word and many a poor family away in some dingy attic will sadly miss his presence and regard his death as a domestic calamity. He realised in its entirety the glorious popular idea of an Irish priest and was at all times the ‘all in all’ to the devoted people amongst whom his life was cast.
For nearly forty years he never rested from his labours of love in the cause of temperance. For years upon years, there was scarcely a Sunday that he was not present, as its life and soul, at a meeting held in Dublin or in some provincial town, in furtherance of the holy object.
The castaways in lanes and by-ways — families starving in garrets, with fathers and mothers who had seen better days and shrank from the glare and degradation of beggary in the streets — children (the ever-present ‘waifs and strays’ of our large cities) with no one to care for them — poor servants out of a place, and whom he was almost always sure to provide for — these were the people who mostly claimed his care and on whom he spent it with ungrudging abundance.
It was his intimate familiarity with misery like this that made him so earnest in every project that had the welfare and the assisting of the poor for its prominent purpose. Hence he was a member of the Roomkeepers’ Society and for a quarter of a century one of its honorary secretaries. He was a member of every association formed at various and frequent periods for the relief of civic, national or foreign distress and was scarcely ever absent from a single one of their meetings.
Nay, more he advocated and urged the cause in ways that people little dreamt of, and hence it came — his philanthropy and benevolence coming to be so widely known of — that more money for charitable objects passed through the hands of Dr Spratt than through those of any other individual in the country.
He has left behind him a name that will be held in benediction; he has impressed his mark on several of the benevolent institutions of our city, and his death is a visitation that our poor will find it hard to realise till, practically and in fact, they come to feel that their benefactor is gone from amongst them.” [Freeman's Journal - May 1871].
|Date of Birth||5th Jan 1796|
|Date of Death||27th May 1871|
|Mother (First Name/s and Maiden)||Elizabeth Bollard|
|Father (First Name/s and Surname)||James Spratt|
|Townland born||Cork Street, Dublin 8|
|Place & Date of Baptism||On January 5th, 1796 he was baptised in the parish church of St. Catherine’s, Meath Street.|
|Names of Siblings||James Spratt (who became an Augustinian friar).|
|Occupation||Carmelite Prior of Whitefriar St Church (1826-1871).|
|Place of Death||Whitefriar St Church|