The history of Saint Isidore’s College begins with Friar Luke Wadding. Born in Waterford in 1588, Luke Wadding was obliged to go abroad to get a proper Catholic education because of religious persecution in Ireland.
He entered the Franciscan Order in Lisbon and was ordained a priest in 1613. One of his main ideas from the start was to vindicate the Order against those accusing the Franciscans and their founder of being opposed to learning.
He acquired such fame as a theologian that he was chosen by the King of Spain as theological adviser to a delegation sent to Rome to petition Pope Paul V for the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception BVM.
His arrival in Rome in 1618 must have seemed like the pinnacle of his career to the young friar. However, Wadding’s career was really only starting. Though the Spanish royal delegation failed in its mission and its members returned to Spain, Wadding was to remain in Rome for the rest of his life, rendering sterling service to his order, country and the universal church.
Residing in the Spanish Franciscan convent of S. Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum, Wadding was commissioned in 1619 to undertake a history of the Franciscan order, leading to the publication of eight volumes of the Annales Minorum between 1625 and 1654, a work that covered the history of the order from the birth of St Francis in 1182 until 1540.
In 1622 a group of Spanish discalced Franciscans founded the convent of S. Isidoro where it still stands, not far from Trinità dei Monti. They encountered a number of difficulties, however, and were soon forced to abandon their uncompleted and debt-ridden home. Wadding stepped into the breach, offering to take over S. Isidoro on condition that he could turn it into a seminary to train young Irish Franciscans for priestly service on the home mission in Ireland. The new community took up residence in 1625. Setting about his new task with energy and enthusiasm, within five years Wadding was able to collect 22,000 scudi from wealthy benefactors, including Pope Urban VIII, the Spanish ambassador and a number of Hispanophile cardinals. This enabled him to pay off the debts accumulated by the previous Spanish incumbents, complete the church and enlarge the original convent from one that housed 12 friars to one that was capable of hosting 60 people.
St Isidore was kept as patron, St Patrick as co-patron. Wadding also founded the Pontifical Irish College in Rome in 1628 for the training of Irish diocesan clergy. He followed this up in 1656 with the foundation of an Irish Franciscan novitiate in Capranica, about 70kms north-west of Rome, which remained open until 1983. During his historical research, Wadding managed to build up a library of 5,000 volumes, not to mention a great quantity of precious manuscripts. This library at St Isidore’s remains to this day an indispensable tool for researching early Franciscan history.
Since then – except for two short periods during the Napoleonic occupation, and then only partially – St. Isidore’s has never passed out of Irish hands. During the Napoleonic years, the Guardian, James MacCormack, saved the library and archives. For a time, the college building was taken over by a German painter, Overbeck, and his Nazarene school of painters. This was how the street came to be called Via degli Artisti. On it one finds St. Isidore’s and, formerly also, the original Irish (or Ludovisian) College, for diocesan seminarians, likewise built by Luke Wadding.
Luke Wadding was rector of St. Isidore’s for thirty years. Wadding’s fame as a writer largely rests on his edition of the works of Duns Scotus, the medieval Oxford philosopher and defender of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pope St. Pius IX. He completed this sixteen volume work in 1639. Wadding died before finishing the work which was continued by others. He did much for the Irish cause in Rome, and it was mainly due to his insistence that the Feast of St. Patrick was included in the Church’s universal liturgical calendar circa 1630.
Wadding also published a complete annotated edition of the Writings of St. Francis of Assisi. This is a pioneer work often quoted by scholars and students of Franciscan history and spirituality.
When war broke out in Ireland in 1641 between the English and the Irish, the supreme council of the Irish Catholic Confederates appointed Wadding as their agent in Rome, supplying arms and ammunition to aid the struggle against the English administration and military. He also prevailed on Pope Innocent X to send GianBattista Rinuccini to Ireland as papal nuncio (ambassador) in 1645. Rinuccini, however, was not astute enough to deal with the complex Irish situation. He was thus considered by many to have been the first Irish “ambassador” to the Holy See.
Under Wadding’s direction, St Isidore’s not only became an important location for the training of young Irish Franciscans, but also the leading European centre for Scotistic studies in the 17th century. By the time of Wadding’s death in 1657, in addition to educating over 200 Irish Franciscans, the college had supplied 70 professors in Scotistic philosophy and theology to universities all over Europe.
For more information on the life of Luke Wadding please click here.
The chief object of St. Isidore’s College was never forgotten: the training of friars to keep the faith alive at home in Ireland. Many gave their lives in so doing, among them Dermot (Francis) O’Sullivan of Kerry and Patrick Fleming (he suffered in Prague), Eugene O’Cahan from Clare, Thaddeus (Bonaventure) O’Carrighy, Denis O’Nelan of Country Clare and Richard Synnot (who suffered a violent death in Wexford). These young friars travelled to Ireland in secret and in disguise, living in the utmost hardship, sometimes in hill-cabins and caves, enduring hunger and cold.
Prince Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charles, the Young Pretender in exile, had close relations with the Franciscans of St. Isidore’s. He was given the Last Sacraments by the Rector, Fr. Michael Egan when he was dying in 1788.
During the 19th century, St. Isidore’s sent many missionaries to Newfoundland, North America, Australia and elsewhere. Several of these became bishops in their respective dioceses.
St. Isidore’s escaped suppression and destruction during both World Wars.. It remains today one of the best-preserved examples of 17th-century architecture of its kind in Rome. A small cloister still recalls the original Spanish foundation.
The larger cloister built by Wadding is filled with paintings by the Franciscan artist Giovanni Antonio Sguary of Padua.
In the ‘Aula Magna’ (Great Hall), beneath a fresco depicting Luke Wadding with some of his early companions, is a slab recalling that Cardinal Corsini came here on the Feast of St. Patrick in 1737, as his predecessors had done, to be installed as Cardinal Protector of the Kingdom of Ireland. The Great Hall was decorated in 1672 to honour the Immaculate Conception. Paintings pay tribute to Blessed Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure, who like St. Thomas Aquinas held that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though true and always believed, could not be proven.
As one enters the Church, one sees on either side of the main door paintings of St. Patrick and St. Brigid, Patron and Patroness of Ireland. Above these are copies of 8th-century inscriptions in old Irish taken from the martyrology of Aengus, the Culdee (Céile Dé – amicus Dei).
The interior of the Church contains several fine paintings, of which the best known are those by Carlo Maratta (1663) – notably his Immaculate Conception, in a frame of roses carved by Bernini and supported by marble carved cherubim. The main altarpiece depicting St. Isidore, the Farmer, is by Andrea Sacchi. St. Patrick preaching to the Irish and banishing reptiles from the island is by an eighteenth-century master-decorator.
The mortal remains of many Irish patriots and scholars, exiled for their religion, are buried in the crypt below the Church. For three centuries it was the crypt of the Irish in Rome. Their names are recorded on tombs and paving-stones. Cardinal Corsini is buried there, and Luke Wadding himself – also James MacCormack and, among others Aodh Mac Aingil (Hugh McCaughwell) known to scholars and experts as Ireland’s most outstanding theologian of the times. MacAingil taught philosophy and theology for fourteen years at St. Anthony’s College Leuven and was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh. But he died in Rome in 1626 before setting out for his See. He also wrote religious poetry and prose in the Irish language.
Opposite the altar of St. Francis is a recumbent effigy of Octavia Catherine Bryan, an 18-year-old Irish girl, who lived in Italy and was engaged to be married to a member of the Borghese family. Sadly she died from tuberculosis in 1864. She was the daughter of Colonel George Bryan, prominent in the Catholic Emancipation Movement. John Henry Newman, the future cardinal and canonised saint, but then a deacon studying in Rome as a convert from Anglicanism, was asked to preach his first sermon as a Catholic at the funeral of Colonel Bryan’s daughter. He records the event in his diary. Newman was canonised on 13 October 2019.
Above the door at one end of the College portico, St. Patrick’s famous dictum is inscribed, enjoining obedience to the Holy See, best known for its last line implying that to be a Christian is therefore to be Roman.
SI QUAE DIFFICILES QUAESTIONES IN HAC INSULA
ORIANTUR AD SEDEM APOSTOLICAM REFERANTUR
UT CHRISTIANI ITA ET ROMANI SITIS
Since the coming of the friars to St. Isidore’s in 1625, three members of the community have been canonised/beatified:
- Saint Humilis of Bisignano, Italy, who died in 1637.
- Blessed Bonaventure of Barcelona, Spain, who died in 1684.
- Blessed Charles Meehan, Ireland, who was martyred for the faith in North Wales in 1679.