The Cross and Shell

Published on 24 Nov 2016

by Ged Johnson (with thanks to Sr Anne Morris for sharing her e-mail correspondence and for her detective work!)

St Beuno’s has, this year, received back into its care a religious artefact that left many years previously.  It is a baptismal shell that was used in the Catholic parish of Rhyl from 1865.  The Catholic mission in Rhyl began in 1851 through the work of the St Beuno’s Jesuits and, particularly, Father Etheridge who was rector at the time.  The first services were held in a pub, Costigan’s, next to the railway station.  Initially, the worshippers were James Costigan, the owner of the house, his wife and three Irish railway workers and their families but, to meet growing demands, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption (commonly known as St Mary’s) opened in 1863.  A modern church replaced the original building in 1975.

A brief history of the ‘shell’ has been plotted, thanks to e-mail conversations between Brother Finnian Gallagher OH, Provincial Secretary, Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God, Stillorgan, Co Dublin, Ireland, and Fr Roger Dawson and Sr Anne Morris of St Beuno’s.

At some point the shell found its way from Rhyl to Llandudno and seems, thereafter, to have been inherited by the successive parish priests of Llandudno.  It ended up in the possession of Fr Fergal Shannon until his death in 1995.  His brother, Brother Aloysius OH, was tasked with removing his possessions for his family who all lived in Ireland.  Thus the shell came to be in Ireland and under the care of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God.  Brother Aloysius did intend researching the shell but never quite got around to it. 

A Latin inscription adorns the shell.  Loosely translated it reads: ‘This (object) immersed on the shore of the Red Sea and blessed in the Sepulchre of the Most Holy Redeemer in Jerusalem. John, a pilgrim, brought (it) home and the same John, a priest, dedicated (it) to the use of the Baptismal font in the Church of St Mary in Rhyl in the year of our Redemption 1865.’  The silver cross is stamped with the date Letter ‘Q’ signifying 1865-1866 and registered at the Birmingham Assay Office.

Sr Anne, having consulted 'Letters & Notices', an invaluable source of information on the British Jesuits, believes the ‘John’ of the inscription to be that of Fr John Wynne, SJ, the first parish priest of Rhyl.  The documents don't specifically mention the shell and cross but they do note that Fr. Wynne was in the Holy Land and was generally a great traveller.

It is highly likely that the shell was used at the baptism of former British diplomat Sir Roger Casement in the original Our Lady of the Assumption in August 1868.  Having grown up in Ireland as an Anglican, he was secretly baptised into the Catholic Church as a four year old, according to the wishes of his mother Anne while she was holidaying in North Wales without her husband.  As diplomat, Roger produced influential reports on the plight of indigenous people in countries colonised by European powers and, as a result of his work, was knighted in 1911.  He became increasingly disillusioned with the British Empire, however, and left the civil service soon after.  During the First World War he sought funding, weapons and military expertise in Germany for a campaign to end British rule in Ireland and was arrested after a German U-boat put him ashore in Ireland in 1916.  He was hanged for treason in London on 3 August 1916.

In conjunction with present parish priest of Rhyl the decision has been made to house the shell securely at St Beuno’s and that it be used in Rhyl parish on special occasions.