As you know I am very anxious to see these retreats started in Ireland, for I believe they would do a world of good and be the means of checking the dreadful irreligious spirit which is beginning to creep in even here in holy Ireland, especially among our uneducated men. … I am very grateful to you all for your good prayers; you must ask St. Joseph to find a suitable house now, for I feel if a start were once made all would be well…
For some time back I have been studying the question of retreats for workmen. But last year when I saw in Belgium the wonderful good brought about by them and had an opportunity of seeing some of the houses where these retreats are given, I made up my mind to try to do something here in Ireland.
COMMENT: The two paragraphs above are excerpts from 2 different letters Fr Doyle wrote to his sister in June and July 1909. They concern his great passion for establishing retreats for workingmen. Fr Doyle was an innovative apostle, and was in many ways a pioneer in the Church. Not only did he recognise the universal call to holiness and thus the need for lay people to have the opportunity of making a residential retreat, he was specifically concerned that workingmen should have this opportunity. Fr Doyle was greatly concerned about the spiritual and temporal welfare of workers, and he was concerned about the impact of radical atheistic and materialistic philosophies on workers. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the misery these philosophies unleashed on the world – he died two months before the October revolution in Russia, the after effects of which would cause much suffering for decades. In another letter to his sister on this topic in the autumn of 1909 he had this to say:
You may perhaps think I exaggerate when I say that if once these retreats are established they will do an amount of good which will surpass all expectations. It would seem to be the divinely appointed new remedy for a new evil, the falling away of the working classes from all religion and the spread of Socialism.
Fr Doyle worked hard to establish a retreat house – he travelled across Europe to learn how they had been established in other countries and he published a booklet entitled “Retreats for Workingmen: Why not in Ireland?” – the text can be found here: Retreats for working men
He managed to find donors but he still faced numerous hurdles. On one occasion a house that was perfect in every way was found and he was appointed director of the first retreat house for workers in Ireland. But alas, the house was burned down by suffragettes, and it was back to the drawing board.
Fr Doyle never truly gave up on the idea, despite the setbacks. At the end of 1914, 5 years after writing his pamphlet and a few months before he left for the war, he wrote the following in his diary:
I felt urged to promise our Blessed Lady to try and give up meat on Saturdays in her honour, if she in return will bring about the starting of the Workingmen’s Retreats this summer.
One of Fr Doyle’s inspirations in all of this was his friend and fellow seminarian, the English Jesuit Fr Charles Plater who established similar retreats in England. This is what Fr Plater had to say about Fr Doyle’s dedication to these retreats:
After he left Stonyhurst, and again still later when we were both priests, we corresponded much on the subject of workers’ retreats. His quick imagination pictured the immense good which might be effected by their introduction into Ireland. With his whole soul he threw himself into the work of promoting them. His letters are just himself — ardent, enthusiastic, full of piety and love of country. He would, I am convinced, gladly have given his life to see the retreats established in Ireland. He was acutely distressed because others could not see what he saw so plainly. He found it hard to be patient with those who urged expense as an insuperable obstacle, for he knew that once a start was made the money would come. The Island of Saints would not allow a School for Saints to suffer through lack of funds. “Why not in Ireland?” was the sub-title of his excellent pamphlet on Retreats for Workers, and his challenging question was really unanswerable.
There is only one possible memorial to Fr. William Doyle, and that is a house of retreats for workers in Ireland, That he would have asked for; indeed, we may be sure that he does ask for it. Those to whom his life of smiles and tears and his glorious death have been an inspiration will surely help him to get it.
Such a house was eventually opened in Rathfarnham in 1921, less than four years after Fr Doyle’s death.
It is appropriate to reflect on this passion of Fr Doyle’s life today, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. This feast was instituted by Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1955 in an effort to emphasise the importance of work and to counteract the communist propaganda associated with May Day. This specific threat may have receded somewhat in recent years, but the very same atheistic, and anti-religious, philosophies still threaten religious faith and freedom in a variety of different ways.
St Joseph is an excellent patron for all of us who work. He can teach us to do our work well, not just counting down the hours of the working day, but instead turning our work into a fitting sacrifice to give glory to God.
We shall conclude today with the prayer of Pope St Pius X to St Joseph the Worker:
O Glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labour, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by labor the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, food not done, and vain complacency in success, so baneful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen