In an overview from her new book which she wrote with her late husband and regular contributor to Ireland’s Own, Colm Keane, Una O’Hagan shares the fascinating story of Waterford’s Monsignor Thomas John Capel
‘Picture a man of the rarest personal gifts, with voice, presence, eloquence, grace, physical beauty, manly strength, learning, persuasiveness, zeal, sympathy, patrician breeding, and that mysterious quality we call magnetism – picture all this and more to the uttermost limits of your imagination and you will still probably fall short of realising what Monsignor Capel was to the England of the middle of the century.’
Who was this man Monsignor Capel who so fascinated Victorian Britain? His full name was Thomas John Capel, and he was born in Ardmore, County Waterford on 28 October, 1836, to an Irish mother, Mary Fitzgerald from nearby Whiting Bay, and an English father, John Capel, a coastguard boatman stationed in Ardmore.
The family moved to England and settled on the south coast where Thomas John demonstrated his remarkable enthusiasm and energy of purpose, which was said to have been inherited from his mother.
By the age of 20, he was made Vice Principal of a Catholic Training College; two years later he was ordained as a priest.
It was Capel’s arrival in the southern French town of Pau not long after his ordination that marked the beginning of his extraordinary rise to fame. His talent as a preacher and his ability to convert wealthy aristocrats to Catholicism soon became widely known. So much so, that he was made a monsignor by Pope Pius IX.
An American writer who visited Pau provides an insight into Monsignor Capel’s effect on women as he strolled through the town’s Place Royale. “Quickly the purple glove is drawn from his hand, and as he presses theirs, a few words are uttered in a soft low tone; and when the priest moves away the English girls are blushing bright rosy-red with delight.”
On his return to England, he converted the Marquess of Bute, reputedly the richest man in the country, if not the world. The conversion scandalised Victorian society. Others followed – Lady Flora Hastings, Lady Mary Duncan, Sir Henry Bellingham and Lord Courtenay, to name just a few.
His success led his boss, Cardinal Henry Manning and his fellow Catholic Bishops, to appoint Capel as the head of a prestigious new project – a Catholic University College based in Kensington, London.
It was a disastrous move.
Read more in this week’s Ireland’s Own
The Monsignor – The Man, His Mistresses and The Missing Money, by Colm Keane & Una O’Hagan, is published by Capel Island Press and retails for €15.99. Ireland’s Own readers can avail of a special offer by sending €13 (€16 UK) to Capel Island Press, Baile na nGall, Ring, Dungarvan, County Waterford.