Downside Abbey, Somerset, England
St. Oliver and the Benedictine Order
The Benedictine order holds a special place of honour in the story of St. Oliver Plunkett. While in Newgate prison in London, St. Oliver befriended an English Benedictine monk, Fr. Maurus Corker, who proved very helpful to him, becoming in effect his 'anam chara' or faith friend. Fr. Corker provided St. Oliver with Mass requisites and he also heard St. Oliver's confession before his death. Undoubtedly, the martyr's most revealing letters about himself were the ones he penned at this time from his prison cell. Amongst these were letters and notes to Fr. Corker, each of which display a deep spirituality. These are all well preserved and among the cherished possessions of the Benedictine Community at Downside Abbey. It is often said that Fr. Corker possibly enrolled St. Oliver as a Confrater of the Benedictine order. Indeed another Benedictine priest imprisoned with St. Oliver at this time, Fr. Cuthbert Wall, alias Mr Marshall, lent St. Oliver a 'shift' to wear on his way to Tyburn. This garb may well have been a form of habit or scapular to represent the Benedictine order. In any event, St. Oliver saw himself as coming under the obedience of Fr. Corker, who was President of the English Benedictines at the time. St. Oliver left all decisions in his hands, i.e. how the barber would attend to him, whether or not to have a fortifying drink on the day of execution, the drafting of his final speech and finally he left his clothes, possessions and his body to be at Fr. Corker's 'will and pleasure'.
After his martyrdom at Tyburn, St. Oliver's remains, minus the head and forearms were buried in a London churchyard. Fr. Corker had the remains exhumed some two years later in 1683, whereupon they were smuggled to Lamspringe in Lower Saxony, Germany and interred with great ceremony in the crypt of the local Benedictine monastery. The new Abbey Church was almost completed by this time and Fr. Corker became abbot of this monastery some seven years later. It is believed that it was via Lamspringe that Fr. Corker would have brought the Relic of the Head of St. Oliver to Rome; giving it to Oliver's old Dominican friend and correspondent, the Cardinal of Norfolk, formerly Fr. Philip Howard who had hidden Archbishop Oliver in St. James's Palace in London some fifteen years earlier.
For several centuries, Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop and Martyr, was almost completely forgotten about in these islands as a result of the harsh penal laws and the difficult famine times. Lamspringe and the Benedictines order never forgot however, and along with Siena Convent, Drogheda and the Irish College in Rome, St. Oliver's memory has been faithfully venerated in these locations right down to the present day.
Exactly two hundred years after receiving St. Oliver's remains at Lamspringe it was finally thought opportune and safe to bring them to the Benedictine Abbey at Downside, Somerset, England in 1881. This community continue to faithfully venerate the martyr saint in a major shrine dedicated in his honour. Around the time of the St. Oliver's canonisation in 1975, Downside Abbey generously gave gifts of major relics to the Shrine in Drogheda, Oldcastle Parish Church, Dromore Cathedral and some other locations also benefited with gifts of relics at this time.
A great debt of gratitude is certainly owed to the Benedictine community and to the people of Lamspringe in Germany for the faithful way they venerated and kept alive the memory of St. Oliver down through the centuries. Centuries, which were very difficult ones for the Irish people as they continued to struggle and scrape for bare survival, in both body and in soul.
The annual Mass and ceremony in honour of St. Oliver is held in Downside Abbey on the Feast of St. Oliver, 1st July each year.