St. Peter's Church, Drogheda
St. Peter's Church is situated on the main street of the busy town of Drogheda. The church was one of the last of the gothic churches to have been built and as such incorporates many of the finer aspects of gothic architecture. Built by parish priest, Mgr. Robert Murphy in the late nineteenth century; it is regarded today as a masterpiece of beauty and design. Its interior was decorated by his successor, Mgr. Patrick Segrave in the early twentieth century and his work is also regarded as exquisite in both taste and in finish. A similar building of design and adornment could not be built by the people of Drogheda today because of the astronomical costs such a project would entail.
Shrine to St. Oliver
A couple of years after St. Oliver's martyrdom, the Relic of the Head was brought to Rome and remained there for about forty years, until it was given into the care of the new community of Dominican nuns at Siena convent in Drogheda, c.1725. The nuns were under the leadership of Sr. Catherine Plunkett a relative of St. Oliver and believed to have been his grand niece. The community had shortly beforehand moved from a mud cabin on the south side of the Boyne to a more substantial house in Dyer Street and they were living surreptitiously as a group of women, so as to avoid any difficulties with the authorities. For the following two centuries, this community proved their resourcefulness and devotion by faithfully preserving and venerating this priceless relic of the Irish Church, throughout the difficulties of penal times. During the war of independence because of a fear that some of the notorious Black and Tan forces might steal or desecrate the Relic, armed republican forces were positioned in its defence, in the locality of the Siena community at Chord Road, this being in an era of attack and reprisal. Within months and to the great disappointment of this community, the Relic of the Head was transferred in 1921 to the newly built, St. Peter's Church, Drogheda, the Memorial Church of St. Oliver, where it was installed in a side altar.
The Relic of St. Oliver's Head now stands in an impressive new shrine, which was erected in 1995. Pilgrims have the opportunity to walk around the shrine and view at close quarters this precious relic of the Irish church. One can also view the original document of authentication of the relics, which was signed shortly after St. Oliver's martyrdom, by Elizabeth Sheldon and surgeon John Ridley. After St. Oliver was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the Head was thrown into the prepared fire nearby. His friends quickly retrieved it however and scorch marks from the fire may still be seen on the left cheek of the Head. The Head is heavy and not just a bare skull and is in remarkably good condition considering that it has never been hermetically sealed. The Shrine at Drogheda also includes some bone relics of St. Oliver, donated by the Benedictine Community, Downside around the time of his canonisation. Overhead is the Canonisation Picture, which hung from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome during the canonisation ceremony on October 12th 1975. In a glass cabinet nearby, is the door from the condemned cell of Newgate Prison, London and St. Oliver would have occupied this cell as a condemned man for the last few weeks of his life. Renowned for his letter writing, it was during this time that St. Oliver wrote his most poignant letters. He also wrote during this time, his last speech, which he delivered from the gallows at Tyburn and is famous for showing forgiveness to all those who had anything to do with his death.
Thousands of pilgrims visit the National Shrine of St. Oliver each month, making it one of the most popular attractions in Ireland. Coming from all counties of Ireland and various parts of the world; some come as sightseers, but many go away with an admiration for the loyalty in faith of those who have gone before us. Many pilgrims come to pray for various petitions and light candles. Many come to kneel and pray for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, before the Shrine of our patron saint for this cause in Ireland. Some come to give thanks to St. Oliver for his intercession and for favours already received. If you wish to have a petition placed at the Shrine and offered up at a regular Mass in honour of St. Oliver, please email your petition to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many dignitaries also come to pray at the Shrine of St. Oliver. Pope Paul VI at the canonisation ceremony in 1975, recalled a visit he made to the shrine some years earlier as Cardinal Montini. The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese has prayed at a service for peace and reconciliation at the Shrine, and there have been many other such prayer ceremonies at the Shrine. On the first Sunday of July each year, the annual celebration takes place at the Shrine, with a procession and Mass, commencing at 3pm.
When Pope John Paul II visited Killineer just outside Drogheda in 1979, he recalled his own attendance at the canonisation of St. Oliver in Rome, four years earlier. The Relic of the Head had been brought to the field at Killineer for his visit and after he knelt and prayed before the Relic, Pope John Paul preached his famous sermon of peace and reconciliation to the congregation of three hundred thousand people. His impassioned plea for peace to the men and women of violence received extensive international coverage and echoed around the world. It is commonly believed that his visit heralded the beginnings of the Irish peace process and sowed the seeds for a real change of heart, so that hatred and bitterness could thankfully be banished from the hearts of Irish men and women. During these early years of the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God for all the successes of the Irish peace process to date and we continue to pray through the intercession of St. Oliver, for a fulsome reconciliation amongst all traditions, on the island of Ireland.