The Life of the Venerable Matt Talbot
2 May 1856 – 7 June 1925
(featured painting of Matt Talbot by Terry Nelson)
Throughout human history, God has given His Church – and through the Church, us – Saints. These men and women are our shining examples, our beacons of light and hope in a world of darkness and sin. We look to them, are inspired by them, learn from them and receive their prayerful assistance. The Saints are our brothers and sisters who are already in Heaven. In life they were not perfect by any means; they struggled with the same temptations as do all of us, and had to rely greatly on the grace of God in overcoming their own personal difficulties and human failings. Some reached the heights of sanctity very quickly in life, while others had a longer and more arduous path in attaining holiness. Interestingly, God always seems to provide just the right type of Saint to inspire the Faithful of a particular day and age.
Irish Spirituality is most often associated with the Celtic Monks, who lived lives of great holiness as a result of personal struggle and austerity; their mortification detached them from the love of self in all its forms, and allowed them to become truly focussed on God.
And such is the case with Matthew Talbot. But unlike those earlier monks, Matt lived much more recently – dying only in 1925 – and he was neither a Priest nor a Monk. Rather, he lived a very simple and humble life in the midst of a bustling city, and in that life he discovered the Presence and the power of the Living God.
Although he has not yet been declared a Saint by the Catholic Church, his Cause for Canonisation is presently before the Holy Father, and he has received the title of ‘Venerable’ as a step in this process, having previously been accorded the title of ‘Servant of God’ by virtue of the Process being commenced. The progression of his Cause will depend upon the verifiable miraculous intervention through his intercession, and such verification is the prerogative of the Church.
Matt was not born holy. Until his conversion in his late twenties, he was a terribly sinful man, subject to great temptations (which remained with him all his life) and which controlled his actions and the course of his life. Until he received the grace of true and lasting conversion, poor Matt’s life was centred firmly on himself and his own desires, rather than on God. But then one day all of that changed and his life was never the same again.
The life of Matt Talbot is one of continual struggle, but also one of courage and integrity, and finally a deep and abiding holiness in the every day life of a very ordinary and unremarkable man. It is the story of the grace of God at work in the heart and the soul, resulting in transformation.
A deeper look at his life shows that Matt Talbot was perhaps one of the most remarkable men in living memory.
This is his story.
MATT’S BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD
On 2nd May 1856, a holiday was being celebrated in Ireland. A grand parade was taking place in the city of Dublin, celebrating the peace treaty which had been formalised between Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II. But this celebration did not compare to the joy felt by Charles and Elizabeth Talbot in their home at 13 Aldborough Court, for the happy couple had been blessed that day with the gift of a son, whom they called Matthew. He would be one of twelve children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Three days later, on 5th May 1856, Matthew was baptised in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, just behind O’Connell Street.
The Talbot family were poor, like so many of those living in that city. And poverty in those days was a heavy burden, for nothing could be taken for granted. There were no state provisions for those with too little money, there was no guarantee of decent housing, no food unless the money could be earned to pay for it. In fact, even water was not freely available – it had to be collected from the public fountains, and brought home in pails and jugs. Such was the way of life for the Talbots. They lived in cramped tenement buildings, little more than slums by our standards today (and even by standards then), and moved frequently to accommodate the search for work and better housing. Their lodging was situated in the midst of a red light district, no doubt as a result of the nearby army barracks. But despite the numerous thieves and scoundrels living in that area, there were also a great many good people, and Charles and Elizabeth were certainly in this category.
At the age of eight Matt began attending Saint Lawrence O’Toole’s Christian School. He enrolled there on 8th July 1864. In 1867 he attended O’Connell’s school on Dublin’s North Richmond Street, which was run by the Christian Brothers. This education consisted mainly of simple reading and writing skills, some numeracy, the learning of Christian prayers and preparation for the reception of the Sacraments. His schoolbook contained lessons from the Bible, and lives of the Saints, together with basic lessons designed to inspire a child with the virtues of the Victorian age.
Schools such as this were extolled by the then Archbishop (and later Cardinal) Cullen, who wrote pastoral letters warning families on the dangers of the times, and urging Catholic parents to place their children in those schools run on very little funds by the members of Religious Orders.
Matt spent only short periods of time in school; his school reports often stated ‘Kept at home from necessity’. And in 1868 he reached the age of twelve, so becoming eligible to work, and his academic career ground to a halt.
MATT’S DESCENT INTO ALCOHOLISM
The young boy was fortunate to be employed fairly quickly, by a firm of wine merchants by the name of E. and J. Burke, who were situated in a number of buildings on the quays next to the River Liffey. Matt remained there for four years as a messenger, earning four shillings each week at first, and finally six shillings. It was at this time that a habit would begin to be formed which would lead to the near downfall of the young man.
Matt discovered that it was quite easy to steal pints of ‘porter’, one of the drinks produced in the winery. On occasions he would arrive home drunk, much to the consternation of his parents. His father, Charles, finally arranged for Matt to be given employment as a message boy at the Custom House docks where he himself was working. But this did not solve the problem – now, instead of drinking beers, the sixteen year old Matt began on whisky.
The fortunes of the Talbot family were declining, as several of the boys shared Matt’s love of alcohol. The family had (by 1870) moved to a tenement at 5 Love Lane – and it made their former dwellings seem almost palatial by comparison. The antics of the boys engendered anger in Charles Talbot, and deep sadness in his wife. In later life, Matt commented –
“When I was young, I was very careless about religion because of drink , and I broke my mothers heart.”
Another time, he told a friend –
“I was terribly fond of drink, but God gave me the grace to give it up; it was a great struggle for me.”
Alcoholism was a terrible scourge in the Dublin of that era, even as it remains now. In the year Matt was born, Father Theobald Matthew, known as the ‘Apostle of Temperance’, had gone to his eternal reward. Along with him went the driving force which had made his movement so successful and widespread. The Temperance Movement had remained founded on the personality and charisma of its founder, and when he died, the movement floundered and perished to a large degree. Of five million people who ‘signed the pledge’, only one hundred thousand were still keeping it a decade after the death of Father Theobald.
Often, Matt had only a shilling left of his wages to give to his mother for the housekeeping. Sometimes he had nothing at all, having spent everything on the drink. On occasions, Matt would pawn his meagre belongings to obtain money for alcohol; other times, he and his brothers would steal. One such time involved the theft of a fiddle from a street busker, although this event would later come back to haunt Matt. On another occasion, he and his friends stole pickled pigs ears in order to obtain money. And so Matt’s life went on, spent between working (now, by 1882, at the Ports and Docks) and drinking.
MATT’S PATH TO CONVERSION
One day in 1884, an event occurred which began a series of changes within the heart of Matt Talbot.
Having no money to hand, he was waiting near the pub which was the main haunt of he and his friends, in the hope that as they passed him they would invite him for a drink at their expense. But he was disappointed when not one of them did so. And so he went home, sober – to the surprise of his mother. He announced to her that he was going to Holy Cross College, the local seminary, in order to take the Pledge of the Temperance Movement. Elizabeth, who knew her son well, said –
“Then in God’s Name, go; but take no pledge unless you intend to keep it”.
At the College, Matt spoke to one of the Priests, and took the Pledge for a period of three months. He also attended the Sacrament of Confession, after a lapse in his religious duties lasting several years. The next morning he attended Mass and received Holy Communion. And then he began to attend the early morning Mass before going off to work.
Elizabeth Talbot later commented on how difficult Matt found this time, although he remained faithful to the promise he had made. At the end of the three month period, he renewed it for a six month period, and then for life. His practice of attending daily Mass continued, and he also developed a practical use for the solitude of the Church; he would spend long hours in prayer there after work, praying for himself, but also remaining there because it helped him to avoid those persons and places which would be problematic for him. On one occasion, Matt was near one of the pubs he had used to frequent, and he was clinking the coins in his pocket. Finally, he went into the pub. But no-one came to serve him as he stood there patiently, until eventually he left and headed for the Church in Gardiner Street, where he spent the remainder of the evening in prayer. In order to avoid a repetition of what was, for him, an occasion of sin, he never again carried loose change on him.
His friends noticed the change in Matt, but commented upon it only occasionally, and then only when asked. One of Matt’s friends, Pat Doyle, was a renowned drinker and fighter. He had been in another part of Ireland for some, and upon his return he wondered why Matt was not out drinking with the others. Asking his whereabouts, he was informed that Matt was “a changed man”. Later, he bumped into Matt, and they went off together to catch up on their friendship. Without realising where he was being led, Pat Doyle found himself in the grounds of Clonliffe College, with a Priest approaching them. Pat later described the meeting, noting how the Priest appeared to know Matt very well. Matt was intending that Pat should take the Temperance Pledge, and this is what he found himself doing, without realising how this had come about. However, when Matt asked the Priest to hear Pat’s Confession, the astounded man got up from his knees and ran off, leaving his hat on the grass where he had knelt to make his promise of abstention.
He later tried to convert other friends, sometimes successfully, other times not. On once occasion, much later in his life, he managed to persuade a man to return to the Sacraments after a period of absence lasting more than thirty years. He also set about converting those of his brothers who were still drinking excessively.
In 1890, Matt left the family home and moved into a small room in Gloucester Street. His sister, a married woman, lived near him and she took it upon herself to cook a meal for him each day and to ensure his room was kept tidy. Forty seven years later, at one of the Tribunals established to examine the life of Matt Talbot with a view to advancing his Cause for Canonisation, Mary gave her testimony about Matt’s life at this time. She stated –
“For a long time after his conversion, Matt was still repaying money he owed from the drink. He would enter those public houses where he had been ‘on the slate’, and hand over the money he knew was due. Then he would leave quickly. My mother told me that he and his brothers once stole a fiddle from a street player and sold it to buy drink. Afterwards, Matt searched all the city and even went into all the poor houses looking for the musician in order to repay him. But he could not find him.”
A friend of Matt’s later recalled that since Matt had been unable to find the street busker in order to repair for the theft of the violin, he finally gave the money to a Priest so that Masses would be offered for the busker’s soul.
Matt’s life had changed dramatically, but he kept this new life carefully hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from those who knew him best. His family and closest friends knew that he no longer drank or swore, and that he was a regular attender at a number of the local Churches, and that he was spending an ever-greater amount of time in prayer. But they did not realise the depth of his commitment to God, and the levels of gradual holiness which he was slowly attaining. But despite all this, he remained entirely human, and experienced those temptations which are part of the common lot. It was still very difficult for Matt to remain alcohol-free, for instance, despite the success of his abstention so far. He eventually began smoking, until he recognised this for what it was – one addiction in place of another. And so he approached a Priest, and took another pledge – this one, promising his abstention from all tobacco. As it happened, on the morning of that pledge Matt had bought a new pipe which he had admired for some time, and a new pouch full of fresh tobacco. At work that day, a friend asked Matt if he could spare some tobacco for a smoke; in response, Matt had this man not only the full pouch, but the new pipe also. He never smoked again.
MATT TAKES UP HIS CROSS DAILY
It was around this time that Matt began that series of practices for which he is perhaps most well known, and which he tried very carefully to conceal from those around him.
Matt had taken to heart the words of Christ – “Deny yourself, take up your Cross daily and follow Me”.
So he looked for way of doing precisely this – denying himself for the love of God and of neighbour. And he found many such ways. In 1937, two of his sisters gave their evidence concerning his life. During that testimony, some of the little mortifications he practised came to light. One of his sisters said –
“After work until about ten o’clock, Matt was hardly ever off his knees; he even ate his dinner on his knees. If someone called to visit, he would sit down. At that time, he might take meat once or twice a week, or eggs for dinner. During Lent he took nothing, only dry bread and cocoa, shell cocoa. Sometimes, but never on a Wednesday or a Friday, a little fish. He fasted from meat all June in honour of the Sacred Heart and the same for a week before big feastdays and the same in Advent. We seldom saw him at his prayers as he wanted to be alone. He would not eat any dainties, but on Christmas morning he would ask for a bit of tender steak to be fried for him. He usually lived on dry bread and shell cocoa without milk or sugar.. He often referred to his past sins, saying, ‘Where would I be, only for God and His Blessed Mother?’ He had a little statue of Our Lady and used to say, ‘No-one knows what a good mother She has been to me’”.
At times he would fast strictly all day, eating nothing wahtsoever until after he had been able to participate at the evening Mass. Sometimes when his sister would bring him a little fish, he would tell her to take it home with her, but to leave him the water in which it had been cooked.
His other surviving sister, Susan, spoke a little about one of the more austere penances for which Matt became so well known following his death –
“He slept on a broad plank the width of the bed, and he had a wooden block for a pillow. These he kept covered with a sheet and a light blanket. When I saw the plank and the block at first, they were lying against the wall. When I asked him what they were for, all he said was, ‘They’re for a purpose’.”
He continued to attend Mass every day and to receive Holy Communion at each one, and he went to Confession every Saturday – even though the common practice at that time was confession perhaps twice a year.
To sustain him along this spiritual path, Matt spent every possible moment in prayer, so long as this did not conflict with his daily duty. He recognised that his daily duty was a prayer of its own, and sanctified by the practice of humility and littleness in the ordinary course of life.
The two sisters also related how their mother had often awoken in the night to find Matt deep in prayer, his arms outstretched in the form of a Cross, like the Celtic monks and Saint Patrick himself. However, whenever Mrs Talbot related to her daughters something of the spirituality which she discovered surrounding her son, she would also warn them never to mention any of it to anyone. Very occasionally, people outwith the family would see something of Matt’s deep prayer life, and some of these people also testified what they had seen, long after Matt was dead. One such person was an altar boy who had seen Matt in the Berkeley Road Church, lost in prayer before a Crucifix, and with his arms outstretched like the Crucified. The altar boy related that at those times, Matt believed himself to be alone in the Church, and did not realise that his prayers were being witnessed. That altar boy was called Sean T O’Ceallaigh, and he later became President of Ireland. He stated in his testimony –
“Sometimes Matt would be waiting outside before the Church opened for the early Mass. He got to know a few of us altar boys well, and would call us by our Christian names. We always called him Mr Talbot, although he was very poorly dressed and wore the muffler workingmen wore then instead of a collar and tie. He was very neat and clean; sometimes the boys would call him Holy Joe, making fun of him, but he never resented that. He was very kind and friendly. He would pray aloud sometimes, and seem oblivious to everyone and everything. Later on, when I was older, he often stopped me in the street to ask how I was getting on at school; and when I started work, he would enquire how things were and warn me to mind my work and to do it well.”
On a practical level, Matt knew that to fully appreciate the great heritage bequeathed to us by the Church, he would need to learn to read properly; whatever skills he had learned at school had long since been neglected and forgotten. And so he taught himself, beginning with very simple books initially, and gradually progressing. He had a keen intelligence, and was able to understand the thinking of some of the greatest theologians and fathers of the Church, and he greatly enjoyed any form of spiritual work, especially the lives of the Saints. When a friend found the poor labourer reading one of Cardinal Newmans works, Matt explained –
“When I get hold of a book like that, I always pray to Our Blessed Lady and I believe that She always inspires me to take the correct meaning out of the words.”
However, he never really mastered the art of writing, and even as an adult his writing was more like that of a child. He would write footnotes in the books he read, and these betray the limitations of his skills, although they also clearly display the deep spirituality of the man, who could express a profound sentiment in a single sentence.
He gradually progressed from simple little books to great treatises and theological concordances, spending a long time pondering over each, and making notes in the margins. He dated each of the books, so that it is possible to trace the path that he was following. And all along this path, he never let go of the Scriptures, and especially the Gospels. In particular, the accounts of the Passion were heavily marked in each of the Bibles he possessed, as well as a number of the Psalms. His little library contained works by and about Augustine, Francis de Sales, Rodriguez, Newman, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Blosius, and many others, as well as various Church histories, catechisms, and works on the religious and spiritual life. Also included were numerous leaflets, prayer cards, confraternity membership certificates, and litanies.
Throughout his life, Matt was greatly respected; initially simply because he was such a good and hard worker, a man of great integrity, and one who could always be relied upon to assist those less fortunate, even though he had very little himself. As time passed, however, the air of sanctity which surrounded and enveloped this ordinary working-class man became almost palpable to those who were in contact with him.
One of Matt’s closest friends, Paddy Laird, recalled some stories from the times he shared with Matt –
“One day, I found Matt in his little shed at Martin’s Timber Yard. A rat was on the table, nibbling at Matt’s bit o dry bread. I was going to peg a stone at it, but Matt stopped me. He spoke to the rat, nice and soft like, saying, ‘Come on now, get down’. And the rat obeyed him. Then he began to tell me about the good rats do – ‘They may do some damage, but they clean the sewers and they are Gods creatures. He made them for some purpose…
“Some people think that Matt would not chat, that he went around in silence. Not at all. He was very pleasant company and enjoyed a laugh. The only thing he wouldn’t laugh at was a dirty joke, and he’d check the men who used the Holy Name when speaking. A strange thing, he could handle bullies; men whom no-one would cross would be like little lambs after a few words with Matt.
“I remember during the First World War, Ned Lyons was worried when word came that his son Jack was reported missing and presumed dead. That’s what was in the telegram, but Matt said to Ned, ‘Don’t worry, Ned, he’ll be home’. The next day another wire came, confirming that Jack was dead. Matt told him, ‘Ned, forget that wire’. Sure enough, when Ned went home that evening, there was Jack sitting at the kitchen table. It seems that he had been given leave but no-one had entered it on the lists of men on leave.”
Paddy Laird also recalled that –
“He seldom spoke about religious matters to me, except to give me books on the lives of the Saints. I often saw him kneeling in prayer in a corner of the timber yard where no-one could see him, or between the timber stacks. I used to feel ashamed to interrupt him. After a while I’d call him by name and he’d call back, ‘What do you want?’. He’d come out but would look a little annoyed because he used to hide the fact that he prayed so much.”
Another friend was Dan Manning. Matt was well acquainted both with Dan and with his wife and family, and was very highly thought of by them all –
“He would not waste a moment. When free, he’d be praying or reading. Except for the few minutes taking his scrap of lunch, he spent his lunch hour at his books or praying. He seemed to have his own way of praying, not reading prayers or saying prayers learned by heart. In spite of his hard penance – my wife can tell you about his lunch – he was well able for his work and looked well. He was a silent man and tried to avoid notice; he went about with his eyes cast down. I never met anyone like him; he was totally wrapped up in God, but always in good humour and a great favourite with all the men.”
John Gunning, who knew Matt for more than three decades, gave an insight into something of the spirituality of the man –
“We were both in the Rosary Confraternity of the Dominican Church, Saint Saviour’s. Matt lent me the life if Saint Catherine of Sienna. Before I read it, I asked him if she wore a chain. He looked confused and said he supposed that she did. Some time later, he told me of a devotion to Our Lady, the True Devotion, and said it lifted him from earth to Heaven. He said he wore a chain, as a sign that he made himself the slave of Our Lady. I asked him to get me a chain. He did and brought me to Clonliffe College, to Dr Hickey. As Dr Hickey was out, we saw Father Waters; he enrolled us and I wore the chain, same as Matt.”
One man, Ralph O’Callaghan, had heard a relative mention a tenant of hers who, she said, was holy, austere and prayerful. Curious, Ralph arranged to meet the man, on the pretext of giving him some clothing and books. This led to a long friendship between the two of them. Ralph later commented on the day he first met Matt Talbot –
“I tried to ascertain that he was quite normal – free from eccentricity and with common sense on matters of religion. He made a most favourable impression on me. He was somewhat shy at first, but after a few visits, seemed to be quite at home with me and would chat. On a few occasions he accepted a little hospitality. He was very poor in 1912 and 1913 and came regularly until his illness in 1923. In manner he was plain, but natural and unaffected; he was direct and outspoken. I judged him to be shrewd and clear-headed, with a strong will. There was nothing whatever nervy or over-wrought about him, or anything to suggest that he was the bit unbalanced. His Faith, devotion, and utter sincerity were apparent in all he said on religious subjects. He freely admitted to intemperance in his youth.”
One evening Matt was visiting Ralph. In order to test his humility, Ralph said to his friend –
“You know, Matt, you have been granted great spiritual gifts. But you know there’s a danger attached to them; you might take pride in them.”
Matt’s reply was exactly as Ralph surmised it might be –
“And why would I? The credit isn’t due to me, but to God Who gave the grace. How little I do compared to all the great Saints.”
MATT, THE POOR MAN WHO GAVE
Amongst Matt Talbot’s spiritual activities was his consistent alms-giving, despite the fact that he was himself terribly poor, materially at least.
In his later years, Matt received a little over £3 1s. Not a princely amount by any means. From this, he would pay for the flowers at the Church altar , give a sum of money weekly to an elderly infirm lady who lived on the streets, and donate sums to the Missions, especially those is Nigeria and China and the Far East. He would also send money to a number of convents, including that of the Poor Clare’s. Other recipients of his alms were an orphanage in America, a group concerned with preserving the Holy Shrines in Palestine, and at least two confraternities in France. Normally, his letters of donation were unsigned, or else signed ‘From a friend in Dublin’. Other times, his charitable donations were made via a trusted intermediary whose silence was assured. The only letter ever written by Matt himself is in the possession of the Vatican Library, at the express request of the late Pope Paul VI, who thought very highly of Matt Talbot. This letter was addressed to the Maynooth Mission to China, who benefited often from Matt’s compassion. It is reproduced here exactly as it is written –
“Matt Talbot have done no work for past 18 months. I have Been Sick and Given over by Priest and Doctor. I don’t think I will work any more there one pound from me and ten Shillings from my sisser.”
On those occasions when Matt had no money left to give to the Missions and Christian societies and associations, he did not hesitate to sell some of his few possessions in order to raise meagre funds for the charities. On one occasion, he was reprimanded by Ralph O’Callaghan when he arrived at Ralph’s home in the middle of winter without a coat; Ralph had already given him a heavy coat, but he had sold this to send money to a convent.
In 1923, Matt Talbot fell ill, and spent two periods of a month each in hospital in Dublin. One of those who testimony was heard after Matt’s death was Professor Henry Moore, of the Mater Hospital. It was he who diagnosed the problems affecting Matt’s heart and kidneys. It was only after great persuasion that Matt could be persuaded by the Professor to be admitted to the Hospital for treatment and recuperation.
As is common for those who are far advanced along the path of true holiness, Matt’s health problems were of little consequence to him. All tings were gifts from the Divine Providence, and to be accepted humbly as such, no matter what the personal cost. Professor Moore seems to agree with this, for he alter testified –
“I got the impression that he was quite indifferent to his ailment and was prepared to accept whatever it pleased God to send him. While in hospital he behaved wonderfully as a patient and in a saintly manner. It occurred to at first that he might be a religious crank. I gathered that he gave away a good deal of his money to others, and I had the impression that he left himself short of food. He also told me that he got up at 5:00am to go, fasting, to an early Mass and he told me, too, that he remained in the Church for several Masses. I was not long in changing my opinion of Matt Talbot. He was a most obedient and submissive patient and impressed me very much. He was one of the gentlest men I have ever come across, and – were it not that I was so busy at that time – I would have liked to have had him as my friend.
“It was with some reluctance on his part that I was able to glean from him the information about his life and his austerities. I remember advising him to have something to eat after one Mass, before going out to hear other Masses.. Of all the persons I have met in my life, Matt Talbot seemed to me to be an outstandingly holy man. Now, I have a little talk with Matt every day in my prayers; I have great affection for him, and when praying, I ask him to do things for me. My son developed infective hepatitis; I got a tiny portion of Matt’s wooden pillow from the Archbishop, pinned it to the boy’s pyjamas; he began to improve at once and within three days I was back at UCD.”
When Matt arrived at Mater Hospital, he was quite unwell. After two days, he was given the Sacraments of the Dying – Confession, Communion and the Annointing of the Sick. After his transfer to Saint Brendan’s ward, he came under the care of Sister Emmanuel. She later recalled that Matt would lie with his face to the wall, and she believed that he was praying there. Later, when able to walk, he would pray his Rosary as he did so, but keeping his beads out of sight. However, he was saddened that he was strictly forbidden to kneel while in the hospital Chapel, and so he had to resign himself to sitting reverently at the back.
He was discharged finally, but re-admitted two months later, under the care of Sister Veronica in Saint Lawrence’s ward. She told the Tribunal examining his life –
“When fit to be up, Matt spent much of his time in the organ gallery of the Chapel. He would forget to come for meals, so that a nurse had to be sent to fetch him back. One day I told him that if he was not back in the ward for mealtimes, I would give him a cold dinner – he replied that it was necessary to feed the soul, as well as the body. Some time after Matt’s death, I asked the man who had been in the bed next to him, if he had thought of Matt as exceptionally holy; he replied that he had indeed thought this, and that Matt was always praying, even during the night. Matt used to lead the recitation of the Rosary in the ward. When he had heart attacks, he suffered considerably, yet he never complained.”
Other Sister commented on his gentleness, is acceptance of whatever was placed before him, and his ever-present smile.
Sister Dolores mentioned the occasion on which he was annointed –
“After receiving the Last Sacraments, he seemed to be scarcely breathing. But looking back now, I think that he was profoundly recollected. He disappeared the first day he was allowed up, and we couldn’t find him anywhere. At length, he was found in a corner of the Chapel, praying. When I scolded him, he smiled at me and said that since he had already thanked the doctors and nurses, it was time to thank the Great Healer. His words made a great impression on me.”
After his return home several weeks, later, he found himself very short of money, having already received all he was entitled to from his National Health Insurance. At last, he only had his sickness benefit of 7s and 6d a week. And so his friends spent much time trying to persuade him to accept a donation of £3 from the Saint Vincent de Paul Society; eventually, and very reluctantly, he consented. Other friends brought him gifts of food, but he gave these away to neighbours who were more destitute than himself. After paying his rent, he was left with a whole sixpence to call his own each week.
Finally, in the spring of 1925, Matt returned to work, having had enough of what he considered to be idleness. However, he was still very weak, and aware that what he could now do was limited. He also knew that his precarious state of health was a fragile thing indeed; he had been warned by Professor Moore that he was liable to suffer a sudden death. The first week back at work, Matt spent his wages on Masses in thanksgiving for the blessings he had received from God.
MATT’S DEATH, TRINITY SUNDAY 1925
In 1925, Trinity Sunday was celebrated on 7th June. It was an exceptionally hot day in Dublin.
This was one feast that Matt Talbot was always very careful to celebrate very specially indeed. That morning he arose early and began his usual series of prayers and Masses at the local Churches. He was out of the tenement before the other tenants were even awake.
Since it was the first Sunday of the month, it was the day on which the Men’s Sodality at the Gardiner Street Church celebrated their Mass. Matt’s long—time friend, Paddy Laird, was with him at that Mass –
“When after the Mass we stood up and sang a hymn to Our Lady, Matt stood and sang with the rest of us. But when the hymn came to an end and everyone knelt down, Matt forgot to kneel and remained standing, seemingly not taking notice of anyone or anything, until the man on his other side nudged him. It was most unusual for him not to kneel when everyone else did.”
A little later, back at the Rutland Street tenement, Matt bumped into a neighbour, who commented that Matt was not looking too well. Matt admitted that he was feeling weak, but tried to remain cheerful nonetheless. After going up to his room for something to drink, Matt left the tenement again, once more passing the same neighbour. This man later testified –
“He looked so weak that I suggested that he should not go out without resting a little longer. He smiled, said that he felt alright and was going to the Church in Dominick Street. I waited till he went round the corner. That was the last I saw of Matt alive. I was going to follow him but, knowing he was a man who did not wish anyone to pass remarks on him, I went to Mass in Gardiner Street instead.”
Matt went into a lane which led to the Church, walked a few steps and then fell to the ground. A man who was close behind him described this –
“He was less than five feet away from me. I saw him shudder, partly turn and then fall to the ground. I ran to him, as also did a young man named Walsh. We loosened his shirt collar but I knew that he was dead. I ran to Dominick Street Priory and brought a Priest. But when the Priest saw him, he knew that the life had already left him. So we knelt down and prayed for the repose of his soul.”
The parishioners were beginning to leave the Church after the 9:00am Mass, and a crowd gathered around the poor man’s body. Someone said that there had been a doctor at the Mass, and asked that he been called. Dr Eustace ran quickly to the spot, examined the limp body and pronounced the man dead. He later testified –
“I, Dr E P Eustace, attended Matthew Talbot on 7th June 1925, when he died in Granby Lane on his way to the Dominican Priory Church. He died on the left side of the road, about three feet from the path on the way from Parnell Square. In my opinion, he died from heart failure.”
An ambulance was summoned, and the body was removed to the hospital in Jervis Street, where it was taken to the mortuary.
No-one present could identify the elderly, frail-looking man, who looked serene even while in the clasp of death.
Later that day, Matt’s sisters, Mary and Susan, were frantic when Matt did not return in time for dinner. After a little while, they contacted the police, and gave them Matt’s description.
DISCOVERY OF THE CHAINS
When the body of the seventy-year old man arrived at the Jervis Street hospital mortuary, it was received by the mortician, Charles Manners, and by a porter, Laurence Thornton. A Catholic Priest was summoned, but did not annoint the body, as this had already been done in the Lane. The mortician and porter then began to undress the body, and it was then that a discovery was made which would transport the life of Matt Talbot from the silence of obscurity and into the gaze of the entire Catholic Church and of the world. It was only after forty years of continual conversion and striving for true and lasting holiness that the extent of that sanctity was to be revealed. The discovery concerned Matt’s chains. Matt seems to have received the idea of these chains from his reading of True Devotion To The Blessed Virgin, by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, in which the practice of wearing a chain is suggested as a sign of the holy slavery of the soul to God, through Mary, the Mother of God. It is also possible that Matt would have read about similar practices in the lives of many of the Saints who so inspired him.
The scene is best described in the words of the man who made this discovery, Charles Manners, who had just come upon a cord wrapped around one arm, and a chain wound round the other. Mr Manners relates –
“I was cutting his clothing with scissors when I found a larger chain, with links about half an inch long, the size of a horse’s trace, wound round the body. There was also a chain below the knee, so placed that it must have caused him great mortification when kneeling. He had a cord below the other knee. We sent for Sister Ignatius and showed her the chains.”
Sister Ignatius told the two men to keep the chains, so that they could be placed in the coffin alongside the body.
When the friends of Matt Talbot finally learned of these chains, they were astonished. They had no idea of the extent of Matt’s mortification or deep spirituality, although all agreed that he was truly holy. It remains unclear how long Matt had been wearing the chains, but it seems likely that they were adopted as an extra act of penance later in his life, since no-one was aware of their existence earlier in his life and work-mates stated it would have bee impossible for Matt to work as hard as he did had he been wearing the chains in the yard.
The day after Matt’s death, his sister Mary was summoned to the hospital to identify the body. She was shown the chains and asked their purpose. She simply said that Matt had worn them, and that they were to be buried along with him in the coffin. However, Mary took one of the smaller chains and later divided it into sections, giving these to a number of people later.
Matt was buried the following Thursday, 11th June 1925, which was the Feast of Corpus Christi. This would have made him smile, to have been buried on such a feast. On the Wednesday night, Matt’s mortal remains were carried to the Church in Gardiner Street, and placed overnight in the Sacred Heart chapel, where so much of his time had been spent in prayer.
The Church was very busy, since it was a holiday. The family were present, as were Matt’s friends and many of his work colleagues. There were also a great many people who had never known Matt, but who had already learned of his extraordinary spirituality and holiness. Finally, the coffin was lowered into grave number SK 319 in the section of Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery which had been dedicated to Saint Brigid of Ireland.
CAUSE FOR CANONISATION
After Matt’s death, the story of his life began to spread far and wide. Many were deeply touched by learning of the life of this simple and very ordinary man, to whom they could all relate, and whose prayers they had no hesitation in seeking.
On 6th November 1931, Archbishop Byrne opened the first session of the Tribunal which he established in order to examine the life of Matt Talbot. This was the Informative Process, the first step toward possible eventual canonisation by the Catholic Church. All of the testimonies gathered under oath were collected and sent to the Holy Father in Rome. And at the conclusion of the second part of the process, the Apostolic Process, held in 1953, the testimonies – and more of them, this time – were again sent to the Vatican.
The year before the Apostolic Process was opened, the mortal remains of the Servant of God were exhumed, identified and then placed in a double coffin of oak. On the outer one, a chiselled brass plate read, ‘The Servant Of God, Matthew Talbot’. They were then translated to a large marble crypt in the centre of Glasnevin cemetary, which afforded a view of the coffin contained within it.
The coffin remained there until 1972, and during those years, a steady influx of pilgrims came to the tomb to seek the intercession of the Servant of God. Among those who prayed there were the ordinary Faithful above all, as well as priests, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, and even the future Pope Paul VI.
In 1972, the remains of Matt Talbot were placed in a new tomb, this one contained within the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, close to where Matt had lived. As before, the coffin can be seen within the crypt – this time thanks to a glass panel placed in front.
In October of 1975, Matt was declared ‘Venerable’ by Pope Paul VI.
His story applies not only to those with problems of addiction, but to all of us who seek to answer that ‘universal call to holiness’ which the Second Vatican Council spoke of. Matt certainly sought to answer that call in his life and the grace of God transformed him in the process. To this day, many men, women and children come to the tomb in order to seek the prayerful assistance of this modern day man of holiness and witness to the grace of God, Matt Talbot.
Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us.
Original text © Most Merciful Jesus