Monday, February 25, 2008

"Wiry little Irishman still inspires faith"

By Effie Cadarola

Catholic Anchor, Anchorage, Alaska

February 8, 2008

One Sunday morning in 1925, Trinity Sunday to be exact, a man dropped dead on a Dublin street.

He was taken to a mortuary where the Sisters of Mercy came to prepare his corpse for burial.

A poor man lives and dies in obscurity, and that would have been this man's fate, save for the fact that the good sisters discovered the man was covered with chains under his clothing.

According to a very old brochure (1st edition, 1926) produced by something called "The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland," the man, Matt Talbot, had "a cart chain tied twice around the body, and hung with religious medals; around one arm was a lighter chain, around the other, the cord of St. Francis; around one leg a chain similar to that which was around the arm; around the other, a rope was tied tightly."

To our modern sensibilities, this may sound peculiar, but to the sisters who cared for Matt's body, the chains were a sign of religious fervor and penitential living.

And when one of the sisters looked into the matter, she discovered a life lived humbly but with a remarkable story of conversion and sanctity.

I've always been intrigued by Matt Talbot, since the time when I was very young and found a book about him tucked away in a closet on our farm.

Since this was long before the Internet, and I lived 10 miles from a minimally well-stocked library, I sought information about Matt from what I (as a little kid) considered a good source: I wrote to the President of Ireland.

Someone on Eamon de Valera's staff sent me the funky little pamphlet I still have. Now the Internet has plenty on Matt.

Born in 1856 to a poor family in poverty-stricken Dublin, Matt quit school early to work. At the tender age of 12, he began drinking, and soon became a desperate addict: selling his own shoes for alcohol, stealing a fiddle from a man whose sole income was fiddling.

At the age of 25, humbled by what he had become, he took "the pledge," went to confession, and never drank again. By the accounts of his friends, a happy man devoted to his labor union, he led a life of monastic devotion.

Matt's cause for canonization was formally introduced in Rome in 1947. In 1973 the church declared him "venerable." It was rumored in Talbot circles that Pope John Paul II, a man who canonized more saints than any before him, had a special interest in Matt.

The next step towards canonization is "beatification" which means the church has found one verifiable miracle — a measurable, physical miracle — attributed to the intercession of that candidate. A second miracle is required for canonization.

I'm not the only person in my family intrigued by Matt.

"Matt Talbot, being the stubborn Irishman he is, has never produced any physical miracles," writes my cousin Mary Costello, who has written about Matt and worked for his cause for years. "But we have literally thousands of stories about people who have sobered up due to their own prayers or the prayers of someone who loves them."

"I have a couple in my own life!" she added.

I have some intercessions pending with Matt myself. There's something appealing about the wiry little Irishman — so he's described — who spent his life looking for that fiddler to repay and never found him.

There's a section on Matt Talbot in Kenneth Woodward's book, "Making Saint," and at, you can find information about my cousin Mary's book, "A Little Book about Matt Talbot."

The writer is a stewardship and hospitality coordinator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage