Overseas Missions

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Overseas Missions

In the modern period Ireland's first overseas missionaries came from the Protestant churches. The Irish auxiliary to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was founded as early as 1714. Members of the auxiliary worked in the American colonies, South Africa, India, Japan, and West Africa. No less active was the Hibernian Church Missionary Society, founded in 1814. Many Irish men and women were also involved in English or international missionary agencies such as the South American Missionary Society, the Church of England Missionary Society, the Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society, the Moravian missions, the Baptist missions, the Methodist Missionary Society, the Sudan Interior Mission, and the Sudan United Mission. Among the homegrown agencies were the Irish Presbyterian missions and the Mission to Lepers.

With the flood of emigration from Ireland during the nineteenth century the Irish Roman Catholic Church increasingly focused on the pastoral care of Irish emigrants to Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and the West Indies. There were also considerable numbers of Irish soldiers and civil servants in British territories such as India who required pastoral care. The first institution to train missionaries specifically for this diaspora was All Hallows College, established in Dublin in 1842 by Father John Hand with the support of the church hierarchy. Before then the emigrants had been served by priests from Irish diocesan seminaries, principally Saint Kieran's College, Kilkenny (1782); Saint Patrick's College, Carlow (1793); Saint John's College, Waterford (1807); and Saint Peter's College, Wexford (1819). Saint Patrick's College, Maynooth (1795), Ireland's national seminary, also contributed priests, mainly for India and Australia. Irish convents were just as active: Loreto Sisters, Irish Sisters of Mercy, Presentation Sisters, Irish Sisters of Charity, Dominicans, and Ursulines all established foundations in the Irish diaspora countries. Irish Christian Brothers, De La Salle Brothers, and Patrician Brothers participated equally in serving the emigrant Irish.

Within the worldwide Roman Catholic communion there was a strong revival of missionary services to non-Christian peoples during the late seventeenth century, spearheaded by the French church and led by new agencies established exclusively for missionary work. This revival came in the wake of the decline and virtual disappearance of the great missionary movement which had followed the era of exploration and had endured down to the time of the French Revolution. During the third quarter of the nineteenth century this movement came to include Italy, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and England. Its arrival in Ireland dates from the establishment of the movement's main promotion and fundraising agency—the Association for the Propagation for the Faith (1838)—and the arrival of a number of continental agencies in search of candidates for their missions in British colonies, principally the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (1858) and the Society of African Missions (1877). These agencies set down roots in Ireland and promoted the missionary message. Several continental orders of women religious recruited successfully in Ireland, but they were less influential because, with few exceptions (Sisters of the Good Shepherd [1852], Sisters of the Holy Family [1875] and Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles [1887]), they rarely established convents in the nineteenth century. The Irish Church, too, growing more confident and outward looking since revocation of the penal laws, experienced a steady increase in young people offering themselves as priests, sisters or brothers to serve not only in Ireland, but overseas among the emigrant Irish and among non-Christian peoples.

In the opening decades of the twentieth century interest in missionary activity intensified within the Irish Church. The formation of the Maynooth mission to China (Saint Columban's Foreign Mission Society) in 1916 was the great watershed in the history of the missionary movement. Influenced by Ireland's growing interest in missions and by the new spirit of cultural and political identity, the stream of missionary vocations became a flood. Existing religious orders such as the Vincentians, Domincans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and Franciscans increasingly took on commitments to non-Christian missions. Presentation and Loreto Sisters were in the forefront of work among non-Christians in India. Christian Brothers went to Africa. Most significant of all, within the space of two decades four additional indigenous missionary bodies were established: The Missionary Sisters of Saint Columban (1922); the Sisters of the Holy Rosary (1924); Saint Patrick's Missionary Society (1932); and the Medical Missionaries of Mary (1937). Missionaries from these agencies worked principally in the Far East and Asia, in Africa, and in South and Central America.

During the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century Irish laity supported overseas missions with money that was channeled through the Association for the Propagation of the Faith and other mission-aid societies. There were some laypersons who took a more active part, assisting in the promotion of missionary magazines, and forming groups of apostolic workers who supplied sacred vessels and liturgical materials. Laity also served overseas mainly as teachers, nurses, doctors, and catechists. Lay participation increased significantly with the establishment of lay missionary organizations such as the Viatores Christi (1962) and an Irish branch of the Volunteer Missionary Movement (1972).

By the late 1960s Ireland had more than 7,000 Protestant and Catholic missionaries overseas. Since then the number has been gradually diminishing. In 1982, reflecting a decline in recruitment, there were 5,613 missionaries working in 86 developing countries, including 142 missionaries from Protestant denominations working in ten countries. Today the figure is significantly smaller, and the average age of the missionary is rapidly rising. But Irish missionaries, both to emigrants and to non-Christians, have made a signal contribution in establishing many young churches that are now growing to maturity. They continue to help in the development of countries through their work for education, health care, and other social needs, and they play an important role in alerting the global community to injustice and poverty.

SEE ALSO Evangelicalism and Revivals; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Presbyterianism; Religious Orders: Men;Religious Orders: Women; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


Condon, Kevin. The Missionary College of All Hallows, 1842–1891. 1986.

Hickey, Raymond, ed. Modern Missionary Documents and Africa. 1982.

Hogan, Edmund M. The Irish Missionary Movement: A Historical Survey, 1830–1980. 1990.

McGlade, Joseph. The Missions: Africa and the Orient. 1967.

Edmund M. Hogan