The Relic of St Willibrord

The St Willibrord Project, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and the First Apostle of the Netherlands, is an international multi agency project between County Carlow and Echternach, Luxembourg, coordinated from the Irish side by Carlow County Museum on behalf of our parent body Carlow County Council.

The Relic of St Willibrord statue was presented to the Most Reverend Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, by the Most Reverend Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg (now Cardinal Hollerich), in the Basilica of St Willibrord, Echternach, Luxembourg, on Monday June 5th, 2017.

The Relic is a piece of his bone and is contained within the rose window of a scale model of the Basilica of St Willibrord, which St Willibrord is holding in his right hand while he holds his crosier in his left hand. The bronze statue is of the young missionary Willibrord standing on a piece of sandstone which has been taken from the remains of his original abbey, which is in the crypt of the present-day Basilica. The Echternach based Willibrordus-Bauverein commissioned German artist, Mr. Bernd Cassau, to make the beautiful statue, which measures a total height of 66cm. The Relic is now on permanent display in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow Town.

Archbishop Hollerich said he had given permission for a Relic of St Willibrord to be presented to County Carlow, to thank Carlow for training, ordaining and instilling in St Willibrord the missionary zeal that Irish and Irish-trained monks are known for. St Willibrord spent twelve years being formed as a missionary monk at the famed ecclesiastical settlement of Rath Melsigi, Garryhundon, Co. Carlow. He was probably ordained at the monastery now occupied by St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, Co. Carlow. He embarked on his major European mission in AD 690. He died in AD 739 and is buried in Echternach, Luxembourg, the site of his major monastic foundation and scriptorium.

Bishop Denis Nulty acceptance speech for the Relic of St Willibrord, Echternach, Luxembourg

The presentation of the Relic was part of the annual celebrations hosted in Echternach to celebrate St Willibrord and the three days events culminates on Tuesday morning with the UNESCO World Heritage Status ‘hopping procession’. Both Bishop Nulty and the Right Reverend Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ferns, Ossory and Leighlin, along with Cllr. John Murphy, Cathaoirleach of Carlow County Council, lead a joint ecumenical diocesan pilgrimage of nearly sixty people from Carlow to Echternach to not only accept the relic but to become the first known Irish group to participate in the hopping procession.

On Saturday June 24th, 2017, the Walk With Willibrord saw the relic of St Willibrord being brought to its permanent home in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow Town. The Relic was walked over 13km from St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin (Church of Ireland/ Anglican Church) to the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow Town (Roman Catholic) via the beautiful Barrow Way, a national way marked way, along the banks of the River Barrow. The walk was made up of nearly two hundred people from Ireland and Luxembourg and led by the Right Reverend Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ferns, Ossory and Leighlin and the Most Reverend Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. The River Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river, is thought to be the route used by St Willibrord and his colleagues to come and go from the area.  

In welcoming the visitors from Echternach to partake in the Walk with Willibrord the Most Reverend Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, said ‘you are coming to walk in the shadow of St Willibrord. The pilgrims from Carlow are so grateful to you for your friendship during our recent pilgrimage to Echternach and it is with delight we welcome you to Carlow. Our trip was to his tomb; you trip is to his place of formation. My prayer is that by you coming to us here in Carlow, all of us may be open to deeper formation in the faith and the riches passed onto to us by Willibrord and his contemporaries.’ 

The Walk With Willibrord departing the historic St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, en route to Carlow Town. Video: Grzegorz Kaczorek

Arriving on Thursday 22nd June 2017, twenty-nine visitors travelled from Echternach to Carlow and spent four days here. The highlight was the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ which began at the Holy Well in Old Leighlin at 10am on the morning of Saturday 24th. The Service, coordinated by the Very Reverend Tom Gordon, Dean of St Laserian’s Cathedral, continued in the nearby St Laserian’s Cathedral, Carlow oldest working building built on the site of an earlier monastery at which St Laserian, first Bishop of Leighlin, hosted a synod in the early 7th century to discuss the date for Easter. It is likely that this synod attracted Willibrord and his companions to the area years later. Shortly after 11am the relic was carefully placed in the back of the Carlow Civil Defence vehicle and with music from pipers from the Killeshin Pipe Band the two hundred people led by Bishops Burrows and Nulty and Cllr William Paton, Cathaoirleach of Carlow County Council, began the walk to Carlow Cathedral. After a stop for refreshments in the Leighlinbridge Parish Centre the walk entered the Barrow Way and headed in the direction of Milford. At the stops along the walking route at Leighlinbridge, Milford, Clogrennan (Lanigan’s Lock), St Clare’s Church Graiguecullen and St Mary’s Church, Carlow Town, both Bishops Burrows and Nulty led the group in prayers and reflection assisted by local clergy.

The Right Reverend Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin said ‘I am delighted to welcome you, our Luxembourg friends, to the county of Carlow and the diocese of Leighlin. We share many common historical roots, and much interconnected Christian tradition. In particular, the figure of Willibrord sums up so much that we have in common. As we in this area deepen our sense of fellowship and friendship with the people of Echternach and of wider Luxembourg, we are all challenged to renew our understanding of the place of Christian citizenship at the heart of a rapidly changing Europe.’ 

In Carlow Town, the Relic was walked in procession from St Clare’s Church to St Mary’s Church and then onto the Cathedral of the Assumption. Members of the Carlow Fire Service carried the Relic through the streets of the town, mirroring the tradition in Echternach where their Fire Service carry the Relic at the head of their annual hopping procession. The procession in Carlow was led by the Presentation Band, who had been to Echternach earlier in the month to lead the Carlow pilgrims as they hopped through the streets of Echternach. As the band approached the Cathedral they played the hopping tune and the visitors from Echternach hopped to the front door of the Cathedral. 

The Relic was received at the 6pm Saturday evening Mass in the Cathedral which was filled to capacity. The Relic is on permanent display in the Cathedral.

Carlow County Museum, who coordinated the project from the Carlow side, has a display about St Willibrord, including a copy of Willibrord’s writing.

Thanks to all those who participated in the Walk with Willibrord. A sincere thanks to the many organisations that assisted in making the walk possible including:

Carlow Cathedral Parish; Members and staff of Carlow County Council; Carlow Civil Defence; Carlow Fire Service; Board of Carlow County Museum: the Deacon Family, the Willibrordus-Bauverein; the Parish of Graiguecullen & Killeshin; An Garda Siochana, Carlow; Diocese of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin; the Killeshin Pipe Band; Leighlinbridge Parish Centre; Carlow College; the Presentation School Band; Mother Abbess and the sisters of the Poor Clare Monastery, Graiguecullen; Waterways Ireland; Willibrordus-Bauverein; St. Mary’s Church of Ireland church, Carlow town; Tully’s Travel and the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are © copyright of Carlow County Museum

Links to other St Willibrord articles on our website: –

https://carlowcountymuseumblog.wordpress.com/exhibitions/st-willibrord-his-carlow-connection/

https://carlowcountymuseumblog.wordpress.com/joint-diocesan-pilgrimage-from-co-carlow-to-echternach-luxembourg-2017/

https://carlowcountymuseumblog.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/rath-melsigi-cross-restored-and-friendship-agreement-signed/