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History of the Sacred Heart Messenger

Devotion to the Sacred Heart And The Sacred Heart Messenger

The first Messenger of the Sacred Heart was a magazine published in France in 1861. There were soon imitations in other countries, but it was not until 1888 that Ireland had an equivalent magazine which was the inspiration of a Jesuit named James Cullen, a native of New Ross, Co Wexford.

Father Cullen had been educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare, but had resisted the call to enter the Order which he knew so well and was ordained for the diocese of Ferns in 1864, when he was 23 years old. Having shown himself a tireless giver of parish missions and a strong promoter of temperance, he finally became a Jesuit in 1881.

Poverty and Faith

Ireland had been consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1873 and the Apostleship of Prayer had been established here as early as 1863, but it grew slowly in a country where the Land War, Home Rule and emigration were the most important issues of the time. Dublin, where Fr Cullen spent most of his Jesuit life, was a city where one-third of the people lived in appalling slums. The faith of the Irish Catholics, however, was so strong that it astonished visitors and the people’s strong response to idealism was shown in the rapid growth of the newly-founded Gaelic Athletic Association.

James Cullen was described as ‘a reliable rather than a brilliant preacher’, but he was a born organiser. Appointed Director for Ireland of the Apostleship of Prayer in 1887, he found that in twenty-four years it had grown to only 193 branches. Something needed to be done if the work was to flourish, so Father Cullen asked his Superior in Belvedere College for permission to found an Irish Messenger and, legend has it, was given not only permission but also a room and a pound! The first issue of the magazine appeared in January 1888 and, by the end of that year, its circulation had already risen to 8,000 copies a month. As the Messenger increased in circulation, so the Apostleship of Prayer grew in membership, with 600 branches in 1892 and 1,126 branches by the year 1921, when Fr Cullen died.

Lively and Varied

The Messenger tapped a market which had been reached by no previous religious magazine. British rule in Ireland, despite its many defects, had increased the literacy of the population, so, unlike many other parts of Europe, most people could read. The lamentable decline in the use of Irish meant that many could read only English, but they were eager to read and would buy something inexpensive. The Messenger was cheap, it appeared with the red cover which was its trade mark (and which could leave a red stain on the hands of the unwary!); it was well written, had articles on all sorts of subjects and established an immediate rapport with its readers by printing many of their letters.

Engergetic Organiser

Father Cullen, who was usually seen with a pen in his mouth and whose unique filing system consisted in leaving letters which needed posting on the floor between his desk and his office door, was the presiding genius in 5, Great Denmark Street, a house beside Belvedere College, which had been bought by the Jesuits in 1880 and which soon became the centre of the growing Messenger apostolate. Another Jesuit was Secretary of the work, but this job was filled by so many priests in rapid succession that none made a strong impact. There was a lay staff of six, one of whom, Michael Freney, arrived in 1902 and stayed for about sixty years.

One Aim Always

James Cullen was generous in his encouragement of any other worthy cause but his aim was always the promotion of devotion to the Sacred Heart. He promoted the Nine First Fridays, the Holy Hour, Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and other forms of prayer, thus helping to change the face of Irish Catholicism. He used The Messenger to encourage the Sodality of Our Lady, but later founded the Madonna magazine especially for that purpose. His other important legacy was the founding of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart.

It was probably the enormous burden of work which he had undertaken that persudaded Fr Cullen’s superiors that it was time to transfer him from The Messenger to Gardiner Street and he made the move in 1904 (when the magazine’s circulation had risen to 73,000 per month). James Cullen, who was surely one of the most remarkable and influential Irishmen of his time, worked on many other projects in Gardiner Street until his death in 1921, but he missed The Messenger so much that he never once returned to visit the office.

Taken from Father James Cullen SJ and the founding of The Sacred Heart Messenger by Fergus O’Donoghue SJ