Love letters to St Valentine

The relics of St Valentine form a shrine to romance in Whitefriar St church in Dublin. The visitors’ book is filled every six weeks with people’s hopes and requests for love, says Barbara Scully

Love letters to St Valentine

THERE is a bridal shop across the road from the Carmelite church on Whitefriar St, in Dublin’s city centre.

This is either a happy coincidence or a deliberate choice of location by the shop owner.

The Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a mecca for the lovelorn and the loved-up, as it houses a shrine to St Valentine.

Valentine was a third century saint. He died in 269AD.

Statue of St Valentine in Whitefriar St church. Picture: Maura Hickey.

According to Church prior Fr Brian McKay: “Valentine was a priest in Rome at the time of the Emperor Claudius. Now, Claudius was very insistent that the Roman Empire would spread and dominate the world, so he gave an edict that all young men were to abstain from marriage, so that they would be available, strong and able in that service.

“Valentine, however, felt that what Claudius wanted was very much at variance with the Christian faith, which espouses the sacrament of marriage. So Valentine clandestinely began to get couples together.” Claudius was not happy and so poor Valentine was killed and decapitated.

Fast forward to 1835 and the visit by Fr John Spratt, of the Whitefriar parish, to Rome. In recognition of Fr Spratt’s good work with the poor, Pope Gregory XVI gifted him the relics of St Valentine, which arrived in Dublin with great pomp and ceremony.

The shrine is dominated by a statue of Valentine sculpted by Irene Broe, above a small altar. Beneath this is the reliquary, which contains whatever might remain of the saint. On the altar lies a simple, hardback, A4 notebook.

“We get a steady stream of visitors,” says Fr McKay, “and a lot of tourists”.

These visitors and tourists write their wishes and prayers, into the book at the shrine. Fr McKay says that the church goes through a book approximately every six weeks. That’s a lot of praying and wishing.

It is an oddly unsettling feeling, akin to reading someone’s diary or journal, as I leaf through the pages of strangers’ deepest prayers. Some are illegible; quite a few are not in English.

Many follow a common theme. There are lots of prayers for the delivery of healthy babies. Many other entries are written, I would imagine, by Irish mammies praying that their son or daughter finds a nice life partner.

But there are some surprises, too, such as the simple entry “I pray that I may be a good and holy priest”; or “please help my wife and I separate amicably”; and, probably most surprising of all, “I ask for a blessing on me and ask that all curses and spells be taken away from me.”

Some of the entries remind me of my teenage years and the letter page in Jackie magazine. “I need to find a good looking girl in Dublin. Will you help me, Valentine, please?” “Please let me be happy. Let me meet a cool guy who loves Jesus, music and me.”

“St Valentine make my dreams come true.”

There is a charming innocence and optimism about these prayers.

But the heartbreak is also there. There were two writers whose entries are sprinkled throughout the book.

They are clearly regular visitors to St Valentine.

One seems to be writing to a deceased relative, through the book, bringing him or her up to date with family goings-on, with entries such as “M is doing well in school and likes her teacher. I am now into my second month at my new job and it’s interesting.” The other regular writer just leaves very short messages. “K — I miss you”; “K — please call me”; “K — please come back to me”.

I can feel the pain of loss through the pages.

While I chatted with Fr McKay, visitors to the shrine came and went. None, however, were keen to talk to me. Just as I was preparing to leave, a trio of young women arrived.

I watched as they lit candles, talked quietly, subtly took some photographs and, finally, spent a few minutes writing in the visitors’ book. They were delighted to share their thoughts.

All three are Spanish, all met here in Ireland, and they are all au pairs in the pretty, affluent Dublin village of Howth.

As they were all young women, I stupidly assumed that they were all here to petition St Valentine for a nice, Irish boyfriend.

Carmen Nagy (Seville), Susana Orozco (Madrid) and Alba Sorolla (Barcelona) weren't in Whitefriar in search of an Irish partner!

I was soon put right. Susana Orozco (from Madrid) already has a boyfriend in Madrid, “so I wrote a message of thanks to St Valentine for my boyfriend,” she said.

Carmen Nagy, from Seville, is looking for a girlfriend in Dublin, as she says that Irish girls are very beautiful.

“But won’t that cause a problem if you fall in love here in Dublin?” I ask.

“No, I don’t have to go home, so, if I meet someone nice here, I can stay,” she says.

So it seems that only Alba Sorolla (from Barcelona) is looking for a boyfriend? “Well, I am really doing it for my mom. She will be very happy when she knows that I have prayed to St Valentine for a boyfriend. My mom — she worries,” Alba says.

She doesn’t seem enthusiastic about having an Irish boyfriend. “No, I would have a problem. I love Barcelona and here the weather is very hard.”

St Valentine, in Whitefriar Street, has seen it all, says Fr McKay. “I have renewed vows, blessed rings and even given advice at this shrine. I don’t know about the quality of the advice, but the blessings and the vows were authentic,” he says.

On St Valentine’s Day, there are two masses in Whitefriar Street, at 11:30am and 3pm, at which rings are blessed, should you be moved to pop the question and want to copper-fasten the outcome. But priests are available even at other times, should you require their assistance or input in your romantic life.

I wonder aloud if it is deliberate that Valentine’s shrine is directly facing that of St Jude, who is known as the patron saint of lost causes.

Fr McKay assures me it’s not, and adds that it is the shrine just around the corner that is linked with St Valentine. “St Anne is the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” he says “and there is an old tradition, maybe just around this area, of St Valentine and St Anne going together”.

There is, apparently, an old Dublin saying that goes “dear St Anne, send me a man.”

The senoritas, however, tell us they are going for a beer, instead.

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