Wadding, Luke (1628–87), catholic bishop of Ferns, was born in Ballycogly in the Anglo-Norman barony of Bargy, Co. Wexford, eldest son of Walter Wadding, merchant of Wexford town, and his wife Mary, daughter of David Sinnott of Raheen, another property owner. There appear to have been four children altogether in the Wadding household. Luke Wadding's sister, Eleanor, was married to another town merchant, Thomas Dulan, who had two sons, Frank and John, who lived in Wexford. Luke's brothers Peter and John and their families seem to have lived most of their lives outside Wexford, in Bristol and Drogheda respectively.
The Wadding family took pride in their Old English catholic ancestry, and as catholic merchants they enjoyed frequent interaction with their co-religionists using Wexford port. Such interaction helped instil a cosmopolitan outlook in the inhabitants of Forth and Bargy, quite unlike those of inland communities. Alongside this appreciation for and close identification with foreign cultures, Luke Wadding's heritage in Wexford was unique for many other reasons. The Wadding family, and indeed many other Old English families in Wexford at this time, occupied a precarious position in religion and politics. At a time when Old English loyalty was divided between the pope and a heretic monarch, the government expected wealthy Anglo-Norman merchant families to conform to the established church. Nonetheless, the Waddings, while professing loyalty to the king, remained catholic. Throughout the episcopate of Luke Wadding, many of his thoughts and actions were dictated by this innate and instinctive desire to safeguard his people's ‘royalist’ or Old English catholic culture.
From an early age it was thought that Luke Wadding might follow in the footsteps of his father as a wealthy merchant. However, with the outbreak of rebellion in 1641 Old English families such as the Waddings reluctantly decided to join the insurgents. Walter Wadding, Luke's father, took the oath of confederation (for which he was later indicted), while another Wadding, Richard, Luke's uncle, was appointed second justice.
By 1649 the Cromwellian destruction of catholic Wexford had profound implications for Wadding's future episcopate. Whether he had decided on a career in the church at this point is unclear. In any case, his prospects must have looked bleak. His father had been killed in the taking of the town by Cromwell, his family's merchant business lay in ruins, and the Wadding estates faced confiscation. Evidently Wexford held little future for Luke Wadding. In late October 1651, like many of his contemporaries, he fled Wexford for Europe and exile.
Wadding enrolled in the Irish College in Paris in late 1651. During his seventeen-year exile in France, he devoted himself to his education and eventually to the education of others. He took a deep interest in the Jansenist and Gallicanist debates raging among theological circles in Paris at that time; for him, such theological debate had particular relevance to the Irish situation, with its problem of reconciling loyalty to a protestant monarch with allegiance to the catholic faith. From Wadding's own book collection, numbering some 700 volumes, it would appear that the chief influence on his intellectual and spiritual formation was Salesian. Among the works in his library were some of the most topical and controversial authors of the day. Works by Martin Becanus, St Francis de Sales, Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Francisco Suarez figure prominently.
Unfortunately much of his education, and indeed that of the whole Irish community in Paris at that time, remains shrouded in obscurity. What is known is that during his seventeen years in Paris he was ordained a priest, and received his doctorate in divinity from the Sorbonne sometime before 1668. While in Paris, he received a generous yearly stipend of 100 livres from his benefactor Monsieur Thevenot, which in fact continued until Thevenot's death (18 June 1685). After being awarded his doctorate, Wadding, it appears, took up a position on the academic staff.
As Nicholas French (qv), bishop of Ferns, was himself in exile in Ghent, Wadding was appointed vicar general of the diocese of Ferns in early 1668. On returning to Ireland, he settled in the town of New Ross. His immediate task was to rebuild a catholic community seriously eroded by the Cromwellian settlement. The destruction of catholic Wexford had dramatically decreased the numbers of secular and regular clergy available to assist Wadding in pastoral administration. Despite such setbacks, the restoration of Charles II in 1660 had granted Irish catholic clergy and laity a certain measure of toleration to practise their religion more openly. While in New Ross Wadding aligned himself with two Jesuit priests, Stephen Gelosse and Stephen Rice, whom he assisted in opening a school for 120 boys.
On 12 May 1671 Wadding was appointed coadjutor bishop of Ferns in the continuing absence of French. Once Wadding had accepted the position in late 1672, he moved back to Wexford town, where he found the material fortunes of catholics greatly improved. In Wexford he fostered friendly relations with local protestants, thus enabling him to perform his tasks under an administration hostile to catholicism. The benefits of social deference, including being maintained and lodged in Wexford by the influential protestant Wiseman family, enabled Wadding to import popular contemporary books of doctrine and devotion, catechisms, and prayerbooks into his diocese. In an effort to encourage and increase literacy and religious devotion, he then distributed these items among his friends and relatives. One of his most difficult tasks was to establish some much needed church structures, both physical and organisational. The existing baptismal and marriage registers for the catholic parish of Wexford town, begun in 1672 by Wadding, are among the earliest known documents of their kind in Ireland.
By late 1674 Wadding had begun an even more ambitious project in Wexford: the building of a public chapel within the walls of the town. Taking twelve years to build it, at a cost of £53.14s.9d., Wadding at last had a place for catholic worship and the sacraments, and for disseminating instructive reading material to his people. However, Wadding's rebuilding was briefly interrupted in 1678, when at the height of the ‘popish plot’ he was arrested and seems to have been in danger of being exiled. On 23 August 1678 Bishop French died in Ghent, where he had spent the past decade as coadjutor to Eugene Albert de Allamont, bishop of Ghent. Following the death of French, Wadding was immediately elected vicar capitular of the diocese. In this newly defined role, he was able to evade punishment by the government by pleading that he was neither a bishop nor a vicar general.
From 1678 onwards Wadding wrote numerous controversial carols and poems that provided him with a platform to voice his frustration and discontent at recent events. However, by the time the ‘popish plot’ had died down, the Holy See ordered him to proceed with his consecration as bishop. Precisely where, when, and by whom he was consecrated is unknown; the likely date, however, is in June 1683, quite possibly in the Spanish Netherlands.
By 1684 the first edition of Wadding's poems and carols was published in Ghent, entitled A pious garland. Wadding had by this time become involved in his family's attempt to recover some of their lost estates. In many instances the titles of his poems reflect his sympathy and concern for his dispossessed kinsmen and friends. Now in his late fifties and apparently in poor health, Wadding was mainly concerned after his consecration to consolidate the work he had already begun. In March 1685 he was awarded a pension of £150 a year by James II (qv). With a reasonable income Bishop Wadding was able to afford a respectable stock of furniture, vestments, altar silver, chalices, candlesticks, and altar linen for his chapel.
According to existing family records, Wadding died in December 1687 and was buried just outside the sanctuary in the aisle of the Franciscan friary in Wexford. Perhaps what is so significant about his life was the fact that his tenure is representative of a catholic bishop in seventeenth-century Ireland whose loyalty to the crown was as important as his religious obligations to the papacy. Taking enormous pride in his Old English catholic heritage and links to the crown, he was not afraid to voice his discontent with Rome while acting in the best interests of his people. Most importantly, however, Luke Wadding was a man of exceptional charity, an indefatigable pastor, a zealous and prudent bishop, and an engaging human being.