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Date Posted: 07:18
Author: ketch - 11 July 2002
Subject: Saints immutable hand not immune to Irish woodworm

John Kemble - brief history.

Born in 1599 at Rhydica Farm, Saint Weonard's Parish, Herefordshire, England.

Son of John and Anne Kemble. Studied at Douai, France. Ordained on 23 February 1625 at Douai College. Returned to England on 4 June 1625 as a missioner in Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. He tended to his covert flock for 53 years.

Arrested at Pembridge Castle, the home of a family member, in 1678, (aged 79) and lodged in Hereford Gaol. Falsely accused of being part of the Titus Oates plot. Condemned in March 1679 for the treason of Catholic priesthood. Martryed at age 80. One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Before leaving for his execution, John sat for a while with the under-sheriff, having a final drink and smoking a final pipe. This led to the Herefordshire expression "Kemble cup" and "Kemble pipe", meaning one taken before a parting.
Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 22 August 1679 at Widemarsh Common, Hereford, England; he was so well respected in the area that he was permitted to die on the gallows and avoid the agony of the drawing and quartering elements; buried in the Welsh Newton Churchyard.

Details taken from The Catholic Forum



At his execution Kemble’s left hand was hacked off by the executioner and snatched by a Catholic woman in the crowd, who hid it in her apron. Kemble’s great great niece, the famous actress Sarah Siddons (nee Kemble), visited his grave in 1805.

Kemble was beautified in 1929, and made a saint in 1970, in recognition of his martyrdom and two miracles he performed shortly after his death – curing the daughter and wife of Captain Scudamore, the man who had arrested him. The hand was taken to Rome in it’s special oak reliquary by Canon William O’Connor and Molly Donegan, a parishioner and friend, for canonisation by Pope Paul VI.

For 34 years, Cannon O’Connor was a parish priest at St Xavier’s Hereford, where the hand has been kept in a shrine near the altar since 1806. He used to take the hand in its reliquary to parishioners who were ill or in need of spiritual succour.

In January 1990, Molly Donnegan heard that Canon O’Connor, now 78, had collapsed with leukaemia after conducting a funeral in Co. Cork, where he was in "“working retirement". With Daniel Quinn, a retired Hereford schoolmaster, she obtained permission from Father Tom Keane, the current parish priest of St Xavier’s, to have the holy relic taken to Canon’s bedside. Mr Quinn flew to Dublin with the Oak reliquary in a plastic carrier bag.

He told the Hereford Times (12 April 1990): “The Canon had no idea. He took the hand out of the box, kissed it and then gave himself the blessing.” Mr Quinn described it as one of the most moving experiences of his life. The Canon recovered well, paid a trip to Lourdes, and a month later was resting in a retirement home in Tralee, Co. Kerry.

Father Keane was emphatic that there was nothing miraculous about the Canon’s recovery which he attributed to blood transfusions. Why he was so ungracious about the relic in his care was unclear.

Before returning to Hereford, Mr Quinn went to the Canon’s home village of Ballyheigue in Co. Kerry, where hundreds of people packed the local church for Mass and to see the relic. Mothers brought their babies and dozens of requests were made for the hand to be taken to isolated farms.

After it’s return from Ireland, the hand, which had mummified naturally, was found to be infested by a type of woodworm. In May it was being treated by Catherine Meads, a specialist in conservation, at her private laboratory in Birmingham. As a first step, it was kept in a freezer for several days to kill the grubs. Further treatments should preserve the hand for another few hundred years.


Account taken from "Fortean Times", spring 1991 edition.


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