Originally the site of a Celtic monastery or hermitage, Holy Cross Abbey was established in 1169 according to the Cistercian Rule by King Donal O’Brien. The Cistercian Tradition, first brought from France to Ireland by St. Malachy, had spread rapidly upon its arrival in Ireland, and the original Holy Cross monks came here following the establishment of Monasteranenagh in County Limerick.
The Cistercians operated under a silent, self-contained rule, so the monastery was planned to include everything needed to sustain life, including plenty of land to grow crops and raise livestock.
The abbey building itself was shaped in a square, and included the church, sacristy, kitchen, refectory and chapter house. There was plenty of room to accommodate stores of food and other supplies.
Survival was difficult for the monks at Holy Cross for the first few hundred years. Then in 1414, the community was patronised by James Butler, the fourth Earl of Ormonde. He provided protection and saw to the rebuilding and renovation of much of the abbey, including the church, cloister and the infirmary, along with the addition of the Abbot’s house.
Holy Cross Abbey originally escaped closure when King Henry VIII decreed suppression of all monasteries over a certain size in 1539. In preparation for what the monks knew lie ahead, the abbot, William Dwyer, resigned and was replaced by Philip Purcell, a layman. The Cistercians lived in and around the community, avoiding persecution and keeping the abbey open for pilgrims who had come to worship the relics of the cross.
Persecution drove them into hiding for a period of time, during which the abbey deteriorated. The order decreased in number, and the last Cistercian to reside at Holy Cross was Father Edmund Cormack, who died in 1735.
Holy Cross Abbey was given over to state control and preserved by the Irish Church Act along with 137 other buildings, and declared a national monument in 1880.
In 1976, the Church Act was amended to allow Holy Cross Abbey to be renovated and again used as a local house of worship.
The church was built in the cruciform shape originally used by the Cistercians, with vaulted arches and columns. Stonework completed with chisel and mallet on the pillars was personalized by the masons, who carved their own chosen design on the pillar.
The huge window above the altar faces east, dramatically catching the morning sun. The sedilia, located in the chancel at Holy Cross, is well known throughout Europe. This structure contains the seats used by the celebrants of Mass, and is 17 feet high with a canopy and pillars. It is decorated with five shields, one between each set of arches. The first contains a cross, the second, also largest, shows a 1405 version of the English coat of arms, the third the arms of the Ormonde family, the fourth the Desmond Geraldines, and the fifth is blank.
The Cistercian monks occupied this prosperous community until the 17th century.
The Abbey is home to a relic of the true cross, owned by its founding king. It also contains a complete set of Stations of the Cross erected in honour of Padre Pio.
Today, Holy Cross Abbey is an active worship site, with novenas, weddings and monthly services dedicated to St. Padre Pio.