The Story of the Dominican Presence in Iran
1. The First Dominicans in Iran
2. The Armenian Dominicans
3. The Dominicans of Isfahan
4. The Dominican House of Shiraz 1933
5. The Irish Dominicans in Iran
The First Dominicans in Iran
The first Dominicans arrived in Iran in the 13th century, during the reign of the Mongol dynasty of the Il-Khans, a period which was to leave a profound mark on the culture and outlook the country.
After the devastation of the first Mongol invasions, Hülegü Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan founded a branch of the Mongol dynasty called the Ilkhanids that lasted from 1256 to 1353. From their capital in northwestern Iran, they established a hundred year rule over most of West Asia, including Iraq, Iran, Khorasan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, and into central Turkey. Hülegü assumed the title of "Il-Khan" meaning lesser Khan, that is, subordinate to the Great Khan ruling in China. Notwithstanding the name, the Il-Khanate was in fact a breakaway state from the Mongol Empire.
The Mongol Il-Khans brought a Chinese cultural influence to the country, but they also encouraged local cultural traditions. Writers now began to favour the use of Persian rather than Arabic. The country saw advances in fields such as architecture, mathematics and astronomy. As well as it being a period of stability, it was also a moment of toleration; the rulers were even-handed in their treatment of all religions, including Buddhism and Christianity. It was only in 1295 that the rulers themselves became Muslim.
During their reign the old trade routes such as the great "Silk Road" were reopened. These conditions of stability and openness allowed the new Order of the Dominican Friars to come into the region and establish houses in the successive capitals of the Il-Khanate and in the surrounding area of northwestern Iran.
Tabriz was the first capital of the Il-Khan rulers. This was followed by Margha, where a centre of astronomy with an observatory was established. Finally, the great city Soltaniyeh was fixed as the capital in 1306. The Dominicans had houses in all three cities, the last in Soltaniyeh, the most important, was established there by 1318.
Today the mausoleum of Il-Khan Oljeitu, eighth ruler of the Il-Khanid dynasty is all that remains of the great city of Soltaniyeh. The building is monumental; its walls support what is still one of the largest brick domes in the world. It gives a sense of the magnificence and grandeur of that world of the Il-Kanate at the beginning of the 14th century into which the Dominicans arrived.
The first Dominicans to arrive in the country had come as papal messengers to the Mongol court. It was an attempt by the Pope to create an alliance with the Mongols in support of the Crusades. It is described as an ill-fated mission with disasterous consequences for the Church in Iran by Fr Fiey op (see "Seeds of Destruction" in his history of the Persian Church).
After this episode, the Dominicans turned to working among the local Christian communities. Already by 1254 we hear of several Dominicans in the region of north west Iran, one of whom had been a close companion of St. Dominic himself. By 1320 several communities had been established.
The Il Khan Oljaitu
in a miniature of 1438
The earliest Dominican communities drew their members from the "Societas Fratrum Peregrinantium" (Society of Traveling Friars), which the Order established in 1304 drawing its members from different Provinces of the Order.
Much of the work of these first Dominicans seems to have been directed towards bringing the Armenian Christians of the area back into unity with the Catholic Church.
The Latin Archdiocese of Soltanieh
The city of Soltanieh with its Dominican bishops now also became the capital of the new ecclesiastical province of the Latin Rite. The Ecclesiastical Province of Soltanieh covered a vast region, stretching from Istanbul to southern India. A Dominican, Francis of Perugia, was its first archbishop. Six suffrage dioceses were soon created all of whose bishops were Dominicans.
The archdiocese had a short life. It came to an end in 1381 with the invasion of Tamerlane and it was not until 1632 that Iran would again have a Latin diocese – "The Diocese of Isfahan of the Latins."
The Dominican communities were almost completely wiped out in the invasion, with only 3 friars reported as surviving the massacre. It seemed to be the end of any Dominican presence in the area. Then help and continuity came from an unexpected quarter - the Armenian Dominicans
Return to index
The Armenian Dominicans
The Fratres Unitores
The Unifying Friars of St Gregory the Illuminator
During the 14th century a group of Orthodox (Gregorian) Armenian monks joined the Catholic Church and formed themselves into a congregation, living according to the Dominican rule and under the guidance of the Master of the Order. After the devastation of Tamerlane this congregation took over the running of the priories and apostolic work of their brethren. They were to serve the church in Iran for two and half centuries.
The Story of the Fratres Unitores
About the year 1328, John, abbot of the Gregorian Armenian monastery of Kerna in Nakhichevan travelled with some of his monks to Maragha in Persia to speak with the Dominican bishop Bartholomew of Bologna. The monastery they had come from was just over the northern border of Iran (see map above). After some years of study and debate, their community and a number of others came into union with the Catholic Church. The monks also expressed a desire to become Dominicans. At first they formed a Dominican Congregation, not yet full members of the Order, adopting the Dominican liturgy and Constitutions (except for the rule of perpetual abstinence and complete poverty). Their habit was that of the Dominican cooperator brother - white tunic with black scapular and hood. In 1349 the congregation had 15 priories and the provincial was based in Nakhichevan. They were formally approved in 1356 and placed under the jurisdiction of the Master of the Dominican Order.
When all other Catholic religious Orders disappeared from Iran after the devastation of Timurlane, thes Dominican groups were the only Catholic religious remaining in the area for over a century. In addition to Armenia and northern Persia, they had houses in Georgia and Crimea. Through their presence in the Italian quarter of cities of the East and by sending young religious to study in the colleges of the Order in Europe, they maintained their contact with the Order at a time when communication was so difficult.
It is reported that at one time the number of the Armenian Dominicans grew to 700 members, living in fifty priories. They were completely incorporated into the Dominican Order, as the Province of Nakhichevan in 1583.
The Armenian Dominican convent of Caffa in Crimea possessed the famous Icon of Our Lady "Hodegetria" (Our Lady of the Way). Unusually for such Icons it shows Our Lady standing full length and it may indeed be a copy of the lost original ancient Icon of Our Lady of Constantinople . When Caffa was overrun by the Ottoman Turks, the Icon was brought to the Dominican convent of Constantinople where it is still venerated today in St Peter's Dominican church in the city.
In the 18th century, driven out of Iran by wars and persecution, a group of these Armenian Dominicans fled to Turkey with fellow Armenians refugees. In 1755 they set up a house in Smyrna (Izmir) in Western Turkey together with a hospice to care for their people. The group was in a state of extreme poverty and documents requesting permission to sell their chalices to care for their starving people are still extant.
The last of the Armenian Dominicans of the Province of Nakhichevan died in Smyrna in 1813 and their priory and church came under the care of the Italian Dominicans.
The present church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Italian Dominicans in Izmir was built in 1904 to replace the older building.
Today the church still houses some of the relics brought by the Armenian Dominicans from their homeland. One these was venerated as the lance which pierced the side of Christ. There are of course many such claimants in the world. This paritcular one is similar to the so called "Holy Lance of Echmiadzin" in Armenia which has been identified by some as the being the metal point for the staff of a Byzantine standard.
Another relic brought by the Armenian Dominicans to their place of exile in Izmir was venerated as the arm of St Jude, apostle and patron saint of Armenia. In 1949, this relic, in its silver reliquary in the shape of an arm, was presented by the Italian Dominicans to the Dominicans of the Province of St Albert the Great in Chicago. It became the relic of the popular Dominican Shrine St Jude in that city. Venerated by the thousands who visit the shrine, it also stands as a memento of the generous and brave Province of the Fratres Uniores.
From the foundation statement
of the Unifying Friars.
"The Dominicans are our founders, and nothing shall be done without their direction and decision. There shall be one of them in each of our houses, who will occupy the first place, because they are our fathers."
Return to index
The Dominican House in Isfahan (1657)
An early print of Isfahan showing the central square of Naqshe Jahan
and its adjoining palaces and mosques built by Shah Abbas in the 17th century.
At the end of the 16th century, Shah Abbas made the ancient city of Isfahan the capital of Persia. Shortly afterwards the Dominicans built a church in the city and dedicated it to "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary." This Church still stands today in Julfa, the old Christian quarter of the city.
The city which Shah Abbas built, with its magnificent squares, avenues, bridges, mosques, schools and palaces, was perhaps, in its time, the most beautiful city in the world. Such grandeur however came at a price. For the construction of the monumental city centre and to provide his new capital with a community of skilled craftsmen, Shah Abbas ruthlessly transported in chains a colony of Armenian Christians from the north and settled them in the outskirts of the city, in a Christian township called Julfa.
In addition, in order to maintain his alliances with western powers, the King allowed a number of European Religious Orders build churches in the Christian quarter of the city. In 1657 Italian Dominicans with the help of their Armenian Dominican brothers established a new foundation in Julfa, Isfahan. The new church and priory were dedicated to "Our Lady of the Rosary" in 1681. This church was then reconstructed and enlarged in 1705. Of the many churches that were built in Isfahan at this time, thirteen of them still survive today.
Return to index
The Church of "Our Lady of the Rosary"
- Hazrate Mariam -
The Dominicans dedicated their church to Mary, the mother of Jesus. "Our Lady" is a title of respect for Mary and the reference to "the Rosary" is an allusion to the great prayer of the Rosary in which she is venerated.
What is the Rosary?
In short, the Rosary is an ancient prayer of devotion to God using a series of recited prayers while meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary. The prayers are said with the help of beads, (similar to the "tasbih"). Taken together the Rosary is known as "the little gospel" as with it, while praying we recall the great events of the Life of Jesus, his death and his resurrection. In the 15th century, Dominicans were the great promoters of this form of prayer which became the daily prayer of so many families and individuals throughout the world. It is the great spirituality which the Dominicans brought to Isfahan in 1657. For more on the Rosary see the article in the Library section.
Detail of a print of Isfahan in 1737 (from Travels by de Bruyn) showing the dome of the Dominican Church in the distance beyond the trees - the church is marked with the number 5.
It had been envisaged that the house in Isfahan would be a house for training Armenian Dominicans. However in the period following Shah Abbas the situation was increasing unsettled. During the 18th century, the Dominicans of Armenia were almost completely wiped out; all but six of the 70 members of the Order were killed or sold into slavery. The house in Isfahan then remained a small isolated community.
In 1722 Isfahan was invaded from Afghanistan and a great massacre of its citizens took place. Nader Shah transferred the capital to Mashed, leaving Isfahan almost defenseless. Increasingly the city was raided by marauding tribes. During all those years some Dominicans had remained. We hear of them working on a new translation of the bible into Persian which had been commissioned by the king, Nader Shah. But by the end of the 18th century there were few catholics left in the Armenian quarter of Julfa. Then finally the last Dominican departed, leaving the house and church in the care of the few remaining Armenian Catholics.
A century later, in 1903, the French Lazarists took charge of the church and built a school nearby. The Lazarists later moved to the city centre and once again left the church of "Our Lady of the Rosary" in the care of the small community of Catholic Armenians. Most of this community of Armenian Catholics eventually moved to Tehran where they built a new church. Without a community to maintain it, the church in Isfahan fell into serious disrepair and seemed destined to become a ruin.
The church was on the verge of collapse when in 2005 a joint commission between the Nunciature and the Iranian State intervened and undertook its restoration. The building is now structurally sound. A great deal of work has been done to restore the building to its former beauty as can be seen from the photographs below. The interior decoration of the church has still to be completed...
The library of the church, preserved first by the Armenians and later by the Lazarists still exists. According to Fr Cyprian Rice o.p. who examined it in 1930s (see below under "Shiraz") it contained books which belonged to the Dominicans and the other orders who had lived in Isfahan over the years. The library has been recently catalogued by Dominique Caroy-Torabi and published by her in "The Forgotten Library of the Isfahan Missionaries," Oriente (Lisbon), 19, 2008, 94-105. See also John M. Flannery. The Mission of the Portuguese Augustinians to Persia and Beyond (1602-1747). Brill 2013.
The restoration of the Church
of Our Lady of the Rosary,
Return to index
Before the work began . . .
The exterior of the church with the Armenian tower on the right and the intrepid Fr Lazare C.M. on the left.
The interior, looking towards the main altar,
with the painting of St Dominic receiving the rosary over the altar. The benches were piled up to protect the high altar and tabernacle.
The interior, looking towards the door
The church was in imminent danger of collapse. The vaulting of the roof breaking apart because of the destruction of the outside buttressing porticos.
The sacristy, which is said to have been
the original chapel of the first Dominican community in Isfahan
First, weak parts of the structure were reinforced. Then the two story portico was rebuilt, serving to buttress the side wall of the church.
The church slowly beginning to take shape while work on the cupola begins
| After Restoration
Part of the restored lower portico
Inside the lower portico
Part of the conventual buildings
Stairs in the conventual buildings
Inside the upper portico
Façade of the church with its new dome visible over the wall. The entrance opens on to Kuche Catolikha - "The Catholics Lane"
The interiour of the church
which has still to be completed
The painting of St Dominic receiving the rosary which was over the high altar. This painting is presently in the cathedral of the Armenian Catholics in Tehran and will hopefully be returned to the church in Isfahan when it is safe to do so.
Return to index
Latin Diocese of Isfahan
The original Archdiocese for Catholics of the Roman Rite in Iran was established in Soltanieh in 1318. It was re-established again in 1632, this time in Isfahan. The archdiocese of "Isfahan of the Latins" is the title of the diocese to our own day.
The Dominican bishop Barnabus Fedeli.
(Born in Milan 1663, died in Shiraz 1732).
Portrait in the Priory of Santa Sabina, Rome
He cared for the diocese from 1711 to 1732,
first as Apostolic Vicar and then as Bishop of Isfahan.
Return to index
1933 - A House in Shiraz
Entrance Gate to Shiraz at the beginning of the 20th century
In 1933 the English Province of the Dominican Order opened a house in the south of Iran, in the city of Shiraz.
In an article "Dominicans for Persia" printed in "Blackfriars" the review of the English Dominicans, February, 1931 (Vol. 12, No. 131), Fr Cyprian Rice o.p. announced that the Dominicans were about to recommence work in Iran. In the article he gave a short account of the previous history of the Order in the country. He was familiar with the area and writes of having already visited the church in Isfahan where he found that there were still Dominican books in the library which was then in the care of the Vincentian (Lazarist) Fathers.
He goes on to write in the article about what he saw as the future work of Dominicans in Shiraz -
"In a sense the whole work can summed up as a study of the Persian language, since it is in the language and its literature that a people's characteristic outlook on life becomes crystallized. Like any study of a language worth its name, it will be at once philosophical and practical : the aim will be to master the spoken and written language, in order thus to be able to take part in discussion and to supply the crying defect of a Catholic literature in Persian".....
"What is really difficult is to quit the inner fatherland of familiar concepts and terms to impose on oneself the ceaseless task of trying to think and talk like a Persian. Needless to say, where we fail in this – and we are bound to fail to a considerable extent – the grace and love and superabundant wisdom of the ever-present Jesus are ready to make good our shortcomings".....
He goes on to express a hope that in the city of Shiraz, the city of the poets Hafiz and Saadi "with the help of God before a year is out, a small band of English Dominicans will have settled and have begun, humbly and imperceptibly, their work for Persia and the Church".....
Fr. Dominic Blencowe and Fr. Cyprian Rice rented a house in Shahpur Avenue in the center of the city. In the house they had a small chapel. Within a few months they began celebrating mass in Persian and had published a small book of prayers also in Persian. Though the mission lasted but a short time, their work was an inspiration for the future.
The seal of the Shiraz House
Many years later Fr. Cyprian Rice
published a small but widely acclaimed book,
"The Persian Sufis."
The introduction to this book on Sufism
can be read at here
Shahpur Avenue, Shiraz, today
The next time Shiraz was to see a Dominican presence was when Fr Ambrose O'Farrell op lived and ministered in the city in the 1970s.
An article on the work of fr Cyprian Rice o.p. was published by Anthony Mahony : "Cyprian Rice o.p., L'Islam chiite et la mission dominicaine en Iran" in Mémoire Dominicaine, No. 15, 2001.
Also in"Christian Witness Between Continuity and New Beginnings: Modern Historical Missions in the Middle East." By Martin Tamche and Michael Marten. Lit Verlag 2006. Pp. 264. ISBN 3825898547. The material is akin to the article in Mémoire Dominicaine. See extract
Return to index
The Irish Dominicans in Iran
Tehran - Rosary House
In 1961 the Vatican asked the Dominican Order to come once again to Iran. The Dominican Province of Ireland agreed to establish a community in Tehran. The choice of Father William Barden to set up the new foundation in Tehran caused some surprise. Fr William was born in Dublin in Ireland and had joined the Dominicans at the age of 17. His life in the Dominicans had always been one of prayer, study and teaching. He had lived and taught in the large community of the student house in what could be described as a monastic setting. Fr William whose life had been one of quiet prayer and study was asked to open the new foundation in what was the very different world of Iran. With courage and trust in God he set out on this completely new life. On 30 May 1962 he wrote to the Provincial to say that he had arrived safely and added
"The Nuncio's idea is that the house in Tehran should be a
house of study and prayer. We must also look after Shiraz.
I am very well and very happy.
Thank you for the privilege of this great chance to do some
good for God and the Church in this land.
Yours obediently in Christ,
Fr William Barden."
Fr William was soon joined by Father Hugh Brennan. They rented a house near Tehran University in Professor Brown Street. Like the former Dominican house of Isfahan they dedicated it to "Our Lady of the Rosary" and it was known as "Rosary House."
Fr. Hugh Brennan and
Fr. William Barden
at Rosary House
They were visited by the Master of the Dominican Order, fr Ancieto Fernandez and the famous fr Serge De Beaurecueil o.p., who was then living alone in Kabul in Afghanistan travelled over for the occasion.
Visit of the Master to "Rosary House," Tehran
From left to right: Frs. Hugh Brennan, Hillary Carpenter (Assistant to the Master), Serge De Beaurecueil op (Kabul), Aniceto Fernandez (Master of the Order) and William Barden.
Fr Lorcan Murray joined the community. He travelled regularly south to Shiraz to minister to the Christian community there. In Tehran he began working with the Assyrian community and studying the Chaldean rite.
A small chapel was set up in Rosary House where the public could attend mass. This chapel could by no means accommodate all the people who turned up on Sundays. Work soon began on the building of the church of Saint Abraham in the nearby Jamalzadeh Street.
Return to index
The Church of Saint Abraham
Within a few of years of their arrival the community began building this present church of St Abraham. It is situated on Jamalzadeh Street (then called Jamshidabad Street) close to the city center and the university. The city has grown considerable since those days. A more modern and affluent urban area has spread north of the old city to the foothills of the great Alborz mountains. The district around the church, close to the old city remains a densely populated quarter of small shops and apartments. The university is nearby which means being also close to the very many bookshops, printers, bookbinders etc linked to university life.
Construction Work on the Church in Jamalzadeh Street
View south towards the yard
with the beginnings of the future sacristy on the right.
View from the yard north to the back wall of church under construction.
On May 23rd 1966 the new Dominican House and Church of Saint Abraham was opened.
With their limited funds, the architect and community wished to create a building which incorporated native Persian architectural features, adapted to the needs of the liturgy and religious life; a structure in harmony with the heritage of sacred buildings in Iran. The lack of indigenization or failure to adapt to the local art and culture of the land in architecture, art, music, etc was and still remains a difficulty for the churches in Iran.
Return to index
The New Church
The cloister with its characteristic arches provides a space for people to draw together, gathering the faithful into a community, like the quadriportico of the most ancient churches where it served this function and at the same time it evokes the cloister of early Dominican priories.
An early photo of the cloister of Saint Abraham's,
taken soon after its completion
Inside the church, the first thing that strikes one is the simplicity of the building. The uncluttered interior with its indirect light brought one into a peaceful and prayerful setting.
Built during the 2nd Vatican Council, the interior and layout reflect the spirit of that age of rediscovery of
the richness of the Church's liturgy. It is one of the first modern churches with an altar facing the people. This altar was originally designed and meant to be the focal point of the church. Under a simple cross, the slab of stone is both altar of sacrifice and table of communion, with a pedestal covered in blue ceramic, the colour associated with a holy place in Iran. From the original design we can see that a niche of Persian design was originally planned for the tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament but this feature was not completed.
The wooden furniture of the area around the altar (the sanctuary) was especially designed and made for this church by Martin Holub Architects & Planners in 1977. The reading desk (Ambo) and the chair of the presiding priest remind us that at the mass, one is nourished not only by Holy Communion from the altar but also at the table of Holy Scriptures and Preaching.
Near the entrance is the baptismal font. It is a basin with blue ceramic tiles. The light shines down from an overhead window bringing to mind the light of Christ which we receive at baptism.
On the right hand side within the church, there is a shrine of the Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, a quiet corner for private prayer.
Fr William celebrating mass in St Abraham's.
Fr Redmond Fitzmaurice is at the ambo.
A plaque inside the church records that the erection of the church and priory was largely due to the generous contributions made by Irish people to the Saint Martin Apostolate of the Irish Dominican Province under the directorship of the then Provincial, Fr Louis Coffey o.p.
Saint Martin de Porres is remembered very much as the friend of the poor. Many Irish people, turning to Saint Martin in their time of need and anxiety, contributed to the Saint Martin Apostolate which largely funded the building of the Church. A statue of Saint Martin stands at the end wall of the cloister leading to the church entrance.
The church is dedicated to Abraham, the Holy Patriarch of the Old Testament. Such a dedication is unusual but not unknown; he has long been patron of many Eastern Churches. Abraham is the Father in faith of the three great religions; of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It was a choice, which expressed the desire that this might be a place of respect, encounter and dialogue between these traditions.
Return to index
The Ministry of the Community
Within a short time the community found that it had to respond to another pressing need. During the years of the 1960s and 70s the number of English speaking Catholics in Iran grew considerably. There was a great influx of foreign workers, business people, teachers etc., into a rapidly developing Iran. They looked for a church where they and their families could attend mass in English and meet fellow English-speaking Christians. So Saint Abraham's by necessity became the center of a lively Parish for English speaking Catholics. The parish is called "The Parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary", taking its name from the old Dominican church in Isfahan.
While looking after the church in Tehran, members of the community also travelled every month to visit families in different parts of the country, to cities such as Mashad, Kerman, Shiraz and Isfahan. Fr Ambrose O'Farrell stayed for a period in Shiraz where he had a small chapel for the large Christian community living there at the time.
The Community in the early 1970s.
Left to Right
fr Ignatius Candon, fr William Barden,
fr Hugh Brennan and fr Ambrose O'Farrell.
1974: frs Augustine Valkenburg, Thomas Flynn,
William Barden, Hugh Brennan, Paul Lawlor.
On the 25th of October 1974 fr William was ordained Latin Archbishop of Iran.
The story continues ...
Return to index