September 7th : Blessed Ralph Corby, SJ

Blessed Ralph Corby, SJ

Born : Around 1570
Died : September 7, 1627
Beatified: May 7, 1867

Ralph Corby was born in Ireland, in Maynooth Castle, the home of the Earl of Kildare, where his English parents took up service after they fled their native County Durham because Catholicism was being persecuted there. When Ralph was five, his family returned to County Durham. When he was fifteen, the family moved to Saint-Omer in Flanders, where Ralph and his two brothers studied at the English College. After six years of reading humanities, Ralph went to the English College in Seville, Spain and later in Valladolid. He returned to Flanders after his ordination to the priesthood in 1625. He entered the Society of Jesus at Watten that same year. He did further studies in Liege and finally ended his Jesuit formation in Ghent. Sometime in 1631 or 1632, he was sent on the English mission.

Fr Corby’s two brothers, who studied with him at Saint-Omer, also became Jesuit priests while his third brother died as he was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate. His two sisters became Benedictine nuns in Brussels. Later, their father became a Jesuit brother at the age of seventy while their mother became a Benedictine nun in Ghent and lived to be a hundred.

Fr Corby returned to County Durham where there were few priests in that area and traveled much on foot to preach and later on horseback because of ill health. When he was unable to preach in public, he gave private instructions to Catholics, confirming them in their faith and administering the sacraments to them. He spent twelve years in this ministry and his Catholics lovingly called him their “dearest Father” and “the apostle”.

Fr Corby was arrested on the morning of July 8, 1644, while celebrating Mass at Hamsterly Hall, near Newcastle. Just as he was about to read the Epistle, Puritan soldiers broke into the house. Fr Corby signed a confession admitting he was a priest and was shipped off to London the following day. He met Fr John Duckett, a diocesan priest who was apprehended a few days earlier. The two priests became close friends and were to be companions in imprisonment and in death as well.

The two priests chose martyrdom to freedom. Each of them could have been released when the Spanish emperor’s representative in London suggested that Fr Corby be exchanged for a Scottish colonel. Fr Corby however suggested Fr Duckett who could accomplish more for the Church since he was younger and healthier. The latter too declined. Both priests were subsequently put on trial because they had previously confessed that they were priests. They were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

On the morning of September 7 the priests celebrated their last Masses and were taken to Tyburn in their cassocks. When they arrived at their place of execution, they kissed the gallows and stepped on to the cart. Fr Corby told bystanders that they were priests and that their crime was priesthood. They then embraced each other, and as they recollected themselves in prayer, the cart was slowly drawn from under them and they were left to hang until dead. Their bodies were later disemboweled and quartered, but to prevent the people from taking relics, the sheriff ordered the bodies and robes to be burned.

Fr Corby was forty-six years old and was a Jesuit for fourteen years. He and Fr Duckett were beatified by Pope Pius XI on December 15, 1929. The Jesuits celebrate Fr Corby’s memorial on Dec 1 when they commemorate all the Jesuits martyrs of England and Wales.