Belfast Telegraph

Bangor to become a spiritual haven for pilgrims from Europe after lottery grant

By Linda Stewart

He has been described as Ireland's most influential emigrant.

And now Bangor is to be transformed into a spiritual haven for pilgrims from across Europe attracted by the story of St Columbanus.

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has provided the money for North Down Borough Council to uncover the life of St Columbanus, regarded across Europe as one of Ireland's greatest saints.

In the sixth century a group of monks led by St Columbanus set off from Bangor - described by St Patrick as the "Valley of the Angels" - and went to the continent to reclaim Europe for Christianity at a time when it was rife with anarchy and chaos.

The HLF has now given £40,000 so the council can tell the extraordinary story through a number of initiatives, including training volunteers as guides.

This includes the story of the ancient monastery and its contribution to the revival of Christianity in the Dark Ages.

This year marks 1,400 years since the death of Columbanus and the council says it will now have the means to explore the spiritual heritage of the town and the important role Bangor played in the spread of Christianity throughout Europe.

It also plans to develop a "heritage meditation trail" so that visitors can walk in the footsteps of the saint's and use new technologies to explore the history of the town's key sites. There will also be spaces for contemplation provided by local churches on the trail.

Alex Irvine, Tourism Development Officer at North Down Borough Council, said: "Unfortunately little remains today of the original monastic settlement, yet parts of the coastline that they would have walked are very much the same as in ancient times."

The former Irish President Mary McAleese has described Columbanus as Ireland's most influential emigrant. Pope Benedict XVI called him the first European and there is currently a petition for Pope Francis, to name St Columbanus a Patron Saint of Europe in 2015. Born in Leinster, Columbanus became a monk at Lough Erne and then at Bangor under abbot Saint Comgall.

In middle age, Columbanus felt a call to missionary life and set off with 12 companions, travelling to Scotland, England and then France in 585, settling at the Roman fortress of Annegray in the Vosges Mountains following their welcome by the King of Burgundy.

After Columbanus spoke out against vice in the royal court, an armed force was sent to force the monks back to Ireland, but as soon as the ship set sail a storm drove it back to shore - the captain took it as a sign and set them free. The monks made their way across Europe and Columbanus crossed the Alps into Italy, arriving in Milan in 612 where he founded an abbey at Bobbio which was to become the source for evangelisation in Italy for centuries.

Bangor's Tourism Office says that pilgrims from France and Italy regularly visit Bangor in the footsteps of Columbanus to learn more about the monastery where he was educated under St Comgall.

An application is now with the European Institute of Cultural Routes to recognise the "Columban Way" as an established "European Cultural Route" .

Factfile

Born: West Leinster in 543.

Died: November 21, 615 in a cave at Bobbio, Italy, of natural causes, and interred at the abbey church of Bobbio.

Patronage: Against floods; Bobbio; Missionary Society of Saint Columban; motorcyclists.

Key quotes: "All we Irish dwelling on the edge of the world are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of the disciples who, under the Holy Spirit, wrote the Sacred Canon. We accept nothing outside this evangelical and apostolic teaching."

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