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The Protestant minister who has extended a warm welcome to local priest to celebrate Mass in his church


By John Meagher

Just over the border in the Republic this weekend, St Maeldoid's church in Co Monaghan is playing host to a brand new congregation as the Church of Ireland building welcomes the local Roman Catholic church to its pews. John Meagher talks to clergy from both denominations - and finds uplifting evidence that good neighbourly relations extend beyond the pews.

Fr Pat McHugh thinks back to the latter days of his time at Maynooth seminary four decades ago and wonders what he would have said had he been told that, in 2017, he would be saying Mass in a Protestant church.

The Co Fermanagh native chuckles at the thought. "I would have assumed I'd have left the priesthood and converted, and I'd be a rector of the Church of Ireland," he said.

But he is still very much in the Roman Catholic flock, this parish priest in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. The big difference, though, is he says Mass at St Maeldoid's Church of Ireland church - and this venerable Protestant building, a feature of the town since 1808, will be home to the Catholic congregation for the next 12 months.

In a move that would have been unthinkable just a couple of generations ago, the church will accommodate both the small Church of Ireland population and the much larger Catholic community while St Mary's Church - right across the road - is undergoing much-needed refurbishment.

The first Mass in St Maeldoid's was on Tuesday morning and there were 200 people present - far higher than the attendance on a typical midweek day. Fr McHugh reckons it's likely that some locals present had never been inside the church before.

"There's a strong ecumenical tradition here and many people would have been to carol services in the church, but there are probably older people who wouldn't have been inside - a throwback to another time, maybe," he said.

It was just 20 years ago, in December 1997, that Irish President Mary McAleese was strongly criticised by some senior Catholic clergy for accepting Holy Communion at the Church of Ireland's Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

Fr James McEvoy, professor of philosophy at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, wrote that he would find it "repugnant" if she "should ever again abuse the august office which she occupies, in a way which would once more embarrass the Catholic Church, by giving scandal to its members".

And history recalls that on the occasion of the State funeral for the Republic's first President, Douglas Hyde, in 1949, Noel Browne was the only cabinet member to cross the threshold of the Protestant St Patrick's Cathedral. The other members of government waited outside the grounds of the cathedral and joined the funeral cortege afterwards. Eamon de Valera did not attend.

And, for much of the 20th century, under the rule of the hardline Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, so-called mixed marriages were governed by the Ne Temere rule, where children on both sides of the border were obliged to be brought up as Catholics. It, and the similarly controversial Palatine Pact, were greatly resented by members of the Protestant community who may have felt it was an effort by the self-styled 'One True Church' to snuff out its influence.

It's an era that retired priest Fr Sean Nolan remembers well. He grew up in a part of Monaghan where the Catholic-Protestant split stood close to 50-50.

"There would be neighbours, good friends who you'd known all your life, and you wouldn't be able to go to their funeral service simply because they were Protestants," he said. "It was very hard for people and it really troubled them because they wanted to pay respect to their neighbours and friends and couldn't, or felt they couldn't.

"It makes me very pleased to know we've moved on so far from those days."

For Rev Neal Phair, rector of St Maeldoid's, accommodating the local Catholic population is something his congregation are happy to do.

"We're delighted, to be honest," he said.

"There's a very strong bond between the Church of Ireland and Catholic community here in Castleblayney and it makes perfect sense while St Mary's is undergoing restoration."

A first-timer to the town would be struck by the geographical proximity of the churches. They stand close together, just up the road from the impressive new grandstand of Castleblayney Faughs GAA club. A small road separates them, but as the crow flies, there's scarcely 50 metres between them.

St Mary's was built on grounds donated to the Catholic community by the wealthy landowner Lord Blayney in the early 19th century. His legacy is everywhere in the town that bears his name, particularly in the pretty terrace of red brick housing that stands halfway up a hill - they were originally alms houses for the local poor.

And there are reminders of Blayney in St Maeldoid's too. On the left side, from the congregation's vantage, there's a fireplace that marks the spot where his own pew used to stand. And, just outside, at the perimeter wall, there's an outline of where a gate once stood - a shortcut to give him quick access to his lavish pile Castle Blayney - or Hope Castle, as it's sometimes known, in deference to the family who lived there from the 1850s onwards.

Fr McHugh points out that with a Protestant landowner granting land for the Catholic population to build their church, it's little surprise that relations between the two Christian traditions have been good for generations. And, unlike many place-names that originated in colonial times, Castleblayney survives to this day.

The plan to refurbish St Mary's was first set in motion in 2010 and that Christmas Rev Phair's predecessor was sounded out about the possibility of accommodating Mass during repair works, whenever that should be.

With agreement reached at grassroots level, it was on to the respective bishops to sanction the move. The Church of Ireland leader had no problems, and the now retired Catholic Bishop of Clogher Liam MacDaid gave his blessing, citing canon 933 of the current canon law as the permission he needed.

This law, from John Paul II's papacy in 1983, reads: "For a just cause and with the express permission of the local ordinary, a priest is permitted to celebrate the Eucharist in the place of worship of some Church or ecclesial community, which does not have full communion with the Catholic Church so long as there is no scandal."

Previous canon law, enacted in 1917, placed heavy restrictions on Catholics' interactions with other churches.

Canon 823 reads: "Mass may not be said in churches of heretics or schismatics, even though they were in the past properly consecrated or blessed."

And canon 1258 made it clear to devout Catholics that they should not attend Protestant services.

"It is forbidden to actively participate in the worship of non-Catholics… in the case of non-Catholic funerals, marriages or similar solemn occasions, the passive or merely material presence for reasons of a public office to show respect... is tolerated for a serious reason which in case of doubt, is to be resolved by the bishop," it states.

For many outside the community, this week was the first they heard of a Catholic Mass being celebrated in a Protestant church and both clergymen have been somewhat taken aback by the level of interest.

"But then, we're in a border town and Castleblayney had some difficulties during the time of the Troubles," Rev Phair reasoned.

Fr McHugh agrees. "A friend of mine from Tyrone got in touch and said: 'Do you realise the significance of all this?'," he explained.

"I suppose we had been so close to it that we hadn't seen the bigger picture.

But with all the interest, from the media and elsewhere, we see that it is significant."

For Catholic parishioner Bernadette Courtney, it's a sign of mature times.

"People get on very well in Castleblayney and we're all Christians at the end of the day. We help each other out," she said. She is looking forward to attending Mass at St Maeldoid's for the first time tomorrow.

Some have expressed misgivings about how the church will accommodate a much larger congregation. An estimated 800 people go to three Masses at St Mary's on a Sunday. There will be two Masses at St Maeldoid's on the Sabbath as well, of course, as normal Sunday service for the Church of Ireland community. Fr McHugh is confident they will be catered for.

St Maeldoid's is a very different church to St Mary's. It boasts a signed stained glass window from celebrated artist Harry Clarke as well as a beautifully preserved 19th century organ.

St Mary's is a much larger church and features fine marble work around the altar. A large extension was built on to it in the 1950s, work that makes it feel disproportionally long. "The congregation was growing then and needed a bigger capacity," Fr McHugh said. The new work, which includes important structural improvements, will, he hopes, make the church feel a bit more intimate.

The refurbishments are set to cost €2m. Much has been raised but there's a 10-year Ulster Bank loan of €1.5m that will have to be paid back. One senses that Fr McHugh spends many waking hours thinking about how best to raise the funds and he hopes that Monaghan people reading this article might be compelled to donate through the website.

He talks about how one of the area's most famous locals, country and western veteran Big Tom, played a concert at the church and helped raise €17,000, and he notes that of the many donations received, the local Masonic lodge raised €700 - a further sign of the ecumenical spirit in the town.

John Montgomery, St Maeldoid's church warden and a freemason at Castleblayney's Harmony Hall, says there was no hesitation from members. "We are all part of the community," he said. "When we wanted to do restoration work on our church, our Catholic neighbours helped us. We want to do the same for them."

Fr McHugh says it's important that due respect is afforded to their Church of Ireland neighbours when it comes to using their church. There will be no images or statues of the Virgin Mary brought from St Mary's, and holy water will not be brought inside either.

Catholic church-goers, long used to kneeling at various stages of Mass, will find no kneeler to accommodate them at St Maeldoid's, but Fr McHugh says they will likely appreciate the cushioned pews. "They're definitely more comfortable to sit in."


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