Next Sunday in Moygownagh, we’re having our Lateran Basilica moment. You may remember, if you happened to frequent a church on last Sunday week (9th November), that the feast was the dedication of the Lateran Basilica.
I visited that basilica in Rome, a massive building. It’s the Pope’s cathedral. The popes lived there before St Peter’s was built. And every year, on September 9th, we remember its dedication way back in 329 a.d., as a kind of short-hand for focussing attention on our own church, the building in which we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.
This year the feast has a particular resonance for the parish of Moygownagh where I work. Next Sunday, after a comprehensive refurbishment, Bishop John Fleming will be re-dedicating St Cormac’s Church, built just before the Great Famine in 1846, and blessing our new altar and baptismal chapel.
Even though we’ve a long way to go before our church is as old as the Lateran Basilica in Rome, next Sunday St Cormac’s will have its Lateran Basilica moment. Doing up a church got me reflecting on the extraordinary connection people have with their local church. A building with four walls, a roof and seats becomes in time the still centre of a parish, a spiritual home, a sacred space, a place made holy by what has happens within it: the Masses said, the Baptisms performed, the marriages celebrated, the burial of loved ones, the daily visits of passersby. The flotsam and jetsam of parish life find a home in places that have become centres of community worship for generations and generations of our people.
When people meet to worship, when a community gathers around an altar to break the Bread of Life and to eat at God’s table, something extraordinary happens. The building gradually takes on a different character; it becomes more than the sum of all of its parts; it becomes the heart-beat of a faith community, a sacred place that enshrines the most precious moments of our lives. It becomes, in time, part of what we are. The very character of a building is transformed. It’s as if the accumulated worship and prayers of centuries gradually seep into its walls and floors to give it a meaning beyond the timber and cement and stones that went into its building.
When some years ago people in Moygownagh felt the need to refurbish this church, no matter what kind of disrepair it might have been in, I doubt very much if anyone would have ever contemplated building a new church. The memory enshrined in the very texture of St Cormac’s first Communion days, Confirmation days, funeral Masses, private devotions would be too precious to give up. For more than 168 years St Cormac’s pre-Famine church has become part and parcel not just of the heritage of Moygownagh but the heart of a vibrant faith community that continues to this day.
It’s a long story stretching back to possibly the eighth century when St. Daria had a monastery in Moygownagh and she treated St Cormac, who was passing through, so hospitably that he blessed her and prayed her lands would abound in milch cows. Hence the name Math Gamhnach, Moygownagh, the plain of the milch cows. (A more accurate translation of a key document would suggest that Daria and Cormac didn’t get on but local tradition seemed to prefer the more amenable gloss!)
Daria’s monastery was in the townland of Knockaculleen, where the old cemetery is today. Later churches were built at Killeenatrask and Driminangle before an old eighteenth century church was built, not far from the present church. Samuel Lewis, the travel writer, passing through Moygownagh in 1836, described the old church as ‘small and in bad repair’.
And the present church replaced it in 1846.
So if you’re in the vicinity of Moygownagh a few miles off the Ballina/Crossmolina road why not stop off and say a prayer at St Cormac’s? And if you insist on contributing to the church refurbishment fund, no one will object.
I love visiting churches, at home and abroad. Huge cathedrals dominating a city skyline and small village churches, nestled in backward places. You get a sense of a place from a local church, a sense of the priorities of its people and priest. Like a photograph, a church is as good as a thousand words. It’s a window into a community.
Once visiting churches was a popular enough pastime, even for non-believers like the poet, Philip Larkin, whose poem Church Going captures the mood of different churches:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
Larkin took to wondering what we’d turn churches into when they ‘fall completely out of use’ or if we¹ll keep ‘a few cathedrals chronically on show . . . And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep’. Larkin wrote his poem over fifty years ago and the pattern of ‘letting go’ of our churches has now emerged. A local church, once ‘a serious house on serious earth in whose blent air all our compulsions meet’, becomes a library or a restaurant or even a fruit market. And, in the process, we sense we’ve lost more than a
Thankfully that’s not the case with St Cormac’s in Moygownagh, where a small faith-community has, in difficult times, made an act of faith in the future by securing a sacred space where its people, in Larkin’s telling words, will ‘forever be surprising a hunger in themselves’ and gravitating with it to this holy ground.
It is both an act of faith in the future and a fitting tribute to the past.