The parish church is undoubtedly the most prominent building
in the town of Castletownbere. It towers above the houses,
dominates the landscapes and seems to preside over the whole
area. It is a constant reminder to all of us of our eternal
destiny. It is one of the great landmarks of Berehaven guiding
our boats home from the sea and recalling to mind the fishermen
of Galilee and the One who chose them and sent them to preach
to all nations.
The Church was built in the earlier years of the last century.
When Fr John McDonnell came here as parish priest in 1899
the cruciform church of the time was old, in need of repairs
and indeed too small for the growing population. It had
served the people of the parish well during difficult times
during the nineteenth century. A decision had to be made
between a very costly repair and refurbishing plan and the
building of a completely new church. Canon McDonnell and
his committee made a brave decision and decided on a completely
The same location was the most suitable one for the projected
church. Even though the floor space of the new building
would far exceed that of the old the site held many memories
for the people. Generations of Castletownbere people had
attended Mass and the Sacraments there and it was the wish
of both priests and people that continuity with that great
past would be preserved as far as at all possible.
A competition open to architects was announced from which
a suitable design was to be chosen. From the entries submitted
that of Mr RM Butler, FRIBA was declared the winner and
his design was accepted.
Mr Butler envisaged a much larger building than the old
church. It was to have a high tower standing separate from
the the main building with a tapering spire reaching far
into the sky. It was to stand immediately south of the present
nun's choir. The plan for the tower was not persevered with
as it was regarded as too expensive. The church was intended
for a much larger congregation and this meant that the site
occupied by the old building would not suffice; The Sisters
of Mercy in the nearby convent came to the rescue and from
their property offered sufficient ground to extend the site
so that the work could begin.
The first task was the clearing of the site offered by the
Sisters. There were a number of trees on it which has to
be cut down and uprooted and the ground levelled. This work
began on 9th April 1907. Granite was to be used in the external
facing of the walls of the church. The Mountains of Mourne
held the best granite in Ireland and so an order was placed
at the quarries of Mr John Rush of Castlewellan, Co. Down,
to supply granite which was then transported by sea down
the east coast of Ireland round Carnsore Point and along
the south coast to Castletown.
Work went on under the pastoral eye of Canon McDonnell during
the summer months arid in 15th August the Bishop of the
diocese, Bishop John Mangan, came to Beara, presided at
High Mass in the old church and blessed the foundation stone
of the new one.
A very practical difficulty now arose as work on the new
church progressed. The old church stood on part of the intended
site. Eventually it would have to be demolished but it was
needed for Sunday Mass until the new one was ready. It is
to the credit of the architect and the contractor Mr Robert
Kelly of Bantry that the old church was kept intact and
Sunday Masses celebrated there while the new one gradually
sprung up beside and around it.
Progress was slow but certain. By Christmas 1910 the building
was nearing completion and on Christmas Day, mass was celebrated
for the very first time in the new but as yet unfinished
church. Seven more months were to elapse before the building
was complete and solemnly dedicated for divine worship.
The new church were blessed, formally opened and dedicated
to the Sacred Heart on 30th July 1911. The ceremony was
carried out with great pomp and splendour. Bishop Mangan
presided at the High Mass at which Canon McDonnell was the
celebrant. Canon Patrick Hayes, then parish priest of Ballylongford,
preached at the ceremony. Canon Hayes was later transferred
to Castletownbere and was our parish priest from 1919 until
his death in 1925. He is buried in the church grounds.
In the course of his sermon Canon Hayes said: "I congratulate
Canon McDonnell and his noble flock on this glorious monument
of their piety, zeal and self-sacrifice. May this beautiful
church be for him and for you the gate that leads to heaven".
At the end of the dedication Mass, Bishop Mangan addressed
the overflowing congregation. He said: "I thank on
behalf of your pastor and on my own behalf the people of
this parish who have given such help and such magnificent
evidence of their faith by their generous contributions
to this church.
"This day is for me the most glorious day of my episcopate.
I congratulate you with all my heart, people of Castletownbere,
who have given me the opportunity of participating in this
celebration. I congratulate your good priest who has brought
his work to such a successful conclusion, and it is my heartfelt
wish and prayer that the blessing of God may descend on
the people and clergy of this parish, and that it will in
the future retain the excellent name it has for the faith,
devotion, piety and generosity of the people".
The parish church has weathered the gales and furious rain
lashings of ninety six years. It is no surprise that the
passing years have left marks on the building. The south
gable which is the most severely tested by the weather,
showed signs of serious dampness. The ornamental turrets
on either side of the gable were largely the cause of this
problem. It became urgent that the turrets and the pointing
of the gable be attended to in order to prevent further
deterioration and this was carried out some years ago. Later
our present Parish Priest, Canon Pat Sheehan carried out
a major refurbishing of the interior, dry lining all the
walls and re-decorating, making a first class job. May our
parish church in the years to come continue to be a source
of grace and of happy memories for our people.
Courtesy of the Southern Star