A Beara landmark

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 new building.

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