Historic Day for Ecumenism on Inishbiggle in Co. Mayo

On December 19th 2000 there was a special ecumenical service in the Church of the Holy Trinity on the island of Inishbiggle in the parish of Ballycroy. The service was jointly presided over by the Right Reverend Richard Henderson (Church of Ireland bishop of Killala, Tuam and Achonry) and Most Reverend Thomas Finnegan (Roman Catholic bishop of Killala).

The purpose of the service was to mark the agreement in principle that henceforth the Roman Catholic community would have its Masses and other religious services in Holy Trinity Church, which is owned by the Church of Ireland. This is the first time in Killala diocese that both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church have agreed to use the same Church on an on-going basis.

The idea of sharing the tiny Church on Inishbiggle has come up several times since the 1960s. However, until the present that sharing never became reality. For some years, because of the very small size of the Church of Ireland congregation on the island, Holy Trinity Church has been closed. The Roman Catholics on the island have, since 1912, had their Mass in what used to be the island's school. The school, which has of just one room, currently acts also as the health centre and the community centre for the island. Recently it was decided, as a project for the jubilee year, to restore and share Holy Trinity Church.

Some of the initial restoration work was done under a FAS scheme but after the FAS scheme ended a lot of further work was done voluntarily. The grounds were cleared, the perimeter walls rebuilt, the roof repaired, the doors replaced, the seats restored, the walls plastered and painted, the floors cleaned and varnished, new carpets purchased, etc. etc. By December 19th and before the end of the millennium year, as scheduled, the Church of the Holy Trinity was looking very fine indeed. Both Bishop Henderson and Bishop Finnegan expressed their pleasure and surprise when they saw the transformation that had been brought about.

The people of the island turned out in strength for the ecumenical service and every seat in the Church was full. Although the previous night had been very stormy, the day was beautiful and calm. There atmosphere was celebratory. All felt proud of what had been achieved. Paddy Henry, an octogenarian and one of the oldest people on the island, reflected the feelings of many when he said with some emotion, as he sat in the Church, waiting for the service to begin 'I am very happy to be here today. I never thought I would see this day but thank God I have. After all there is only one God. It is marvellous to see everyone coming together as friends. Religious differences used to be a source of tension but, thank God, they are not anymore.' Many others expressed similar sentiments. P'l O'Foighil, manager of the island co-operative, said, 'There is a meeting of minds and hearts here today that is wonderful. Please God we will now see this beautiful but neglected island of Inishbiggle restored to its former glory and developed further, as it can be, in its social, cultural and economic aspects.'

The other clergy present with the bishops for the occasion were, on the Church of Ireland side, Canon Gary Hastings (Westport) and, on the Roman Catholic side, Canon Mark Diamond (Ballina), Father Joe Gibbons (Mulranny), Father Kieran Burke (Mulranny) and Father Eddie Rogan (Ballycroy). They were all very positive about what was happening.

Canon Hastings, whose wife is Roman Catholic, said, 'I think it is a great idea. I am all for it. The sharing of Churches is common in England. This is not really a big deal in other places.' Father Joe Gibbons was very impressed by the occasion. He said, 'This is a momentous and historic day. It has been talked about for so long and now finally it is happening. This is the direction in which the Churches should be going today. It is very important that both of the bishops are here.' Father Eddie Rogan was also very optimistic. He said, 'I think that what is happening today is very hopeful. It is great that it is happening in the jubilee year, a year of reconciliation, healing and renewal.

On behalf of all the Roman Catholics of Ballycroy parish, of which Inishbiggle is a part, I would like to thank Bishop Henderson and the Church of Ireland for so generously agreeing to share this fine building with us. I served as a priest in the north of Ireland in an area where, on both sides of the divide, Churches were burned down and people maimed for life and even killed because they belonged to a different Christian denomination. Thank God, the opposite of such sectarianism is to be found on Inishbiggle. We thank both bishops for being here today and affirming all this. This has brought a lot of hope, a confidence in the future and a sense of achievement to us here on Inishbiggle.'

Canon Mark Diamond delivered the sermon at the ecumenical service and received a spontaneous round of applause for it. Canon Diamond is now retired in Ballina but, as a former parish priest of Ballycroy parish, had already been on Inishbiggle at least two hundred times. He said in his sermon, ''This is our reason for being here today ' to witness to the whole world that we are trying to follow Jesus and his teaching that we love one another. For many years we Catholics have made use of the island's school as our place of worship. Now by the mercy and grace of God our Church authorities have suggested that our separate communities 'Catholic and Anglican' should share this church. We thank them'. Our prayer is that we may all grow in the love of Christ Jesus and in the love of one another. Let me finish with the words of Jesus in John Chapter 17 'Father may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you so that the world may believe that it was you who sent me'. Amen.''

Both bishops also spoke during the service. Bishop Henderson said he viewed this ecumenical venture, as he viewed the season of advent, with a great sense of hope and expectancy. He drew a parallel between this hope and that which he felt at the time of the birth of his first child who, thank God, twelve years after she came into the world, is still with them and growing, loved by and loving towards those who begot her. He went on, 'This must be one of the smallest Churches in Christendom'. It is certainly of manageable size'. My prayer is that the things that are happening here will grow into greater things. It is not so much the place of worship that counts but the spirit. My prayer is that this will be a place where those who are Christian will want to worship God in spirit and in truth.' Bishop Henderson, on behalf of the Church of Ireland, thanked the people of Inishbiggle for the great work they had done.

Bishop Finnegan expressed gratitude to Bishop Henderson and to the Church of Ireland and also thanked and congratulated the people of Inishbiggle. He said, 'What we are undertaking today is very historic. This is a small church but, as Bishop Henderson has said, what is happening is great. I would like to thank everyone who had a part in this work. I was here in this church at the beginning of August and it is hard to believe how much has been done since then.'

The service concluded with a joint blessing by the two bishops. Refreshments, including wine because the occasion was one of special celebration, were served afterwards in the school. When the day was over, Michael Leneghan, one of the ferrymen who had brought many of the visitors to and from the island, summed up the shared sense of satisfaction. He said, 'It was a wonderful day ' one hundred percent successful.