History of Church of The Holy Rosary, Castlebar in Co. Mayo

The Church of the Holy Rosary was dedicated on Rosary Sunday 7th October 1901. The need for a new church had been acknowledged as far back as the 1860’s. Cannon Mc Gee like his predecessor Archdeacon Brown was an enthusiastic and talented man. He saw the need for a new church and set about the task of raising funds for the establishment of a new church. As Castlebar was a relatively poor parish, he went to the United States to raise funds.

In 1872 Archbishop John Mc Hale, a relative of Cannon Mc Gee, laid the foundation stone for the new church. Within a short time the church had been built to roof level on an elevated site where Fr. Curran’s house now stands. Due to lack of funds and the death of Cannon Mc Gee the work of the building had to be postponed for over 20 years. Another factor that contributed to the delay was the political difference and the bitter dispute that ensued between Doctor Mc Hale and Dr. Mc Evilly over the succession to the position of Archbishop of Tuam.

Going back as far as 1855 both Dr.Mc Hale and Dr. Mc Evilly were supportive of the Tenants Rights movement. They both attended a meeting in Castlebar in that year in support of the famous "Three F’s”- Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Free sale. When O Connell’s Repeal Association was formed it was supported by Dr. Mc Hale but vehemently opposed by Dr. Cullen, Bishop of Dublin. Mc Evilly was at this stage loyal to his Archbishop and supportive of the Tenants Rights movement. At a function in Tuam in 1854 he stated: ”People of Ireland, you are but half emancipated.” Lucas and Gavan Duffy praised his stance. In 1855 Dr. Mc Evilly attended a banquet in Castlebar in honour of G.H.Moore, a prominent member of the Independent Party and friend of Dr. Mc Hale. At this stage his support was questionable due to his friendship with Dr. Cullen. It was not until after the death of Dr. McHale in 1875 that his views were made public. His opposition to the Women’s Land League was well documented.

In 1875 Dr. Mc Hale pleaded with Cardinal Franchi, the Popes representative for his nephew Thomas Mc Hale to be appointed Co-Adjutor for the diocese but this request was refused. Dr. Mc Evilly kept Dr. Cullen informed of the views of Dr. Mc Hale during this period. Dr. Cullen was opposed to the Fenian movement and the tactics used by Parnell's Home Rule movement - mass meetings, etc. and had considerable influence among the Hierarchy. In 1876 a vote was taken among the Cannons and P.P.’s in the western region over who should be appointed to this position. Mc Evilly received 18votes and Mc Hale 16. In 1879 Dr. Mc Evilly was appointed Co- adjutor. On the death of Dr. Mc Hale in 9th Nov. 1881 Mc Evilly was appointed Archbishop. During the years 1881-1885 the new Bishop spoke out against the Land League and banished priests who supported it. When Cannon Mc Gee died in 1885, Fr. Lyons was a young curate in the parish of Castlebar. Dr. Mc Evilly converted Castlebar into a mensal parish against canonical authority and Fr. Lyons was appointed administrator.

There was a lot of disagreement within the diocese over this move and it was explained that this move was merely temporary. There were also rumours that Dr. Mc Hale’s influential friends in the Irish College in Paris had made representations to The Pope in Rome concerning the matter. Fr. Lyons was appointed a Canon in the hope that his appointment would lay this matter to rest. The years 1877-1890 were years of famine nearly as bad as the dark days of 1845-1847 andmoney was scarce; Fr. Lyons was not too eager to complete the church started by Cannon Mc Gee a relative of Dr. Mc Hales.

In February 1891 Fr. Lyons decided on the advice of architects and on instruction from the archbishop to address the provision of a new church. It was argued that the church on hand would be too costly to complete and that the foundations were faulty. It was stated that the completion of the Mc Hale church would cost £17000 an advertisement was placed in the local papers by a number of businessmen. The following week Fr. Lyons invited tenders for the building of a new church. Messrs. W.H.Byrne, John Robinson, R.H.A. and Walter G. Doolin submitted tenders and that of Mr. Doolin was adopted.

The town was incensed and everything from abusive letters to violent public meetings followed and by the end of 1891 many were not attending mass, workers were refusing to work on the project, and contributors were demanding their money back. A storm of protest arose with a number of local people demanding that the “Mc Hale Church” be completed. Michael Quinn was the spokesman for the opposing group. This group got an independent architect, J.J. O' Callaghan to give a quotation for the completion of the original church and the figure quoted was in the region of £9000. A public meeting was called on the site of the old church and a motion was proposed that work continue on the Mc Hale church. The Connaught Telegraph took the side of the church and commenting on this meeting, reported “Scenes of irreligious rascality and fierce tumult”and declared, “We stand, then, firmly on the side of the respected and zealous P.P." The Western People on the other hand reported that “Public opinion …is unmistakably in favour of preceding with the partly completed edifice rather than building a new church.” They further reported an attendance of between 600 and 700 people. It goes on to state that “ Col. Stewart, R.M., Mr. Mc Dermott, D.I., and a large force of police were present to maintain “order”. Why they should have been imported for the occasion struck us as being very singular. There was no need for such an offensive display-it was entirely uncalled for- an insult, as one of the resolutions properly observed, to the Catholic people of the town and district, than in whom in Ireland there does not exist a more peaceable or well disposed community.”

For the next twelve months extra police were drafted into the town on Sundays and holy days, but despite all this, Fr. Lyons went ahead; the Mc Hale church was demolished and he pressed ahead with collecting of funds for the new church, which became as the Mc Evilly Church. Funds were slow in coming in due partially to Fr. Lyons' approach and the indignation of the parishioners. During this time, Fr. Reidy was in the course of restoring and re-roofing portion of Ballintubber Abbey. The Archbishop forbade the work and ordered that the monies be transferred to Castlebar church. Sir John Power who had been a patron of the Ballintubber project withdrew his support and the money was lost to both projects.

On a visit to Castlebar in 1892 Dr. Mc Evilly spoke of the controversy and said it “Was a disgrace to the Parish, a disgrace to the country, a disgrace to the nation and a disgrace to humanity.” Even though resistance continued, the bitterness diminished somewhat over the years. Throughout all these scandals, Fr. Lyons had the support of the professional and moneyed classes in the town. He failed to listen to the voices of the less well off and less educated classes in the parish. These people proved to be most able and vocal and were always careful to maintain respect for the parish priest and the church authorities. Though Dr. Mc Hale was more than 10 years dead, he was still causing problems for Dr. Mc Evilly and his delegate in Castlebar, Cannon Lyons. Dr. Mc Evilly once said of Dr. Mc Hale: "He has left nothing undone to annoy and thwart me". Cannon Lyons proved to be a wonderful organiser and also built new schools, a monastery, presbytery and college in the town and proved worthy of the trust Dr. Mc Evilly had put in him.

It was not until March 1897 that work on the building was started. After about a year, a portion of the building was damaged by storm but the work continued and the building was completed in 1901. The main contractor for the building was Mr.John B. Healy of Tralee. J.A. O Connell of Cork made the organ gallery. The entrance screens and some of the seating was made by Mr. William O Connell of Cork, the confessionals by Mr. Andrew of New Ross, Co. Wexford, the wrought iron gates to the sanctuary by Messrs.Cane and Gunning of Dublin. Craven, Dunhill & Co. carried out the tiling of the chapel and chancels. Mr. J.C. Edwards carried out the tiling of the narthex and baptistery. The lighting was installed by Ward &Partners from Belfast, and the heating by J.C Edwards. Mr. J.F.Ebner made the woodblock floors and Messrs.S.T. & C. Martin installed the floors. Mr. James Pearse and his son William, father and brother of Padraig Pearse, (executed for his part in the 1916 rising), installed the altar and communion railings.

J.Fagan and Sons, Dublin made the ornate gate at the entrance to the baptismal font and it was said that if a baby had not been carried through "Fagan’s Gates", they were not regarded as true Castlebar stock. The ornate glass windows were designed and made by Mayer of Munich, and Dr. Mc Evilly donated the windows to the rear of the altar while Canon Lyons and his parishioners donated the remaining windows. Archbishop Mc Evilly performed the blessing and Dedication of the church on the feast of the Holy Rosary in October 1901. He praised Cannon Lyons on this occasion for his perseverance “in the face of very great difficulties and obstacles.” Bishop Mc Cormack of Galway preached a special sermon in which he described the church as follows: “It possesses every architectural feature, which combines solidarity and beauty, majesty and grace.” Bishop Ludden of Syracuse, New York celebrated the mass. A native of Cappavicar, near Castlebar, Dr.Ludden had donated the high altar, which was built in Italy and installed by Pearse and Co. The polychromatic pulpit was built in 1908.

In 1943 extensive repairs were carried out to the church. The Parish Priest at the time was Cannon Fallon but due to his ill health Fr. John Gibbons was given the task of carrying out the renovations. The architect was Charles Powell of Dublin. The timber in the seats and roof were treated with Cuprinol. It is understood that the old organ in the Church had been infested with the Deadwatch beetle and was thrown out in 1943, to be replaced in 1948 by the present organ supplied, by P.Conacher of London at a cost of £3000. The funds for this organ were collected by a series of Concerts and musicals organised by Stephen Garvey. In 1943 the firm of A.W.Lyons carried out extensive repair work on the church windows. The old solid fuel heating system was replaced in 1950 by the present electric heating system. P.A.systems were installed in 1949, 1980 and 1983. The church bell, weighing some 42cwt. was provided in 1937 by Matthew Byrne of Dublin. J.Crean and Sons, Roscommon produced the mosaic behind Our Lady’s Altar in 1956 in conjunction with J.P.Mc Cormack and Sons, Castlebar.

Following the Second Vatican Council major renovation works were carried out and took six months to complete. The work was carried during one of the worst summers in living memory but the inclement weather did not hinder progress and the work was completed in the scheduled time. The main contractors were: Joe Mc Cormack, Mall Construction Ltd., and among those who worked on the project were Sean Feehan (Clerk of Works), Sean Gibbons, Peter Moran, Frank Bourke, Gerry Kilcoyne, Padraig Mc Hugh, Pat Mc Cormack, Fergus Mc Cormack, Noel Kenny, Tom Moran, Joe Mc Hale, Cathal Rowan, Paddy Gannon, Pat Heraty, Patrick Maloney, J.Gannon, Tom Grier, (electrical contractor), Tom Mc Hugh, Barry Dolan, Kieran Kilkenny, John Jenings, Padraig Connor, Sean Mc Cann (heating contractor), Peter Mc Cann, Michael O Malley, Ger Flannery, Aidan Brett, Ronan Brett, Paul Gavin, Brendan Halpin (monumental sculptor), Martin Halpin, John Fitzgerald and Padraig Cunningham.

Article by Brian Hoban