My Grandfather’s Church

As a youth my grandfather spent every New Years Eve on his knees in St. Finian’s church, welcoming the new year with prayer as the bell in the tower tolled 12 times.  When he left Ireland he preferred a different way of welcoming in the new year.  One with bells and noise makers but with something a little stronger than communion wine.

But in Ireland in the late 19th century that’s the way my grandfather’s family did it, led by the Reverend Mr. Swanzee. 

You can see St. Finian’s from anywhere in Greencastle.  It has a commanding view of the town and of Lough Foyle.  St. Finian’s was built in 1782 and added to in 1865.  It is named after St. Finnian (Also Foinan or Finbar) of Movilla, St. Columba’s teacher.  It is a listed building on the National Inventory of architectural Heritage.  This Church of Ireland (Anglican) was the first in the district of Moville and built by the “Board of First Fruits.”   Previously Anglican churches were built with tithes paid to the established Church of Ireland by the mostly Catholic population.  Under the influence of Johathan Swift Queen Anne established “First Fruits” funded by taxes on clerical incomes.  In 1778 the Irish Parliament added an appropriation to the Board.  One of the earliest churches built with those funds was St. Finnian’s.  It served as the model for more churched built from 1808 to 1830. 

My grandfather was baptized, confirmed, educated and made his first communion at St. Finnian’s, as well as welcoming in the new year.

Yes, I said educated. Grandpa told the story of the Reverend Mr. Swanzee, who thought that Greencastle kids should not have to traipse three miles to Moville, to the National School., so he raised money to buy a prefab school from Scotland.  It arrived by ship in Moville.  It took four horse carts to deliver the corrugated metal building, books, slates, pencils and desks to the amazed people of Greencastle.  The parishioners erected the school on church grounds one Sunday afternoon after services. That was where grandpa was educated.

As I mentioned, St. Finian’s is on a hill overlooking Greencastle.  It has a commanding view but it also catches a lot of wind.  Sometime in the early 20th century, after my grandfather left the school, the building blew away.  No one told the bishop in Derry.  Sometime in the early 1990s the Reverend Mr. Gilmore, the rector at that time (who my mother and I spoke with when we visited in 1993) got a letter from the bishop ordering him to sell the school to raise money to maintain the church.  He had to tell the bishop that the building had blown over more than 80 years earlier.  No one at the diocese knew.

The Church is in better shape than it was 30 years ago, nicely maintained, freshly painted.  It was not locked, which surprised me because St. Finian’s had its cross stolen from the alter, It apparently was swapped for a load of empty beer cans and cigarette butts that were left in its place in February 2019.  The church members had talked about locking the Church, but Rev Suzanne Cousins wanted it to remain open for prayer.  Apparently, she won the discussion because the Church was open for me when I visited with no one else in attendance.

I was happy to see the baptismal font in such good condition.  The font was a gift from the McClellan family in 1882.  My grandfather was born in 1886 and it held the water that flowed over my grandfather’s head when entered into the Church.  When we were there 30 years the Reverend Mr. Gilmore showed me my grandfather’s baptismal and confirmation records.  It’s nice to see the Church still active, at least with services twice a month, and so well cared for.

As I left I resisted, but just barely, the temptation to ring the bell as I passed the ropes on my way out.

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