Anne Hailes: Holywood's Fr Stephen McBrearty tends his flocks inside and out

St Colmcille's Church in Holywood, Co Down. Picture by Hugh Russell 

THERE aren’t enough hours in the day for Stephen McBrearty. As parish priest in St Colmcille’s Holywood, among other duties he’s either thinking about services and the current disruption to everyday life, talking with parishioners, mulling over paperwork or spearheading the huge development for a new pastoral parish centre.

Thirty years ago this beautiful church was ravaged by fire; only the spire and the bell tower remained. The smoke and flames were visible for many miles around, even on the Co Antrim side of Belfast Lough, and there was genuine sadness among people of all faiths.

However, Holywood is a vibrant place and it wasn’t long before work began on a new church which is recognised as being of outstanding design, modern but with a great traditional feel about it. The ambitious new development will be called Sanctus Boscus from the Latin, meaning the Holy Wood.

The town has a strong ecclesiastical history and in 1866 it became a parish in its own right. History records that the foundation stone for the original church was brought from the ruins of a church in Gartan, Co Donegal, where St Colmcille was born.

In June 2024 it will be 150 years since Bishop Dorrian dedicated the building and there are many plans to celebrate the new complex which will become the spiritual home for over 2,500 parishioners.

The new centre will be on the present site on the corner of My Lady’s Mile at the top of the town and will involve the conversion of the curate’s parochial house into meeting rooms for both social and spiritual gatherings and there will be accommodation for a retired priest.

This development of a new parish centre will benefit life for the young growing population and families as well as for the elderly.

The Very Reverend Stephen McBrearty has another responsibility which was due to be recognised this month with the awarding of an MBE in recognition of his 22-year chaplaincy work inside prisons.

As lead prison chaplain for the Catholic Church, he coordinates his team representing Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth community and St Vincent de Paul.

These he describes as “men and women who untiringly give their service to the prison parish family”.

Some time ago he invited me to go along to Hydebank Wood to experience first hand life inside the prison.

First thing I noticed was how everyone greeted Stephen, he knew them all. One young man was on the phone: “You getting out today?”

“Yes, Father, in about an hour. Trying to get my girlfriend.”

The young man and I talked. He told me he was a country boy who came to town, his parents separated, he fell into bad company, got drunk and committed an offence that brought him to Hydebank for five months.

He’d lost out on his wages, £350 a week, but, he said, he had an understanding employer who believed in him and had held his job open; on visits his parents would sit at opposite ends of the table which he says did his head in.

“I’ve young brothers and a sister. I’m the man of the house now so this won’t happened again. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Another man was fighting to see his six-month-old baby but he didn’t know how to get through to the courts to organise a visit.

“Girls get rights for their children,” he said, “boys don’t.” Typically Stephen promised to get involved and see what he could organise.

The heart of this prison is the ecumenical chapel where Stephen celebrates Mass, and, like his colleagues, he’s always ready to speak to a prisoner privately about personal concerns. One of the female prisoners told me: “He has a nice way with him, he’s approachable.”

He and I talked about the fine line between good and evil, how too often a lack of experience can draw people into a life of crime because their judgment has been flawed and they may well end up in Hydebank, a centre that at that time accommodated all young male offenders aged between 18 and 21 on conviction serving a period of four years or less in custody, and all female prisoners including young offenders.

We visited the chapel, a warm, circular room, big windows with a plain wooden cross above the alter table.

It’s seen as a neutral space for families to meet, although there was an officer standing by with an alarm to summon attention should trouble break out.

Stephen then took me to the male corridors where there was little by way of comfort – a large room with a snooker table was all I saw, although there are football and badminton teams and education classrooms.

The cells are tiny, clean, a single bed that doesn’t look over comfortable and clothes hung on a hanger in the corner.

One wall I saw was covered with family photos and pin-ups.

I won’t forget that visit and the skilful and caring way Stephen confronts his responsibilities.

Back in Holywood we talk about the current situation and Stephen’s message to his parishioners during the coronavirus crisis when they are obliged to stay at home.

“There is no obligation to come to church but do keep praying. If anything, at this time prayer should be strengthened in every possible way. And remember you can see us online when we have a service as we broadcast.”

It’s strange and frightening times with churches being effected with closures. However, there are always opportunities to talk to clergy like Stephen McBrearty. Keep in touch through for details

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