Emotional day at Belfast's oldest Catholic church as Mill Hill Fathers celebrate final Mass
IT was the end of an era for parishioners of Belfast's oldest Catholic Church yesterday as they bade an emotional farewell to the Mill Hill Missionaries.
The society has been serving St Mary’s in Chapel Lane for the past 37 years, but yesterday the remaining priests returned to Dublin.
The historic city centre church, close to CastleCourt Shopping Centre, was founded in 1784 and used by many visitors and workers in Belfast as well as tourists.
Speaking at morning Mass yesterday, Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor paid tribute to Fr Gerald Doyle, Fr John Nevin and Fr James Boyle, along with their predecessors, for their years of "dedicated service and ministry".
"You will be fondly remembered by the many ‘parishioners’ of St Mary’s, particularly for your ministry of peace-building, catechesis, charitable outreach, and reconciling compassion, especially during times of personal and community conflict," he said.
"It is true to say that the people of Belfast have taken you into their hearts and you, in turn, have shared in their lives."
Bishop Treanor said there was a "sense of sadness and appreciation of the challenges faced with declining numbers of clergy as you return to St Joseph’s Mill Hill House in Dublin".
But he said the diocese was strongly committed to continuing their work and building upon the "legacy and foundations of your ministry".
Fr Tim Bartlett will take over the parish for now, with the assistance of other priests, until diocesan changes are made later in the summer.
Fr Doyle, a native of Kilkenny who had served in Cameroon for 20 years, joined St Mary's two years ago as administrator.
He said he would miss the church and the city and thanked everyone, including the steering committee, who had been involved in the priests' final days in the parish.
He also asked the congregation to keep his sister Carmel in their prayers following the death that morning of his brother-in-law from cancer at the age of 57.
Many parishioners leaving Mass paused to say a personal farewell to the priests who had become their friends.
Reader Susan O'Neill said St Mary's "belongs to everybody" and was frequented not just by parishioners but by people "of all faiths and none", including tourists who called in for peaceful reflection.
She added: "This was my grandmother's church and my mother also came here every day and lit 10 candles for each of her 10 children."
Parishioner Marion Jones described it as a "very sad day", pointing out that the tabernacle on the altar dated back to the 1600s and had formerly been kept in a house around the corner which served as a church before St Mary's was built.
Brigette McNaughton said the Mill Hill Missionaries had been "amazing" and described St Mary's as "one of those chapels where you feel you belong".
"They are always so warm and welcoming, It's a little place of peace in the craziness of the world," she said.
Paul Donegan, a volunteer, also said it was an emotional day for everyone involved with the parish and the Mill Hill Fathers.
"It is the end of an era," he said.
"I think everybody has been touched by their humanity. The drug addicts, the alcoholics, the homeless - I have never seen the priests or volunteers turn anybody away. They are going to be missed an awful lot."