Northern Ireland news

Clonard to close women's confraternity after more than 122 years

Fr Peters Burns, Rector of Clonard, has revealed the women's confraternity is to close on Sunday, November 24 after more than 122 years. Picture by Hugh Russell
Marie Louise McConville

THE Women's confraternity at Clonard church in west Belfast is to close after more than 120 years.

The 122-year-old Belfast association, which drew thousands of members when it was set up in July 1897, will meet for the final time on November 24 with a special closing Mass.

Set up by Bishop Henry Henry of Down and Connor, to cement Clonard's establishment in west Belfast, the Confraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St Alphonsus immediately drew huge numbers and by 1907, boasted a 1,600 membership while more than 1,900 women attended the first women's retreat in 1912.

A separate men's confraternity was formed a week later.

Many of those who joined the women's confraternity at the church were linen mill workers who lived in the Falls Road area.

Between 1947 and 1957, the confraternity continued to expand - with generations of families joining - and grew into three divisions, each meeting on successive Sundays of the month.

The Women's Confraternity pictured at its 1957 retreat

The women attended the 8am Mass in as their Communion Mass and later returned in the afternoon for devotions, which included the rosary, a sermon by the director and benediction.

The confraternity also celebrated big occasions.

In 1947, to mark the Golden Jubilee of the foundation of the two confraternities, there was a procession from Clonard to a field in front of Our Lady’s Hospital in Beechmount, while the Diamond Jubilee was celebrated with Masses celebrated in the monastery garden.

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The following year, in honour of the Lourdes centenary, two processions were held for the men and women, ending with benediction at the Lourdes Grotto at St Mary’s Church in Chapel Lane.

However, as the decades went by, attendance numbers at both confraternities continued to fall and by September 1979, instead of thousands of members, there were hundreds.

One of the professional cars for the 1958 Lourdes Centenary procession from Clonard to St Mary's Church in Chapel Lane

This was attributed to a number of reasons including a change in Belfast's urban landscape.

With ageing housing in need of repair, many families were moved away and with the closure of the mills, workers also re-located.

The break-out of the Troubles also meant many members found it difficult to make it to Clonard on a Sunday because of unrest on the main roads.

A steady decline continued from the late seventies, prompting a decision to be made in recent weeks to bring the women's confraternity to an "honourable close".

Speaking to the Irish News, Fr Peter Burns, Rector of Clonard, said the women's confraternity now draws only "very, very small" numbers and after consultation with its secretaries and the women who still attend "the Redemptorist community decided it would be more honourable and fitting to bring closure and to do so with appropriate celebration and thanksgiving".

A view of the crowd gathered in Clonard Gardens for the Jubilee Mass celebration

Fr Burns said that, while there was a sadness about the closure, there is "so much to celebrate".

"Over 122 years is no mean achievement," he said.

"And during that time, so many have experienced such blessing, not just the many thousand women who have been faithful members but their families and communities.

"The confraternity didn't simply offer spiritual instruction and nourishment to its members, the very name suggests an experience of belonging, of community with others.

"Then there was Clonard. Through their membership of the confraternity, generations grew to have a deep love for Clonard and for the Redemptorists," he said.

Members of the Women's Confraternity receive communion during the 1957 Jubilee celebrations

Fr Burns said that while some people "are not happy" about the closure, it was "inevitable".

"It wasn't an easy decision for us to make," he said, "because the confraternity was a work of God. Whatever blessing its members experienced was God's blessing. That is why, finally, it is to God and to the patrons of the confraternity - Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St Alphonsus - that we offer praise."

A special closing Mass for the women's confraternity will take place at Clonard on Sunday, November 24 at 3pm

A women's confraternity banner which is on display on the altar in Clonard church. Picture: Hugh Russell

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