FORMER president Mary McAleese was among the congregation at a Mass of thanksgiving to mark the 150th anniversary of Holy Cross parish in Ardoyne.
The service was held yesterday at the north Belfast church and was also attended by former parish priests including Fr Aidan Troy and Fr Gary Donegan, both of whom served during the loyalist Holy Cross school protests of 2001.
A large crowd attended the Mass which celebrated the arrival and continued presence of the Passionist Fathers in the area.
The congregation was told their presence was "a tribute to the generations of people and Passionists who strove to keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts and homes, families and neighbourhoods".
Afterwards, there was a gathering in the recently refurbished Houben Centre, which acts as a pastoral centre and is the focus of many cross-community and peace and reconciliation projects.
The history of the parish has been told in a book compiled especially for the anniversary - Holy Cross Ardoyne, 1869-2019 - The Passionists and the People.
In a foreword, the rector Fr Eugene McCarthy said that from the very beginning "Passionist priests and brothers have worked hand in hand with the people of Holy Cross parish".
The parish was born after Passionist priests Fr Raphael, Fr Alphonsus and Brother Luke arrived in August 1868.
They were met with difficult circumstances - not only was there no house, no church and no school, but the site had a debt of £1,000.
However, within months they had cleared the debt and started work on a church.
The church was blessed and dedicated by Bishop of Down and Connor Dr Patrick Dorrian in January 1869. A retreat house and monastery - the first built in Ulster since the Reformation - followed in 1881 and by 1902 the Church of the Holy Cross was completed