Bishop Andrew Forster described the 300th anniversary of Donegal Parish as “a landmark moment” in the local congregation’s history. He was speaking in Donegal Parish Church during the second of two services, this morning, which marked the tercentenary.
Half an hour earlier, the Bishop had joined the local Rector, Archdeacon David Huss, members of the church and friends of the parish at a short service of prayer and worship on the site of the original parish church, which was built in 1722 and now lies in ruins beside the ancient abbey in Donegal Town. Among those gathered were the Mayor of Donegal Town, Pauric Kennedy, Sinn Féin County Councillor, Noel Jordan, and Fr Pearse Mullen.
Archdeacon Huss said, during the first service, that the old church was “a very special place” for the community. The adjoining cemetery had been used to bury people of various denominations, including some of the most famous people in the town’s history. Among those buried there, he said, were Rev Samuel Reid – the longest-serving Rector of Donegal – and his son-in-law, Alfred Banks, a doctor who had lost his life to typhus. “So, although a lot has changed,” Archdeacon Huss said, “a lot of things are the same, aren’t they? Pandemic, war and tragedy still are with us. And yet, as we read, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. So, as we come to these stones, which could tell many stories if they could speak, we also come to that living stone who is unchanging and it’s in that we trust.”
In his sermon, in the second service – during which he baptised baby Zoe Alcorn – Bishop Andrew invited the congregation to give thanks for a parish which, in its three centuries of history, had witnessed the 1798 rebellion, “when French ships came right up the bay here, in Donegal, to invade and then turned back to make their way home; we think of our more recent history of civil war, independence, partition. And you look and see how God has led us through times of difficulty, times that were uncertain, to where we are today. So, we look back in thankfulness, we remember people of faith who have built a legacy, but as we look back, we are reminded that we are the labourers of a new generation to build for the future.”
Bishop Andrew reminded those present of the importance of family, not just their own kin but their ‘spiritual family’. The church building in which they gathered this morning – and which will celebrate its 200th anniversary in six years’ time – was much more to its congregation than bricks and mortar, much more to them than sand and stone and cement. “It’s the place where you come to celebrate new birth and to dedicate new birth into the hands of God, just as we did this morning with Zoe; it’s the place where you come in the high days of life – some of you celebrated your marriage right here; it’s the place where you come when heartache seems overwhelming – the saddest times of life are funerals; and it’s the place where you come, Sunday by Sunday, to praise God, to worship God, and that’s why a building like this becomes a hallowed space: it’s not just bricks and mortar, it’s much more than that, it’s history, it’s your tradition, it’s your family, and what happens within a space like this blesses your family and helps your family. For me, yes, of course, the church is a building that we love; it just becomes part of us, doesn’t it? It becomes part of the people who we are because it’s the place where your family and the family of God gather.”
Landmark moments were great in life, the Bishop suggested, and great in a parish’s history. “They help us to assess things, to be thankful for what’s happened in the past and to look ahead to the future – to dream dreams.” Bishop Andrew paid tribute to the group of men and women who, 300 years ago, dreamt a dream of having their own parish in Donegal Town, and to their successors who, 100 years later, dreamt the dream of building a new house of God.
“What are your dreams for your church family,” the Bishop asked, “what are your dreams of what this church family can look like?”
The Bishop compared the parish family to a ring of people holding hands and supporting one another. “What if we turned the circle around, still holding hands and supporting each other but looking out? Looking out to our society, looking out to our world in need, looking out to our world that is crying out for meaning? What if we looked forward by looking out – looking out with the good news of Christ – to share with those around us. Dream dreams of what that would mean for this parish. Dream dreams also for what that would mean for yourselves.”
Bishop Andrew reminded the congregation of what Saint Paul said in the New Testament reading (Galatians 5: 13-25): ‘…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’”
Today’s worship was led by Archdeacon Huss, who told those present and watching online that it was the first time in three years that the four parishes in the Group had gathered together for a service. The Rector was assisted by Diocesan Reader Nuala Dudley. The Old and New Testament readings were delivered by children from the parish. Young people also led the prayers of thanksgiving and intercession for the church and the world. Music was provided by the parish choir and by harpist Valerie Frewen-Perri, who performed two pieces composed 300 years ago by JS Bach. After the service, the congregation were invited to enjoy refreshments and fellowship in the adjoining hall.