The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, has paid tribute to the generation of worshippers in Omagh who were so confident in their faith and in God that at a time of great uncertainty for the Church of Ireland, they proceeded to build a new church, St Columba’s, in the heart of the town a century and a half ago.
We have forgotten how turbulent those times were, Bishop Andrew said, in his sermon to the current generation of parishioners in Drumragh, as they gathered On Sunday evening, 24th October 2021, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of St Columba’s Church. “150 years ago, this year,” the Bishop said, “the government decided ‘in their wisdom – and it was absolutely in their wisdom’ – that the Church of Ireland would no longer be the established church of the nation and that it would have to stand on its own two feet.”
It was, Bishop Forster said, a shock of seismic proportions. ‘’They didn’t know whether we would still be here in 10 years or 20 years. They thought we might struggle and disappear. And do you know what happened 150 years ago, whenever we were going through that time? The good people of Drumragh said we are confident: we are confident in our church; we are confident in our community; and, more than all of these, we are confident in almighty God, and we will build a church that will serve generations to come. And tonight, we celebrate the faith of that generation all those years ago.”
Bishop Andrew said the two great churches of County Tyrone, St Columba’s in Omagh and St Anne’s in Dungannon – in which both he and the Rector of Drumragh, Rev Graham Hare, had served – were both built during those days. “Two great churches that stand on hills, and now, this church, lit up for the whole town to see, saying to the world that we are here, that Jesus Christ says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
During the service, which was led by Rev Hare, the Bishop dedicated the church’s new internal and external lighting. He reminded the congregation that fifteen hundred years ago, their patronal saint, Columba, was born in Gartan in Donegal. The riches of his birth family meant nothing to Columba when he discovered the riches of faith in Jesus Christ. He built his favourite monastery on the site of St Augustine’s Church on Derry’s walls and from there he planted many other monasteries.
“What was his vision in planting monasteries?”, the Bishop asked. “He saw them, first of all, as places of community in a fractured time. He saw them as places of prayer in a spiritual wilderness. He saw them as places of worship that saw the beauty that God had given around them and the beauty of his love for them. He saw them as places of support for those who were floundering in life. And ultimately, he saw them as places of mission, places of Good News for the Gospel, to share it in the community.
“Now, you are named after him, and your parish can follow his example, because, let me tell you, your parish has followed his example – and will continue to – to be a place of community, where people know they are loved; know they are accepted; to be a place of prayer in the wilderness of this world around us; to be a place of worship.”
Bishop Andrew said people often remarked that churches were just bricks and mortar – and they were right – but for him and other members of his family, their home church of St Philip and St James, in Holywood, was much more than that. “St Columba’s, for you, is much more than bricks and mortar, because you can chart your own spiritual history through this church; you can chart your family’s journey through this church; you can think of the prayers which you have offered God in this place; the worship you have given to Him in this place; and for you it is much, much more than bricks and mortar.
“Let’s be the generation who make sure that the people of this town, of this community, discover this place so that it will be much, much more to them than just bricks and mortar. It will be a place of family, of prayer, of worship, of support, and of mission.
“This is a beautiful church, a church that has stood sentinel over this town through some of the most difficult days any of us have lived through; a church that has stood sentinel over this town in some of the most important moments of your lives; and this is a church that will continue to do that because Jesus Christ says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’
“Tonight, we celebrate this beautiful place, this hallowed place, hallowed in the prayers of its children down through the years, hallowed in the example of its patron saint, hallowed in the worship offered to God here, Sunday by Sunday.”
During the service, Bishop Forster cut a large birthday cake which had been baked specially for the occasion. The Rector, Rev Hare, said COVID restrictions meant that numbers at the service, and at other commemorative services and events earlier in the week, had to be restricted. Like those events, this evening’s service complied with COVID guidelines, as did the celebratory supper afterwards in the nearby parish hall.