The Renewed Blessing of the Graves, Commendation of the Faithful Departed and the Placing of Crosses in St Thomas’ Graveyard, Dugort, Achill, during the Memorial and Healing Service. Pictured from left: Revd Tom Kearney, CC, Pollagh, Keel, Revd Ronnie Boyle, CC, Achill Sound, the Right Revd Patrick Rooke, incoming Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Most Revd Michael Neary, Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Revd Chris Ginnelly PP, Ballycroy and the Revd Val Rogers, Church of Ireland Rector.
Bishops lead Achill Mission healing ceremony
What the Reverend Edward Nangle and Archbishop John McHale would have thought of it all is anyone’s guess, but the sight of the two Bishops of Tuam standing at the same altar and singing from the same hymn sheet is something those who packed into St Thomas’ Church in Dugort, Achill last weekend thought they would never see.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary and his Church of Ireland counterpart, the Right Reverend Patrick Rooke led the memorial and healing service in Achill to mark the 190 unmarked graves of those who are buried in the five Achill Mission churchyards and graveyards.
The historic joint ecumenical service was to remember the Achill people who were buried in the churchyards after becoming Church of Ireland members inspired by Rev Nangle’s Achill Mission in the years prior and following the Great Famine.
Rev Val Rogers, the current rector of St Thomas’ Church, which was built by the Mission, told the large congregation that they would likely have remained in the Catholic faith had ‘times not been so desperate’, and the gathering deepened ‘our respect and sympathy for our forebears on the island’.
The service was also presided over by Achill curates, Fr Ronnie Boyle and Fr Tom Kearney, Parish Priest of Ballycroy, Reverend Chris Ginnelly, Reverend Neal O’Raw from Crossmolina and sisters of the Presentation Order, which was founded by Nano Nagle, who according to Rev Rogers was a cousin of Rev Nangle.
Rev Nangle founded the Mission in 1831 as part of a heavy push from the early 1800s by English and Irish evangelicals to convert the Irish, and provided food for the poor. However, Rev Nangle was a divisive figure referred to as a ‘venomous fanatic’ and his missions were suspected of being ‘souperists’ who provided food only to those willing to ‘convert’, leading to bitter conflict between the two religious groups on the island. The Mission presence on the island led to Archbishop John McHale establishing a Franciscan monastery on the island.
In his first official engagement as Bishop of Tuam Killala and Achonry, Right Reverend Rooke said the service was not to apportion blame for what happened but to acknowledge that both churches have caused suffering despite the best intentions of those involved.
“With the benefit of hindsight we understand things more clearly that caught up in that dreadful situation in the context of the times, how sad those who forced into a decision that might not other wise have been made. The thrust of the Achill Mission seemed to have been to win souls for Christ through participation in a particular expression of Christianity and in the name of the Church of Ireland.
“Again with the benefit of hindsight to take advantage of vulnerable people however well-intentioned does seem somewhat opportunistic and distasteful. But then we can’t know the full circumstances and before we totally condemn, we have to ask ourselves if we in 2011 act responsibly and wisely in a Christian manner. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said.
Archbishop Neary praised the current working relationship between the two churches saying they had more in common than divided them. He said he looked forward to working with Bishop Rooke and prayed for those who died during the famine.
“We remember today the people buried in this cemetery and parish especially during those difficult times when the community was ravished by poverty and famine,” he said.
Following the service prayers were said over the unmarked graves in the churchyard and members of the Achill community placed ten crosses around the burial site. By the end of the year, it is planned to mark each of the 190 unmarked graves with a simple cross.