St Brigid's Parish, though only a hundred years in existence, can rightly lay claim to being the cradle of Catholicism in Belfast. For it was within the confines of the present parish that Catholics first met, admittedly in very modest circumstances, to worship their God. It is now impossible to know how much truth lies at the root of the legend surrounding the origins of the name, Friar's Bush, but there is no reason to doubt the fact that Catholics did attend Mass at a sand pit near the old cemetery at Stranmillis.
Though there may well have been a pre-Reformation friary in that district, the legend relates that the name, Friar's Bush, derives from a friar who rowed across the Lagan to celebrate Mass for his little congregation in what would then have been a sheltered and inconspicuous place. By the Banishment Act of 1697 all Catholic bishops, deans, vicars-general and regular clergy were obliged to leave Ireland within a year, and, consequently, the ministration of friars in penal times was illegal. The friar who ministered near Belfast paid the supreme penalty for his violation of the law: he was shot dead as he was about to give the final blessing at Mass, and was later buried where he fell.
The first priest of whom there is definite historical record is Fr Phelomy O'Hamill, the parish priest of Belfast, Derriaghy and Drum (Drumbeg), who was placed under arrest by the chief magistrate of Belfast in 1708. Some of his immediate successors certainly celebrated Mass at Friar's Bush and at other Mass rocks or stations as well as in a private house in the centre of the town. In 1769 a lease was taken on premises at Mill Street near Castle Street, part of which became a chapel. Friar's Bush as a Mass station passed into history and legend, but as a cemetery entombed the Catholic dead for the next hundred years.
When Mass was again celebrated in the area that was to become St Brigid's Parish, it was under circumstances that must have been almost as unpleasant as those afforded by the scanty shelter of Friar's Bush. In 1841, as a consequence of the Poor Law of 1838, a Workhouse was opened in Belfast on the site subsequently occupied by the City Hospital. The Workhouse was designed for one thousand ‘paupers' or ‘deserving poor' but rarely had more than eight hundred until the outbreak of the Great Famine. The numbers of its inmates then soared; additional wards and fever sheds were built to provide shelter for the sick and starving, and in the dark days of 1847 as many as 1,850 were crowded tightly within its grim forbidding walls. Food rations were almost as miserable as possible - at one time all meals consisted of porridge or stirabout made from Indian meal and oatmeal - and at the peak of the fevers, more than thirty died each week. The mortality rate especially among children was very high. In one week in March 1847 twenty one children under five years of age and three adults died. Probably well over a third of those forced to take refuge in the Workhouse were Catholics, and they at least had the comfort of attending Mass in the premises each Sunday.
As Belfast expanded southwards, the Catholic domestic staff in the large houses found the journey to the nearest church too long. Consequently, they requested the establishment of an oratory nearby and in 1889 the bishop of the diocese leased a plot of land at Derryvolgie Avenue, and in 1891 erected a house part of which became an oratory, and part of which accommodated two priests. Two years later, St Brigid's Church was built beside it. Designed by J.J. McDonnell to accommodate three hundred people, it was built with polychrome brick with round-arched openings. Dedicated on 19 February 1893, it cost £3,000.
The boundaries of the parish which were established soon afterwards have not altered since: the parish was enclosed by a line from the old central railway station along Botanic Avenue and the Lagan to Shaw's Bridge, and thence through the Queen's playing fields and Balmoral Golf course across Stockman's Lane and along the railway tracks to the junction with the central railway at Shaftesbury Square. In 1898 St Brigid's became a parish and two curates were appointed to assist the parish priest. The curates were also responsible for overseeing the religious training of Catholic children in the Workhouse School, and in 1898 there were no less than 124 Catholic girls and 103 boys on its rolls. In the twentieth century these figures dropped significantly; by 1915 the number of Catholic girls had declined to 21 and Catholic boys to 36.
One of the first duties of the new parish priest was the provision of a national school. The collection of funds for this purpose went steadily ahead and in 1902 St Bride' ;s School was opened. Children who had been obliged to walk to the schools of St Malachy's quickly transferred and by the following year there were 102 on the rolls. By 1912 that figure had increased to 132 and by 1920 to 161. The political upheavals and violence on 1920-22 brought some diminution of numbers (some thirty families were forced to leave the parish) but during the 1930s and 1940s the enrolment hovered around 150-160.
On the eve of World War II the population of the parish was 1,500. There were three Masses on Sundays and Holydays, as well as one in the Workhouse. There were three confraternities, one of which met every Sunday and the other two once a month. A parish mission lasting two weeks was held annually. During the war, unlike some other parishes in Belfast, which because of the blitz and evacuation of children, suffered a drop in population, St Brigid's continued to increase. By 1945 parishioners numbered 1,870 and a fourth Mass was celebrated each Sunday and Holyday, and the debt which in 1939 stood at £725 had been liquidated.
The parish continued to increase throughout the 1950s. By 1957 it had passed 2,500 and the school enrolment had risen from 207 in 1950 to 289 in 1960. A new school was opened in 1974 with an enrolment of 323, in 1984 it was 518 and in 1994 it was 711. The new school boasted every modern facility, including a nursery.
The church was enlarged in 1965. Seating capacity was increased from about 300 to 550 and, in accordance with the decree on the liturgy which had been passed at the Vatican Council in December 1964, the main altar was removed from the wall and left free-standing so that the celebrant at Mass would face the congregation. Until 1965 the priests of St Brigid's were also chaplains to the City Hospital. In that year the pastoral care of the hospitals in Belfast was reorganized, a full time chaplain was appointed.
As the parish grew much larger in the 1970s with the movement of people from some of the more disturbed parts of Belfast, the church became too small for the congregation. Damaged by bombs, either directly or indirectly, the foundations were shaken and large cracks appeared in the walls. On Saturday evening, 3 July 1970, a bomb of about five pounds of gelignite was placed at the front door of the presbytery. It shattered the door-way, the windows, the hall and stair-case, the front rooms, and a few windows in the church and in Derryvolgie House. Volunteers quickly rushed to clear up the debris and, though Canon Elliott of St Thomas' offered the use of his hall for Mass the next day, it was not necessary to take up his offer.
Two years later the church again became the target of bombers. On Saturday, 16 December 1972 a bomb went off in the narthex and did a fair amount of damage to the entrance. On 21 January 1973 a ‘suspect' car was parked outside Windsor Presbyterian Church, where an ecumenical service was about to take place, and newspaper offices were informed that it contained a bomb. Troops and police arrived to seal off the area as the congregation began to assemble, all moved to St Brigid's where the service was held. The car was found to be harmless, but, a year later, a real bomb concealed in a large beer keg was left beside St Brigid's under cover of darkness but, fortunately, did not explode. Had it done so, it could have had very serious consequences. Windows in the church were damaged from time to time by blasts in the vicinity and as a result large cracks appeared in the walls of the sanctuary. Potentially the most serious incident occurred on 2 July 1994. A van was left by the IRA in the car park beside the school containing mortar bombs that were aimed at the base of the Royal Irish Regiment at Windsor Park. One of them exploded prematurely, caused grave damage to the school and smashed windows in many houses in Derryvolgie and Windsor Avenues. Gareth McIlmurray, a bus driver from Newcastle, who was bringing guests to a wedding, suffered severe leg injuries, but the guests at the two weddings which were taking place that day were not injured.
Damage to property, however serious, is reparable: the loss of life is not. And several families in the parish sustained this painful loss. Two university students were shot dead by loyalist gunmen as they left the church after Sunday evening Mass. A judge was shot dead by the IRA in his car as he was leaving the church, and a magistrate survived a similar attack but his daughter was fatally wounded. Elsewhere two other judges were assassinated by the IRA. Four other men connected with the parish lost their lives to the bullets of loyalist gunmen, and one died from injuries received when the IRA set off a bomb in a city store.
In 1989 arrangements were made to build a new church. Mr Roddie McCaffrey of the Dublin firm of Robinson, Keefe and Devane prepared a brief for a competition, setting out the requirements for all who wished to take part in it. The Royal Society of Ulster Architects gave its approval, and its secretary, Mr Stan Blayney, co-operated with Mr McCaffrey in finalizing the brief. On 11 June 1990 a notice was published in the Belfast papers appraising architects of the competition and informing them that, if they wished to participate, they could collect the brief on 21 June and should submit their designs by midday on 2 October. Five judges were appointed to select the winning entry; three were architects - Professor Edward Cullinan, Mr Liam McCormick and Mr McCaffrey - and two were priests - Mgr Sean Swayne and Fr Sean Collins, OFM - from the Irish Liturgical Institute in Carlow.
The design submitted by Kennedy, FitzGerald and Associates was adjudged the winner. The second and third prizes were divided among several entries. In their report the judges declared that they had ‘no hesitation in awarding the first prize' and went on to explain:
fundamentally the building was quite a simple hall section most elegantly detailed (and coloured), clearly a calm and comfortable place to be, with the roof forming a uniting canopy above both ministers and congregation . . mortuary, baptistery, stairs, entrances, sanctuary are allowed to grow naturally out from under it to make a well-balanced composition of both general and particular space'. . . .
Fund-raising started seriously in 1991. Various parish societies and the Knights of Columbanus threw themselves into this work and organized functions to raise money. A generous and enthusiastic response through the weekly offering soon made the project appear less daunting. Contractors were invited to tender for the building of the church in October 1992 and the contract was won by Felix O'Hare & Co. of Newry with a price of £1,365,000. This figure, however, did not include architects' and consultant's fees, the installation of an organ, the erection of walls and railings along the Malone Road and many interior liturgical furnishings.
A happy feature of the whole project was the support and encouragement received from neighbouring churches. St Brigid's had long had close bonds of friendship with Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, St Thomas' Church of Ireland and University Road Methodist Church - the priests and pastoral council had together with corresponding organizations in these churches organized talks and study sessions on the scriptures, prayer meetings in Lent and Advent, and occasional social functio ns - and the clergy and congregations of the three churches came forward with generous offers of gifts to the new St Brigid's. They thereby restored a custom of which Belfast had once been proud but which had been broken by the political antagonisms of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
On 1 February 1993, the Feast of St Brigid, Bishop Anthony Farquhar came to the parish to administer Confirmation. He celebrated Mass in the church at 10.00am and then went in procession with the priests of the parish, the senior classes from the school and many parishioners to the site where he cut the first sod for the new church.
In the meantime, experienced artists from all parts of Ireland had been invited to design liturgical elements for the church. Tom Glendon, a Dublin sculptor, was selected to execute the altar, ambo and pedestal for the tabernacle to the design of Richard Hurley and he chose a French limestone as his material. Using forms to reflect the internal structures of the church, Bill and Christine Steenson of Glenarm made the tabernacle, candlesticks and paschal candlestand from polished brass and green patinated copper, and incorporated a St Brigid's Cross around the figure of Christ in the cross above the altar. Ken Thompson, the Cork sculptor who carved the Stations of the Cross from Kilkenny limestone, chose to stress each individual's relationship with Christ by putting only one figure with Christ in each scene. The style of the lettering and the emphasis put on the word Jesus in each text were planned as aids to meditation on the unique suffering of Christ. And Lua Breen of Donegal, the artist invited to design the stained glass windows, used the Hallel psalms as his principal theme apart from the five windows representing the Madonna and Child, St Brigid, St Oliver Plunkett, St Columban, and the martyrdom of Blessed Conor O'Devany. These poetic and joyful prayers were the inspiration for the scenes of nature and people giving worship, glory and thanks to God.
On Sunday, 18 December 1994, the new church was solemnly blessed and dedicated by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick J. Walsh. A large crowd of priests and people, and ten ministers from neighbouring Christian churches participated in the ceremony.