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125th anniversary of Sacred Heart Church, Omagh

Homily - Bishop McKeown

We all pick up little nuggets of wisdom as we go through life. One that I learned many years ago is that the way we choose to remember the past influences how we imagine the future. If the past is recalled as a time dominated by hardship and victimhood, we tend to expect little more from the future. If, when we look back, we tend to see grace in the midst of all the pain, then we can face the future with hope. We can use the past as a foundation on which to build, not as a quagmire which sucks us in. Those who built this church between 1893 and 1899 clearly had not forgotten the terrible events of the Great Famine some 50 years before – but their faith enabled them to see the Cross as intimately followed by Resurrection. Otherwise, they would never have asked the prolific architect Wiliam Hague to take on the design of this magnificent building.

Because of the Penal times, the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost much of its connection with indigenous styles of prayer and construction. Like many buildings of the time, both the style and the name of the church were taken from the traditions of the 19th century French Church. And that foundation for the parish has served the community well for the last 125 years, providing a centre for prayer and community through the many challenges of the 20th century. Because we can give thanks for the God who has been faithful through good time and bad since 1899, we can face the uncertainties of the future with trust and hope – and be open to a different way of being church.

Today's feast of Trinity Sunday offers us a rich series of teachings on which to imagine that future. After all, the Creed that we will recite is a grace-filled story that begins with the creation of heaven and earth and ends with 'the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come'. All the stories in the bible make up one story. God made us in the divine image and likeness. Despite the human capacity to sin, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son as the Lamb of God whose blood would take away the sins of the world. And through baptism, the Holy Spirit makes of our bodies his Temple which can bear witness to God's love and mercy. The Blessed Trinity, the Three persons in one God, is not a philosophical puzzle to be solved but an energizing way of looking at the world to be savoured. If God was faithful to Jesus on the Cross, then we too can face challenges knowing that the love of God is stronger than sin. Depression and gloom have no place in the story where divine mercy wins the day.

As in the 19th century, we face – to quote Pope Francis - not merely a time of change but a change of time. That is unsettling for everyone. But like the apostles on Pentecost Sunday, we cannot afford to lock ourselves away behind closed doors for fear of facing the world outside. The Holy Spirit drove the early church out on to the streets to speak about Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus drives us to prioritise the mission of Christ over our fears and inadequacies. St Paul would discover that when we are weak, we are strong. There is a temptation to be preoccupied about how we will manage the church in the future and I am sure that this is exactly the apostles felt before Pentecost. The Holy Spirit drove the ill-prepared and apparently poorly equipped apostles out to address the people in the streets. The early church did not need to be paralysed by fears of how they would make disciples of all nations. Our celebration today tells us not to be paralysed by fears and by worrying about the problems we may or may not have to face. A fractured anxious church is stuck at Good Friday, like ethe two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Our task is the proclaim the Gospel now and leave worrying about the future to God.

The theme for next year's Jubilee Year in Rome is a call to be 'Pilgrims of Hope'. The builders of this wonderful church were such pilgrims. They had no idea what would happen even over the next 25 years – a World War with perhaps 40 million dead, the so-called Spanish flu that killed tens of millions and the political division of this island. If they had known that all those events would happen in an eight-year period, many would have been terrified. But we, their descendants, are pilgrims of hope, trusting that, when things seem at their most difficult, that is the time when good news is most needed, and grace most active. Our young people face huge challenges and gloomy messages about the future. All of us are aware of social fragmentation and a political culture where angry squabbling seems to be the norm. The mistakes of past structures are rehearsed – but no vision is offered for how we develop a cohesive way of living together so that individuals thrive in community. A better future will not be created by simply defending or changing political borders, or by dividing up the public finances in a different way. Individuals and communities flourish when faith, hope and love area lived and valued. You can not build a stable and merciful society on the basis of radical individualism where even human life can be subject to my convenience. No wonder young people often choke under a cloud that sees mainly bad in the past and tragedy in the future. The Trinity calls us to see beyond that claustrophobic worldview that champions independence but fears interdependence. I want to be dependent on others but nobody should be dependent on me for that would limit my freedom to choose.

Today we celebrate the Trinity which speaks of mercy and hope. And we give thanks for those whose hope and determination built this wonderful church. They would not want us to be gloom merchants or to be infected by the fears with which our society seems to be riddled. On the Cross, from Jesus' pierced Sacred Heart, there came no death but the font of the Church's sacramental life. As you build up towards the feast of the Sacred Heart, let yourselves be bathed in what flows from the healing Sacred Heart. With that rich life and the hope of your ancestors, you will be a blessing on whatever the future holds. In Jesus' name, tell a story of hope today, tomorrow and every other day.

+ Donal

There is one particular building that dominates the Omagh skyline: The Sacred Heart Church

It consists of two spires; one slightly bigger than the other, which have stood tall over the town for more than 100 years.

Prior to the current site on Church Street, Catholicism in Omagh had two previous locations to celebrate Mass.

One site was on the Derry Road, described as a 'plain unpretentious structure, capable of accommodating 400 people' according to 'Poetry in Stone' – a book written to mark centenary of Sacred Heart Church by Rev Gerry Convery.

While another church was built at Brook Street in 1829, which could facilitate 1,500.

However, by 1899, the church (named St Peter's and St Paul's) had to close due to over-crowding (church authorities noted people kneeling outside),and the proximity to a hospital associated with cholera, of which moans of the dying could be heard during Mass.

Monsignor Bernard McNamee, a priest in the Brook Street church at the time, had an ambitious vision for a grandeur church building to dominate over the town of Omagh.

The contract was awarded to Joseph Colhoun of Strand Road in Derry for the primary plan of the building and roofing for the new site, and it was agreed in September 1892.

Another man by the name of William Hague was appointed as the architect.

  • 1836-1899
  • Also Strabane, Letterkenny and Monaghan cathedrals

It is widely-believed that Hauge's inspiration for Sacred Heart Church was heavily-influenced by the Notre Dame in France because of its beautiful gothic design.

Additionally, the different-sized spires, stained glass windows and sculpture figures are similar to the historic French cathedral.

According to 'Poetry in Stone', the proposed cost of the new church initially was 'less than £20,000', however this rose to £46,000 when all additions and sub-contracts were added.

This, in today's value, would be more than seven million pounds.

Funding for the church had to start somewhere, and in the years to come, the committee would go to great lengths to manifest Monsignor McNamee's vision.

Their first official meeting was held in 1889, with £10,000 already raised towards the construction of the new church.

By the end of 1899, nearly £3,000 was raised on top of the £10,000 already in place.

In the following years, a multitude of fundraising campaigns and events were executed by the committee.

Mentioned in the early records of the church were donations from the president of St Vincent De Paul.

Furthermore, other donations came from many people from different denominations in Omagh through their subscription to the building fund.

In 1896, a concert was held at St Eugene's temperance Hall on the Dromore Road, which saw a 'densely packed' crowd attend.

Numerous fund-raising bazaars were held throughout the years, with one notable bazaar held in 1896 at the Omagh Courthouse.

This bazaar raised over £2,200 through eight stalls, and many who won prizes generously returned them back to the church to be sold, and those proceeds went back into the church fund.

One priest took it upon himself to embark upon the long, dangerous journey to the United states 'under the guidance of God' to raise additional funds for the lords house in Omagh. This priest was Father JJ McGlade.

He was ordained at Maynooth in 1879, and came to Omagh for his first placement.

At this time, not much was known locally of the US, and to travel there was not as luxurious as today.

Instead of first class seats on a plane for a 13 hour flight, the best option was six months in cramped and unhygienic conditions at sea, with a high-risk of death from catching contagious diseases.

Yet, the desire for the new church was strong enough that Fr McGlade took the foreboding journey in 1890 in the name of religious pursuit.

In his expedition, he travelled more than 40,000 miles between America and Canada, and met many individuals and groups with Tyrone and Irish connections who happily donated to this Omagh cause.

He arrived back in 1895, not only with a large sum of money, but also with two priests and a layman for the aid of construction.

It is not known how much Fr McGlade raised exactly, but the mission was noted as being 'very successful'.

Starting in 1893 with a ceremony for laying the foundation stone, the construction was no easy task, and perfection was the only option.

The church informally-opened in 1899 pending consecration (and a second spire).

Throughout its near 125 years of service, the church would take on many changes and upgrades.

The second spire was completed some time after 1905, though it is not clear when.

In 1929, parish priest, Dr McShane, made an appeal for donations to repair the church, and he received a 'most generous response', which allowed repairs to the roof and two new confessional boxes.

In more recent times, a refurbishment was launched in 1995 with stronger roof fixtures and waterproof materials, and would finish just a week after the Omagh bomb attack.

Today, Mass continues to be celebrated in this magnificent building, which has recorded over a century of local births, funerals, confessions, communions and confirmations.

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