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A Faith Set in Stone

Stick around anywhere for 150 years, and there's not much you haven't seen. Hunger, deprivation, partition, conflict, financial crisis, pandemic, St Eugene's has known all of these. But it has remained an enduring presence, and a source of hope and guidance - according to members of the 50 parish congregations that make up the Derry Diocese and the priests who've served here.

The church was begun in the years immediately following the horror of the Famine by people who had the courage and foresight to pour their efforts into a project that took more than two decades to complete, St Eugene's Administrator Fr Paul Farren explained.

All of that history is woven into the DNA of successive congregations here, he added, putting the "remarkable vision" the founders of St Eugene's had, in context.

"For me the 150-year history of the Cathedral signifies the foundation of faith. Started in 1851, it's incredible that they had the confidence, ambition and patience to build it.

"The spirt of people who would embrace a project that would take 22 years, showed tremendous hope. To think that you would start a project that many wouldn't live to see the end of, is remarkable."

In November 1849, the site for St Eugene's was identified on an elevated slope formerly known as Friars' Gort, a garden enclosure near the site where an ancient Dominican Friary from which Abbey Street derives its name, once stood. By the mid-1800s the land was in the ownership of William Hazlett. The church purchased the site and the foundation stone was laid in July 1851 by Bishop Francis Kelly.

The cathedral was constructed at a cost of £40,000, of which £4,000 was raised in America. The rest was donated by the people of Derry. And it is an indication of how depleted church coffers were,that it wasn't until 1936 that the debt was finally paid off.

"When it did open in 1873 there was no stained glass, that came after as did the bishop's chair in 1898. And in 1904 the spire went on," Fr Farren added. 

St Eugene's Cathedral Administrator Fr Paul Farren

Plans for the Cathedral had first been hatched in the wake of the Catholic Emancipation Act back in 1829. It opened at a time of religious tension in the city and neighbouring counties, but it was also a time of burgeoning confidence among the Catholic population.

"They were doing all this in a time of fierce division. In putting up this cathedral, the Catholic population in the city and diocese were showing their pride.Up to that point the only cathedral here was St Columb's, the Anglican Cathedral. Catholics in communities across the north west were coming together to build a cathedral to the glory of God.

"There were gifts from the Protestant community, including a painting in the sacristy of the nativity which was given by a Protestant man to the Cathedral. But there was tension between the communities, between religions, you could say at that point.

"Whereas on Sunday past, The Dean of St Columb's was here, with the Archdeacon and the Minister of First Derry Presbyterian. The Methodist Moderator, couldn't be here but had sent his apologies.

"So we have come a very long distance in that too."

"St Eugene's has seen so many events, it has lived through two world wars, the Troubles, big events, small events. We have three bishops in the crypt and three bishops in the ground. Only one bishop is not buried here. That was Bishop John Keys O'Doherty. He is buried in the Long Tower because he was a Derry city man. The only Derry city man who was bishop here."

But it is to a County Tyrone man, the aforementioned Bishop Francis Kelly, that the Cathedral owes much of its legacy.

"Bishop Kelly was the man who built the Cathedral and half of the diocese. He also built a tremendous number of schools. If you go out to Dungiven for example, it's in Bishop Kelly's time that those schools were built.

"But at the time the Cathedral was built, the only Catholic church on the city side was the Long Tower and that was then rebuilt around 1909."

Attending Sunday's Mass commemorating the 150th anniversary, Mary Furey said she'd been deeply touched by the sacrifices our forebearers had made in funding the Cathedral over such a long time.

"When you think of the deprivation in the mid-1800s here, of people flocking into this city fleeing starvation in the countryside. And of people leaving in their thousands on coffin ships from the quay. When you consider them scraping together their stipends – for a building that would far outlive the degradation of their own lifetime. That was an act of faith and self-sacrifice in itself."

Mary also revealed her husband Tony, a teacher in St Columb's College for 30 years, is a direct descendant of Bishop Kelly. "Tony is the grand grand nephew of Bishop Kelly."

"Mary's telling everybody that today", Tony interjects. "It is true. Francis Kelly, was born in Drumragh, Omagh in 1812. He became a priest and served as a curate in Strabane, Culdaff and Fahan, before being appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Derry in 1849. He then became Diocesan Bishop of Derry and he served here right up until his death in 1889.

"It took 22 years to build the Cathedral, and I imagine he would have been very much involved in every phase of its construction. We are the custodians of the legacy they left. Of this building, yes, but of the faith and courage they exemplified."

Author: Darinagh Boyle 

Tony and Mary Furey
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Diocesan Offices
St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP

Tel: 028 7126 2302

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