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Built in stone, cemented in faith, with a spire pointing home

Built 150 years ago as the 'mother church' of the diocese, St Eugene's Cathedral is also a parish community cemented by generations of prayerful worship and longstanding familial ties.

It was the sacred setting of milestone events in many parishioners' lives and it became a beacon of solace, wise counsel and leadership before, after and especially during the Troubles.

The parish stretches from the northlands ward, including Rosemount and incorporating much of the Bogside as far as Stanley's Walk, plus quayside and Strand Road. 

150th Anniversary of St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry

The 10am congregation

A cohort of regular morning Mass-goers unravel a colourful tapestry of the priests and people that were, indeed are, the backbone of the Cathedral parish.

A pupil of Rosemount Primary School and St Joseph's Boys, Paul Johnston, was Baptised in St Eugene's and received his first sacraments here. He remains deeply connected to the roots of his faith, and as he exits the 10:00am daily Mass, today is no exception.

"The only big day in my life that wasn't here, was my wedding. My wife is from Glack and we were married there in St Finlough's. But I intend to be buried from St Eugene's!"

Both Paul's parents were steeped in the Cathedral: "My ma and da, Liam and Bernie, were from the parish, my mother from the old North Street, and my father from Creggan Road.

"The Cathedral was the centre of their families and ours too. They're both dead now but every time I enter the Cathedral, I feel them close to me. The Cathedral, but really faith - was always there, in their lives and in mine. The priests were a mainstay of this community through very difficult times. Fr Daly, later Bishop Daly was a great support. And my mother and father loved Fr Paddy McIntyre. They knew him as a Rosemount man first, and a devoted priest. We would have been lost without our faith. That's really what the Cathedral means to me."

Marion Boyle and Anna Begley are both readers and stalwarts of St Eugene's congregation. Reared in Limewood Street, Marion was a pupil of St Eugene's Primary School and received her initiation in the faith here: "I made my Baptism, First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation and was married here. The Cathedral was a huge part of our life and upbringing. As well as Mass we attended devotions, the women's sodality and annual retreats with 6.30am Mass, the close of the mission was a big event."

Anna added: "I was originally from New Street, off Bishop Street, and part of the Long Tower Parish back then but my experience would have been very very similar to Marion's. The church was always there, a huge influence in all our lives. It's a faith that has been handed down through so many generations to us."

Barbara Coyle, another member of the 10:00am congregation said: "From as early as I can remember, I was at Mass. My mother marched us all out from we were no age. I didn't understand it as a child, but it has come to mean so much to me. We're privileged really to have three Masses every weekday here."

Over many years Marion and Anna have seen various priests and bishops serve in the Cathedral. Despite the changes and challenges of the times, their deep appreciation of the clergy's life of service remains undimmed.

"We were blessed in the priests we had, Fr Mulvey, Fr Daly, Fr McNally, Fr Kelly, Fr James Clerkin, and his brother Fr Colum Clerkin now here, both Fathers O'Kane, Fr McFaul, Fr Michael Canny," Marion said, naming just some of them. "I remember them right back to Fr O'Neill, Fr Brown and Bishop Farren."

By the time Fr Daly and Fr Mulvey served in St Eugene's, tensions were heightened, and civil disturbance frequently spilled onto nearby streets. The Cathedral, not much more than a stone's throw from well known flashpoints around the junction of William Street and Rossville Street, became a focal point for consultation and advice, as well as comfort.

Marion recalled: "Fr Daly told us himself that he and Fr Mulvey slipped out of the backdoor of the parochial house at night onto Windsor Terrace and down into the Bog to talk to the young fellas gathering at the barricades. Both priests had been told not to get involved. But they were trying to keep the young people out of trouble, to prevent things from escalating. I suppose they understood the restlessness in the community.

"The Cathedral priests were regularly called out in the middle of the night. I'm sure that happens in every parish. But no one will ever know the things the priests did for the people - either then or now," Marion added.

Marion and Anna also said it had been "humbling" to witness a generation of elderly priests who'd served a lifetime in other parishes, return to St Eugene's to continue their ministry providing much needed assistance to the resident priests and wisdom and experience to parishioners.

"It was so moving to see older priests some who had been in what were then knowns as the missions, like Fr Paddy McIntyre who was in Ecuador for many many years but was originally from Rosemount, return home. Fr Tom Burke who'd served in the north of England but was originally from Lone Moor Road, both recently deceased. And of course, Fr Frank McLaughlin, originally from Carlisle Road, who is very much alive and a wonderful example of lifelong dedication to the priesthood. It was great to see them come back, and still have so much to give."

The church, like many institutions, and indeed society in general, has changed over their lifetime.

But both women agree the culture around clericalism has changed, for the better. "The priests we have now are exceptional. That's not to say they weren't in the past. But you had so much respect for them that you felt almost scared to speak to them, they could seem a bit distant. But today they are so approachable. They relate to the people. The bishop and the priests understand the challenges in families and communities and they are prepared to reach out."

Liz Harvey, another parishioner joins the conversation: "They are more integrated I think now, they connect with the people and especially the young."

Liz also revealed how the webcam opened the Cathedral to the St Eugene's diaspora.

"My bother Jim and his wife Margaret live in Carlisle in the north of England and they recite the Rosary every day with the Cathedral priests and congregation. During covid at a time when we felt far from each other, it was comforting for them to see a church that was so familiar and that had meant so much to us growing up. It still does.

"I love the Cathedral. When I was working I used to go to the 8am Mass every morning and then go on to my work. Now I can get to the 10am. It's great to be retired."

Beryl McIntyre, often with her son Seamus, are two more regulars at 10am Mass. "We found covid dreadful. But we kept connected through the webcam and got St Eugene's Mass onto the TV screen. I don't know where we would be if we couldn't turn to our faith. These are the things, thank God, that keep you going."

Marion and Anna added: "We were very fortunate, because we were readers we were still able to attend Mass in the Cathedral during covid. But there was just the priest, the sacristan and the reader. That was it. It meant we could receive the Eucharist. That was great – that's really the heart of going to Mass." 

Another daily Mass-goer, Celine Caldwell said the priests pulled out all the stops when Masses were suspended because of the pandemic, maxing up technology to maintain contact with their flock.

"In the lockdowns the priests in the Cathedral showed such leadership, especially Fr Lagan and Fr Farren. They kept us constantly connected to the church with the webcam during covid - Masses every day, the Angelus, the Rosary, Divine Mercy at 3 pm, night prayers. They made you feel you weren't alone, we were in this together. They kept us alive, that's all I can say."

Former administrator, Fr Neil McGoldrick remarked on the good humour of the people of the Cathedral parish during turbulent times. But it wasn't just the parishioners who could access a dry wit and laconic turn of phrase. Marion Boyle recalls Carndonagh native and former St Eugene's Adm, Fr Benny O'Neill, as such a man.

"I remember standing in the chemists and Fr O'Neill came in for a packet of painkillers for a headache. Aspro was about the only thing on the market then. When Sheila McDermott handed him over the packet and said 'that'll be…' whatever it cost in old money, Fr O'Neill remarked 'for that wee packet, sure there's hardly any in it'.

"Sheila replied: 'Well if you were in Carndonagh, you'd pay a good bit more, father.'

"To which Fr O'Neill dead-panned: 'If I was in Carndonagh, I wouldn't need them.'"

Author: Darinagh Boyle 

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St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP

Tel: 028 7126 2302

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