I welcome you all on this historic occasion as we celebrate 200 years of your magnificent Church here in St. Brendans. This is a wonderful occasion for the people of Birr Church area, for the religious, for your parish clergy, Frs. David, Michael and Rexon, for yourselves and family members who were involved in the planning, building and beautifying of this Church and who have taken such care of it so many ways during those 200 years. I welcome the priests who have served here, and priests of the surrounding cluster area, native sons of Birr, many whom celebrated their first Mass in this Church.
The challenge of capturing the essence of two centuries
How does one capture 200 years in a homily? It is like the problem of Maria in the Sound of Music: “How do you catch a wave upon the sand? How do you hold a moon beam in your hand?” I suspect you do not and you cannot. Allow me simply to peer swiftly into the past, then spend some time on the present and finally focus on the future.
Early Days of St. Brendan’s Church
St. Brendan’s Church was built to replace a previous probably thatched building, located to the rear of the current building. Back in the pre-Catholic emancipation, pre-famine and pre-ecumencial times of the early 18thcentury – the site, a quarry of stone and £100 donation were given by Laurence 2ndEarl of Rosse. On 1stAugust 1817, William, Lord Oxmantown laid the foundation stone of St. Brendan’s Church.
Link with Birr Telescope
It was the first public duty of the 17 year old heir of the Earl of Rosse. He later went on as 3rdEarl of Rosse to become a famous astronomer and built the Leivthan Telescope in Birr Castle grounds (the largest in the world from 1845-1917).
The new Church was in the shape of a Latin cross, its spire soaring to 124 feet 6 inches and is gothic in style. The collection of money to build the church was one of the causes of the infamous Crotty Schism. The church was completed on 1stAugust 1824 but the interior was unfinished. Fr. John Spain completed the interior in the early 1840’s. He installed the vaulted gothic ceiling and galleries and also the chancel window in 1842. This west window was designed by Pugin and is the oldest stain glass window in the Diocese of Killaloe and it contains in it’s detail St. Flannan, St. Patrick, the Madonna, St. Joseph, St. Brendan, along with the annunciation, the Magi, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. Truly a catechetical masterpiece and matched by the amazing kaleidoscope of colour and beauty.
In 1872 two new sacristies and a new altar was installed. In 1890 the bell was installed and given the name ‘St. Michael’ (Patron saint of P.P. Fr. Michael Bugler) by Bishop Mc Redmond when consecrating the bell. Following Fr. Bugler’s death in 1893 the current reredos of the altar and pulpit were erected in Caen stone by parishioners as a memorial to him, in 1894. The pitch pine block floor and central tiles were laid in 1898. Major renovations were completed prior to the centenary in 1917.
Stain Glass Windows
The beautiful windows in the Church have an interesting sequence: The bottom stain glass windows were installed between 1880’s and 1903.The top stained glass windows date from 1913. Other significant windows are by the famous artist Richard King in the side porches and the Leinster Regiment memorial window dating from 1963. This is the only window to a British army regiment in any Irish R.C. Church.
Other more recent developments of the Church include the building of an organ by Rooney and Coffey in 1953. Following Vatican II renewal Monsignor P.J. Hammel gave the parishioners a vote to replace the altar completely or retain the 1894 reredos with minimal alterations. They chose to retain the altar, showing their love for the building’s history. In 1995 the Conference Room and Priest’s Sacristy were built. In 2001 the Church was completely refurbished, including rewiring and slating of the entire roof. The baptismal font was also relocated to its present position.
On-going friendship with Rosse Family
The friendship with the Parsons (Rosse) family happily continues to this day and Brendan Parsons 7thEarl of Rosse read the 1stReading at this bicentennial Mass as you have just heard.
Appreciation – Historian
Sincere thanks to Brian Kennedy for his most generous and enthusiastic sharing of the historic, architectural and religious history of this beautiful house of God.
Significance of a Parish Church for a Community
I am very conscious of the significant role that this Church has played in your own lives and in the lives of the people of the area, the families and individuals. It has very cherished memories for you and your dear ones, for the priests and religious who ministered here. It is the place where your lives were touched by God in a very special way. It may have been as you exchanged marriage vows here at the Sanctuary; perhaps it was the day when your child became a member of God’s family at the Baptismal Font. Here you approached with fervour to receive your First Holy Communion and as you are about to enter your teenage years you received the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. All of this is related to memory. And memory is very important because for the Christian memory and hope are very closely interrelated.
Sacred Moments in Church
You and your families recall the moments when you followed the funeral of your dear ones into this Church. You placed them here before the Altar and you sat there in the front seats numbed with grief, clutching tenaciously to the ray of hope that is Jesus Christ. You came here when your plans were frustrated, when you made wrong choices and you tried to live up to your responsibilities as a husband or wife, as a son or daughter, when you came troubled and worried to seek God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. You were enabled and encouraged to pick up the broken pieces of life and go forward with new hope in your heart and with a lighter step as a result of receiving God’s forgiveness.
The Church – an oasis of encounter with Christ
When you experience life to be difficult, whether it be family problems, serious illness, bereavement, loneliness, broken relationships, or disillusionment, I would encourage you to come here to speak to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and as you do my prayer will be that you will experience a new hope and be able to resume life’s journey.
Outreach from Birr over the years
Down the years this church has seen the children of its baptismal font grow in the grace of God, some to stay, some to go abroad, some to continue the family name at home, others to carry the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth. Today, sons and daughters of Birr baptised in this church will be found making their contributions in cities across the world. They carry with them something of the faith in which they were nurtured here at home. As we celebrate this bicentenary we remember them in a special way.
The on-going challenge and struggles of Faith
We are acutely aware of the struggles of our ancestors who worshipped here over the years. We are aware of the poverty with which they coped, they watched as their sons and daughters left this place to earn a living in lonely exile. Life may not be as stringent today as it was in those days. Yet in many ways it remains just as difficult to cling to God. There are many strident voices declaring that if Jesus is the way he claimed, then the path is overgrown and the way is perilous and the signposts are few and far between. There are many who hold out to us a shortcut to joy and a bypass to sufficiency in an uncertain age.
A welcoming Church
This church invites us to come aside from the hectic activity of life, to pause, to rest by the wayside on our pilgrim path to God. Its doors are open to all who will respond to Christ’s gentle invitation to come inside and rest awhile. This Church welcomes the tourist and the traveller, the school bagged child, the hard-pressed parent, the returned exile, the farmer and the factory worker, the sinner and the saint. Here they will experience the warmth, love and hospitality of God. Here they will discover that what God did in the past, he can do now; what God did in Cana he can do here in Birr. What God did to others he can do to us today. May this Church be a beacon of hope into the future when any gloom descends.
The outreach of faith abroad
So many generations of people here learned their prayers in this sacred space and around the fireside at homes and turned to God in those same words in days of joy and nights of pain, sorrow and loneliness. Words learned in homes here in Birr found voice in the city churches of England, America and Australia. Catechism classes held in the schools found echo in the tropics and far east as missionaries from Birr brought the news of Christ to those distant shores.
The team of the People of God working together
What we celebrate today is the extraordinary team work which has taken place among the people of God in this parish, a team work inspired, supported and constantly guided by the spirit of God. The baptised faithful, religious and priests have been playing their parts generously, supporting, encouraging and challenging each other in the struggle to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and enjoy the hope which Christ provides. As a parish Birr has its identity and has every right to be proud of the faith, idealism and generosity of the people who form this Church because after all a Church is always a people before it is a building.
What of the Future?
Today on this important bicentenary occasion we launch a new Church year with this first Sunday of Advent. A bicentenary celebration and a new year celebration gives us a rich opportunity to reflect. This great occasion presents each one of us with a challenge as we remember and learn from the past, reflect on the challenges facing us in our contemporary world and endeavour to consider how our faith can support and challenge us in the new situation facing us in the future.
There are many good things happening in our Society and in our Church among all ages. They might not get the coverage that they deserve. Nevertheless, we have a duty to hand on these great things and treasures of faith in our own local area and to provide every support we can for them. I hope and pray that future generations will have been inspired by us in the way that our generation has been influenced and inspired by those who have gone before us.
Congratulations, blessings and good wishes!
I warmly congratulate you all on this historic occasion and I pray a special tribute to your parish clergy, the pastoral council, the organising committee and everyone involved. This morning I reiterate my congratulations to you as the people of the parish on the way in which you have been so devoted to and cared for this beautiful Church over those 200 years; for the generosity that has enabled you to continue to beautify it.
I hope and pray that this Church will continue to provide the people of the Birr area with a special identity as God’s people and that you will feel welcome and at home here with the Lord.