150th Anniversary of St Joseph’s Church, Glenavy





I Anniversaries and origins

The 150th anniversary of the dedication of this Church, dedicated to St Joseph, marks an historic milestone in the modern history of the living tradition of Christian life in this parish and community. Our thoughts inevitably probe the origins and the early imprints of Christianity on this beautiful landscape and countryside, as we recall the 1868 achievement of Fr George Pye and the parishioners, who replaced the earlier 1802 Church on this site, which had been built on the site of the earlier 1760 Mass House, destroyed around 1798.

In this regard the parish can take great pride still in the book, Glenavy, the Church of the Dwarf, 1868-1968, by Fr Patrick J McKavanagh, himself a native of the parish.  If you have opened its pages, you will know how in his efforts to explore the meaning of the name, Glenavy, he drew on a number of sources, especially Rev J O’Laverty’s, Diocese of Down and Connor Ancient and Modern. He cites the eleventh century The Tripartite Life of St Patrick with its reference to Lathrach Patraic (Patrick’s site or foundation), where Daniel, Patrick’s dwarf (abhac) is installed, to Patrick’s well, Slan, with its allusions to restoration of health and to Patrick’s “nua echuir” (new key), possibly a relic. Fr McKavanagh then draws on Fr John Colgan’s ofm (1592-1698) seventeenth century Latin translation of the same source with its reference to Lettir Phadraic (Patrick’s slope) and the indication that because abhac is the Irish word for dwarf, Daniel’s Church was called Lann Abhac, literally, the Church of the dwarf.

It’s also worth recalling Fr McKavanagh’s theory on the derivation of the name Glenavy itself : he contends that it was in modern times the G was prefixed to Lann Abhac. He suggests that many of the new seventeenth century settlers came from Gloucestershire and South Wales. They would therefore have been familiar with the Gaelic, Celtic word Lann, Church, as in Llandudno or Llannelly, which are pronounced with a “chlan” sound. So, as he suggests, it is easy to imagine the transposition, given that in a 1605 inquisition there is reference to “Clenough, otherwise Linawney”, to Cloonavie in 1685, to Clonaghy, even though Glenavey features in the Hearth Money Rolls and Cloonavie on a 1710 map.  In any case, through all these variants the echo of those distant early Christian and Patrician origins remains a constant.

The great Franciscan scholar John Colgan also states that, although St Patrick’s well had disappeared by his, Colgan’s, lifetime, “numerous cures were received by those who drank of its waters”. This theme of water, a key biblical category and theme, a sacred element in the Celtic spiritual and religious heritage, is central to the extracts from the Word of God chosen for this Eucharist in which we give thanks to God for the 150 years of liturgical celebration, sacramental life, prayer and Christian mission anchored in this Church and its parish community.  

II “Wherever the water goes it brings health” (Ez 47.9)

As we listened to the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 47.1-2, 8-9, 12) our imaginations could not but be enlivened by the imagery of the river, its life-giving water and its fertilisation of sea, vegetation, and fruit trees that bear fruit that “are good to eat” (v.12) and leaves that are “medicinal” (v.12). Its source and origin, under the Temple, recalls the language descriptive of paradise (Gn 2.10-14), the Gihon spring originating from the Jerusalem temple (1Kg 1.33) and near eastern traditions of rivers flowing from a cosmic mountain to the ends of the earth.  We notice too that the waters of the river transform the dead salt waters of the sea (v.8). This little detail would have resounded with significance in the ears of those first Jewish Christians, our ancestors in faith, who heard of the encounter and exchange at Jacob’s well, below the village of Sichar, between Jesus and the female Samaritan villager (Jn 4.1-30). 

Today we read the closing section of that conversation (Jn 4.19-24). The entire chapter repays endless reading and meditation. Its dynamics open and re-open our eyes to the beauty, the challenge and radical newness of the Christ-like, the Godly, way of living. Barriers and prejudices are broken by Jesus : a Jew, He associates with a Samaritan. Even more unexpectedly he asks her for assistance. Whilst recognising her past, rather than judge her, he shows profound respect for her latent, natural  goodness by talking to her about God and eternal life and finally by declaring His incarnate identity to her. 

Whilst we can identify the dynamics of the text, it remains difficult for us to seize the extraordinary and radical change of paradigm, suggested by this text of the gospel, for understanding God and the Christ-like way of life. Compassion, rather than judgement, searching out the human heart in each person rather than castigation, meeting of hearts in conversation, going to the periphery of the brokenness of human experience and engaging with it – these are set as the beacons of the Christian life.

And you will notice two other details, when you read again the entire extract in your Bible : having met and experienced Jesus, the Samaritan lady becomes a herald (v. 28-29) and Jesus accepts the invitation to stay in the village (v.40-42), a detail that underlines the universal message and quality of God’s plan of salvation set in train by the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

This reading from the gospel according to John declares the Samaritans, foreigners and aliens for the Jews at that time, to be “part of God’s household” (Eph 2.9), to borrow the words of the second reading from the letter to the Ephesians. With its references to a building, to cornerstone, household and foundations, it is also a doubly apt reading from Scripture for this occasion.

For on foot of these physical references evocative of a building, we encounter an intriguing shift of reference in the text, as you will have noticed. In the final lines we read that we are being built into a house where God lives, that we “all grow into one holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). Providing for such spiritual and religious growth in faith, was for sure the intention of all who built this Church – – the long-serving Parish Priest, Fr Georg  Pye, Bishop Dorrian who celebrated its dedication and whose crozier is used in the liturgy today, Bishop Neale MacCabe, C.M., of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, who preached the inaugural homily, the parishioners whose work and contributions erected this fine building, and their descendants and all who maintained and developed it over its century and a half of service to the community.  However overtly, like us, they understood that as Christians we are graced with Good News, with news of an ultimate, powerful and transformative hope : the good news of God’s boundless mercy and salvation.

Now this reference to the Christian community as one holy temple in the Lord, in the lines from the letter to the Ephesians, is charged with a potent meaning for an occasions such as this 150th anniversary.  This metaphor expresses an aspect of Christian life that we easily forget ! It is this :  the Christian population, those who follow Christ, constitute a significant presence in the family of humanity.  Women, men and youth who are baptised, are Christian, constitute a significant presence in this society. Yes, we follow, are born into different confessions and traditions and these confessions differ. Yet we profess the one God, revealed and incarnate in his Son Jesus Christ. And we seek to live the same gospel values in the commerce of life and living.

III Towards the bi centenary of St Joseph’s, Glenavy

Whilst it would be foolish to predict the conditions of life, of society local, regional and global, of work and human self-awareness in 2068, just fifty years hence, as Christians we do share an inter-generational responsibility for the future of the Church as the body of Christ in history, for the protection of human life, for human dignity, justice and peace in society and for the wellbeing of our planet, part of God’s creation. We could dwell at length on these subjects which this historic moment brings into focus for us as a Christian community. Permit me to touch only on three subjects for ongoing consideration and action by parish communities as we mark this milestone in the history of this parish :

Firstly, on this 150th anniversary of St Joseph’s and now in a world of immense mobility, it is inspiring to realise and take stock of the fact that we are part of a universal Church. We share a way of life and a vision of life with millions of fellow Christians in every nation around the world. Together Christians make a difference in place and in history.  Think of the countless cells of living Christian parishes and communities around the world. Their welcome, their care for people, their outreach to new arrivals in their areas, their support for developing countries, for peoples in need : all of this is made possible by fellow Christians like you and me.  When our youth migrate to other countries it is good that they know this and that they seek out parishes as places where they will find acceptance, recognition and a welcoming community, just as we should seek out, welcome and integrate new arrivals among us.

In this mobile world of multi-cultural proximity of peoples, our local Church, with its parishes and Pastoral Communities, is called to make provision for imaginative advances in providing for instruction in the Christian tradition, in the understanding and appreciation of the massive progress in ecumenical understanding and relationships between the Christian Churches over the past century. Catechesis, discovery of the Christian tradition of thought and faith-inspired practice as well as an appreciation and understanding of ecumenical progress and challenges for our Churches are keystones for the future of our Christian faith.

Secondly, as our civilisation advances on the exciting and social-ethically challenging road of the information and techno-cyber society, humanity will stand in need of centres of inter-personal and community belonging. These communities will need the skills and capacities to manage, mediate and channel difference, diversity and tensions into communion in faith and search for truthfulness in the Holy Spirit.  This challenge is as old as the New Testament Christian communities of the Acts of the Apostles and the communities addressed by St Paul in his letters. Today, however, technology accelerates and social communication networks, or their misuse by age-old deadly sins of calumny and gossip that disseminates fake news, intensify the potential for unleashing divisive and destructive forces in society.  In regard to these arenas of human development and evolution, as individual Christians and as Christian communities and parishes we share and carry decisive responsibility for the future pertinence of the Christian faith, for its contribution to future society and indeed for the governance of society at all levels, local, regional, national and international.

Thirdly, by way of responding to the call of the gospel in our own time and in order to hand on vibrant communities of Christian faith and life to coming generations, there is need to promote a grand re-awakening to the tradition of the Social Thought and Teaching of the Church.

Anchored in the biblical tradition, this dimension of Christian thought deals with and promotes reflection and action in regard to such existential and societal issues as, the dignity of human life, the development and emancipation of peoples, slavery, citizenship, the relationship between law and morality, the sources for ethical and moral values, good government and governance systems, the rights of workers, ethics for financial systems, the care of the environment, the challenges of artificial intelligence and the future of work.

Much unknown work is undertaken by Christians, by the Church and its agencies, on the basis of the social imperative of the gospel in multiple arenas of care for the poor, development work and in the more complex world of politics and international policy and diplomacy by countless faith-inspired organisations and agencies. This is a vast field and it is one which engages the attention of young people and which inspires many of them with a new appreciation of the life-value of faith in Jesus Christ. In this vein you may recall the Pastoral Letter, Wellspring of Your Future, addressed to our young people earlier in the year, which gives an overview of key milestones in the development of the Social Teaching of the Church.   

My dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, like our forebears of 150 years ago and of earlier centuries, we live and breathe our faith in God, as revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit in our communities of faith and life.

The power of the mystery of God’s plan of salvation will carry us and our descendants towards the fullness of life with God.

Yet in our time it is also our task and mission to make the love of God, revealed in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, a factor of difference, a power of love and care for all without exception, a lodestar and inspirational guide for the good governance of life and the structures of society so that all may live in justice, mutual respect, peace and solidarity.

On this day, as we celebrate the anniversary of this Church, dedicated to St Joseph, the Worker, and as we commemorate the achievement of the parishioners of Glenavy of the years around 1868 who left us this beautiful Church, let us pray that we may so appreciate the gift and the power of faith in Jesus Christ, that our witness may inspire many to faith in Christ in the years to come.