My dear people, It gives me great joy today to be associated with the Golden Jubilee of the Marian Grotto here in Stonebridge. The Grotto dedicated in 1955 was the work of the people of the Parish under the skilful direction of the late beloved priest of the Parish, an tAth. Pol Mac Seain.
The Grotto was erected to celebrate the Marian Year – a year dedicated to mark the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception. Over the decades this Grotto was the focus of devotion of the people of this Parish to Mary the Mother of God.
The story of the work involved in building this Grotto is a story of the faith of the people of the Parish of Kilmore. It is appropriate that we celebrate this Golden Jubilee in the Year dedicated by the late Pope John Paul II to the Eucharist, a year in which he called on all of us to rekindle our amazement of God’s gift to us in the Eucharist. He calls us to renew our devotion to the Mass and to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I pray that through the intercession of Mary the Mother of God all of us may be directed towards her Son Jesus Christ. I pray God’s blessing on all of you. Guim rath De oraibh agus ar bhur saothar.
+ Gerard Clifford.
1954 The Marian Year
The Marian Year of 1954 was a high point for Marian devotion in Ireland as elsewhere in the Catholic world. This devotion was reflected in the construction of replicas of the Lourdes Grotto in many Irish parishes.The parish of Kilmore was no exception. Inspired by the zeal and energy of the parish clergy, particularly that of the curate Father Paul Johnson, a dedicated band of parishioners constructed the Grotto at St. Patrick’s Church Stonebridge.
Pope Pius XII announced the Marian Year in an Encyclical, Fulgens Corona: Radiant Crown. Issued on 8 September 1953, to mark the centenary of the proclamation by Pope Pius IX of the Dogma Of the Immaculate Conception, the encyclical addressed the bishops of the Church as follows:We invite each and every one of you, Venerable Brethren, by reason of the office you exercise, to exhort the clergy and people committed to you to celebrate the Marian Year which We proclaim to be held the whole world over from the month of December next until the same month of the following year – just a century having elapsed since the Virgin Mother of God, amid the applause of the entire Christian people, shone with a new gem, when as we have said, Our predecessor of immortal memory solemnly decreed and defined that she was free from all stain of original sin…
To facilitate matters and make the project more successful, We desire that in each diocese there be held for this purpose appropriate sermons and discourses, by means of which this tenet of Christian doctrine be more clearly explained: so that the Faith of the people may be increased and their devotion to the Virgin Mother of God become daily more ardent…
The encyclical also indicates how the faithful might follow this exhortation to increased devotion. It emphasises the important role which sanctuaries, altars, chapels and shrines where the sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated, can and should play.
Noble words, even those of papal encyclicals and bishops’ pastoral letters, are not always translated to lasting monuments in small country parishes. Memories of events in Kilmore parish in 1955 may now be a little hazy in many respects, but there are no doubts as to the source of the inspiration to build the grotto.
Father Paul Johnson served in Stonebridge from 1953 to 1957 and is credited as being the initiator of the project. The late Joe Rafferty, long time Principal of Ballyhegan school, writes in two previous parish publications of Father Johnson “he had vision” and was “a man apart” in reference to his energetic and hands-on approach to a variety of projects. If the inspiration came from Father Johnson, contemporary newspaper reports and recollections today, indicate that he was very ably supported.
The project was undertaken by “a band of diligent parishioners” with, it appears, an equally diligent ladies’ committee. There are risks of inaccuracy when recording memories of an event after a lapse of 50 years. Nevertheless, some use will be made of recollections which appear relevant. Most of the stones for the grotto came from an old house in Annahugh townland at one time occupied by people named Loughran. A number of men worked on the construction, including those who appear in the contemporary photograph elsewhere in this booklet. Recollection appears to indicate that Father Johnson took the lead in directing the construction.
There does not seem to have been any plan on paper and the work was undertaken in response to ideas presented by him. Some very large stones were used, requiring several men to manhandle them into place so there was plenty of work for all involved. Patsy McAtarsney and Pat O’Hagan, both now deceased, were involved as builders in the construction; but the impression is that no one wished to take particular credit for their involvement looking on the project as a parish effort where anyone, who could, did their bit.
The Cardinal's Call
Cardinal John D’Alton Archbishop of Armagh devoted his 1954 Lenten Pastoral to explaining the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception and of the embodiment in Mary of all the virtues. He exhorted the faithful to be inspired by the Marian Year to intensify their devotion to Mary: As an act of homage to our Lady we must strive to enter fully into the Spirit of the Marian Year.
The Holy Father calls on the faithful to intensify their devotion to the Holy Mother of God, and to make their conduct conform ever more closely to the pattern of purity, integrity of life, and abhorrence of sin exemplified in the life of the Immaculate Virgin… We should invoke the powerful intercession of our Immaculate Mother that she may obtain from her Divine Son the assuagement of the manifold evils which now afflict society, the alleviation of the lot of those who are still suffering hunger, imprisonment, or exile, the removal of hatred, envy, and discord among men, that they may be once more united in charity.
We should pray for the spiritual needs of the family and of youth, and for the restoration of the rights and liberties of the Church, which in these days is so cruelly persecuted… This is a year in which many spiritual benefits are being offered to us. We may rest assured that our Blessed Lady will generously requite any effort that we make to honour her whom God has so greatly honoured… We on our part can make return that will be particularly pleasing to her, if we pledge ourselves to be faithful to the practice of the Family Rosary to be said each evening. This devotion will promote goodwill and harmony in the family, and obtain abundant graces and blessings so that through the powerful intercession of the Immaculate Mother of God the peace of Christ may reign in your homes now and in the years to come. The Stonebridge grotto was a fitting response to the calls of Pope and Cardinal for devotion to Mary the Mother of God
Band of Diligent Parishoners
Back (left to right): Jimmy McAtarsney (RIP), Joe McKeever, Patsy McAtarsney (RIP), Peter Guy (RIP), Jimmy McCann, Tom Hughes (RIP), John Loughran (RIP), Eddie O’Hagan, Jimmy Dalzell, Pat O’Hagan (RIP), Arthur McAtarsney (RIP), Frank McKeever (RIP), Edmond McNeill (RIP), James Morgan (RIP), Paddy Joe McKeever (RIP), Hugh Rafferty (RIP).
Front (left to right): Joe Williamson (RIP), Ambrose McCann, Pat Keegan Pete O’Hagan, John O’Hagan.
Back (left to right): Anne McCann (Mrs McAtarsney), Minnie Dalzell (RIP), Martha McKeever (RIP), Elizabeth Kerr (RIP), Marie Keegan (Mrs O’Neill), Molly Morgan (RIP).
Front (left to right): Elizabeth Davidson (RIP), Matilda Gallagher (RIP), Teresa Keegan (Mrs McKeever), Margaret Keegan (Mrs McAtarsney).
Heritage In Stone
The interlinking of the grotto as we see it today with the much older sister building, St Patrick’s Church, is well worthy of note. The stones used in construction came, as we have seen, from a derelict house in Annahugh; a house which probably spanned several generations. The stone cross is thought to have been part of the earlier church building which was removed during the 1912 refurbishment and retained until it was built into the new grotto in 1955. The altar table dates from 1854 and was, according to an inscription, together with the chancel, the gift of Miss Eliza Richardson.
The words Introibo ad altare Dei ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam: (I will go up to the altar of God to God who gives joy to my youth) are etched around the front edge of the table. These words are taken from psalm 43 and form part of the opening rites of the old Tridentine Mass. This altar was removed from the church during the 1981 refurbishment. In 1994, during the work required to restore the church following arson in November 1993, a member of the parish volunteered and undertook the paving of the grotto floor.
Queen of the May
Youths Abroad Liable To Lose Faith
Armagh Observer Report 4 June 1955
Very Rev E O’Connor P.P. Kilmore presided at the opening of the new Grotto erected in honour of Our Lady at Stonebridge on Sunday. Throughout the entire ceremony the sun brilliantly illuminated every detail of the 7.5 ft statue of Our Lady. The Grotto, which is situated at one corner of the church, is the result of many weeks of hard work by a band of diligent parishioners under the able guidance of Rev Paul Johnson C.C. Father O’Connor warned of the dangers to young people leaving home and going to England. England, he said, was fast becoming a pagan country. It took great care on the part of Catholics going over there to keep the faith. The dangers to faith and morals could never be over stressed.
Living in a country in which the outlook was almost completely irreligious and materialistic, it was difficult not to be influenced by the surrounding indifference to religion. It was doubly difficult for young people whose minds were impressionable and who were inclined to be carried away with the pleasures of the moment. “I want you always to carry a picture of this Grotto in your mind wherever you go”, Father OConnor added. Children from the parish schools took part in a procession round the church and a choir sang the responses. Beneath the statue of Our Lady, which was brilliantly illuminated, were laid flowers gathered by the school children.
The statue itself, which came from Dublin, is believed to have the finest facial expression for its type in the world. Its production was held up due to unfavourable weather and the opening of the Grotto, which was to have been in the Marian Year, was delayed. Incorporated in the dome of the edifice is a portion of an old stone cross taken from the parish church during renovations and which is, according to one elderly parishioner, upwards of 150 years old. Local recollection is that this cross was removed from the church during the 1912 refurbishment, which according to the inscription in the church porch, was funded by John and Isabella Williamson, relatives of the Keegan family, Ballyhegan. The newspaper report does not mention a very specific feature of the statue; the rosary held by Our Lady has six decades. This has been explained in terms of a custom, peculiar to the South of France/Lourdes area, of saying a sixth decade for the safety of fishermen and other seafarers.
The story of the grotto at Stonebridge is also the story of the parish of Kilmore and of St Patrick’s church. The newspaper photos reproduced in this booklet are of people whose families nave been worshiping here through the generations. The altar servers are but one example of the continuous faith line maintained and nurtured, boys, and now also girls, follow on from fathers who were themselves servers.
The newspaper photo of the men, although not including all who were involved in the construction, together with that of the members of the ladies’ committee (pages 12 and 13) form a virtual gallery or roll-call of family names still represented. Among those names who worship at Stonebridge today are Gallagher, Guy, Hughes, Keegan, Kerr, Loughran, McAtarsney, McCann, McKeever, McNeill, Morgan, O’Hagan, Williamson, while Davidson Dalzell and Rafferty are represented by connected families.
Prayer for the Marian Year
Pope Pius XII Prayer for the Marian Year
Enraptured by the splendour of your heavenly beauty, and impelled by the anxieties of the world, we cast ourselves into your arms, 0 immaculate mother of Jesus and our mother, Mary, confident of finding in your most loving heart appeasement of our ardent desires and a safe harbour from the tempests which beset us on every side. Though degraded by our faults and overwhelmed by infinite misery, we admire and praise the peerless richness with which God has filled you above every other mere creature, from the first moment of your conception until the day on which He crowned you Queen of the Universe. 0 Crystal Fountain of Faith, bathe our minds with the eternal truths. 0 Fragrant Lily of all holiness, captivate our heart with your heavenly perfume. 0 conqueress of evil and death, inspire in us a deep horror of sin which makes the soul detestable to God and a slave to hell. 0 well beloved of God, hear the ardent cry which rises up from every heart in this year dedicated to you. Bend tenderly over our aching wounds, convert the wicked, dry the tears of the afflicted and oppressed, comfort the poor and humble, quench hatreds, sweeten harshness, safeguard the flower of purity in you, protect the Holy Church, make all men feel the attraction of Christian goodness. In your name, resounding harmoniously in Heaven may they recognise that they are brothers and that the nations are one family upon which there may shine forth the sun of a universal and sincere peace. Receive 0 most sweet mother our humble supplications and obtain for us that one day, happy with you, we may repeat before your throne that hymn which is sung today around your altars
“You are all beautiful 0 Mary,
you are the glory,
you are the joy,
you are the honour of our people.”