Monday, 17 October 2016

Spirituality (Pastoral Formation):
Spirituality and Sport

Villa Park, the home of Aston Villa … like many clubs, its roots are in the Victorian church

Patrick Comerford

Spirituality (Pastoral Formation),

The Chapel, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

9 a.m., 17 October 2016.


Opening Hymn: Fight the good fight (No 566, Church Hymnal, 5th ed).

Opening Reading: II Timothy 4: 1-8.

Some years ago, I was staying in Ealing Abbey for two weeks, taking courses in Liturgy and Liturgical Latin. When I arrived, I was given a monk’s cell where I would spend the next fortnight. On my desk, there was an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph – a feature in which the writer claimed that the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: ‘Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.’

I tried to follow this up later, and also found the actual Laws, the official rulebook of the International Cricket Council, also include a clause about the Spirit of Cricket:

‘Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.’

Cricket on a Saturday afternoon in Grantchester, near Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What do we mean by the Spirit of a Game?

What do we mean by saying someone is a Good Sport?

Why, for many people, does their relationship with sport have an almost religious quality to it?

The figures for the UK are staggering: 15.74 million adults play sport weekly – that is about a third of all adults in the UK. The number is higher in the young-adult bracket where 55.2% take part in at least one session of sport a week, and even higher among 11 to 16-year-olds where it is 86.6%.

The figures include Northern Ireland, but I imagine a similar survey in the Republic of Ireland would produce proportionately similar results.

If we had those figures for church attendance week-by-week, many of us would be very happy. But Sport is also often seen as a rival to Church in many parishes on this island.

Parents regularly give the excuse that they are not in church on Sunday mornings because their children are playing cricket, rugby or hockey on Sunday morning – and that in church-linked schools.

Truth to tell, that is probably so for mothers in car pools, while the many men who grumble that church services start too early on Sunday mornings have no problem about being on the out on fairway by 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

But these figures pose interesting challenges in other ways: If the church is even partially a representation of these demographics, then it would mean that sports players are arguably one of the largest groups in any church. But how many of these Christians playing sport are Christians in sport? In other words, how many Christians do not just play sport but actually see that their sport and faith are integrated? Not separate areas – ‘I go to church on Sunday and play sport during the week’ – but integrated – ‘I play sport as part of a whole life view of worship.’

Even if you are not a sports fan, and this topic this morning causes you to roll your eyes, you will find how quickly in parish life you become involved in local sporting life. You will be invited to say grace at rugby, golf, cricket, soccer and even GAA club dinners, be invited to pray before key matches, and even receive tickets for key fixtures. Thankfully you will find the further south you go in Ireland the less the sectarian divisions are when it comes to sport.

And all of this not because people are being generous – but because they want you to pray with them and pray for them.

It may be a surprise to some, but I think of sport as part of God’s good gift of creation. Sure, human beings invented sports, but where does our playfulness come from? The creativity, the desire for human relationship, and the instinctive desire to play that all people, of all ages, across all cultures, have are all part of what it means to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27).

God is the Creator and so being made in his image makes us creative with the talents to strike a ball, see a pass, or swim quickly. Equally God is a relational God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so our desire to play with others pushing them on playfully in competitive sports comes from God. Sport is not some area outside of God’s good creation, it is an integral part of it, a gift to be enjoyed to his glory.

The Apostle Paul urges us to ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship’ (Romans 12:1-2). That means that sport is an area of life that can be offered to God as an act of worship.

In his epistles, Paul frequently draws on sporting images: the runner in races, the boxer in the ring … reading last Thursday’s lectionary reading, I was reminded once again that Saint Paul must have been a good swimmer too (see Acts 27: 27-44).

Yet so often sport is not seen as a gift from God. It is often seen as being bad, full of drugs, professional fouls, violence and cheating. There may not see much evidence of spirituality at a soccer match, with 22 men running around a field chasing a ball and another 50,000 men shouting and gesticulating at them, using crude language for the referee, descending to racist taunts at opposing players, and singing songs with crude and demeaning lyrics.

Certainly, I find it difficult to regard two men throwing punches at each other in a boxing ring as good clean sport. As someone who learned to ride a horse at the same age as I learned to walk, I take no pleasure in seeing a horse being whipped by a jockey as they race around a track. The allegations of ticket-touting and drug-taking at this year’s Olympic Games and the corruption at the top in FIFA not only paint sports governing bodies in bad lights, but totally demean the whole body corporate of sports.

A healthy mind is a healthy body … rowing by the Sidney Sussex boathouse on the River Cam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

But sport is also a human right.

The well-known Latin aphorism Mens sana in corpore sano is usually translated as ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ or ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.’ In the western world, it is used in sporting and educational contexts to express the theory that physical exercise is an important or essential part of mental and psychological well-being.

The phrase comes from Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (10.356). It is the first in a list of what is desirable in life:

You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
and deems length of days the least of Nature’s gifts
that can endure any kind of toil,
that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
the woes and hard labours of Hercules better than
the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus.
What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.


The original Latin reads:

orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
fortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,
qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat
naturae, qui ferre queat quoscumque labores,
nesciat irasci, cupiat nihil et potiores
Herculis aerumnas credat saevosque labores
et venere et cenis et pluma Sardanapalli.
monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certe
tranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae.


Juvenal probably drew his inspiration from the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales:

τίς εὐδαίμων, <<ὁ τὸ μὲν σῶμα ὑγιής, τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν εὔπορος, τὴν δὲ φύσιν εὐπαίδευτος>>.

What man is happy? ‘He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature.’

The sports equipment company Asics takes its name from an acronym of a variant of this aphorism: anima sana in corpore sano, ‘a healthy soul in a healthy body.’ Mensa, the High IQ Society, derives its name both from the Latin word for table, mensa as well as a pun on the phrase mens sana.

Indeed, there is a pronounced, though sometimes hidden aspect to sport, so that it is possible to say– depending on your understanding of spirituality – that the desire to experience spiritual well-being is one reason people play sports.

There is an important connection between mind, body and soul that is inherent in all play. In sport, the reward comes not solely from winning the medal or having the fastest time, but from that wonderful connection of spirit, soul and body that gives glory to God through our every action.

According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sport is important because it is one of the most readily available ways of generating the state of being he calls ‘flow’. This is the state we experience when our attention is completely absorbed in an activity, and our awareness of our surroundings – even of ourselves – fades away.

It is not the passive absorption of watching television or playing computer games, but the ‘active’ absorption we experience when we fully concentrate and make powerful mental efforts – when we perform challenging, stimulating, creative activities like learning a foreign language or a musical instrument, painting or playing sports.

‘Flow’ allows us to take control of our own consciousness, and step beyond the psychic entropy that is our normal state, when worries, desires and other kinds of chaotic thought chatter run through our minds. We experience an inner peace, and a sense of being more ‘energised’ or alive than usual.

A chess player told Csikszentmihalyi that when he plays chess, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’

Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.’

We may debate whether these states are genuinely spiritual or not, since they do not involve experiencing any transpersonal or transcendent reality. But we can think of them as a kind of ‘base level’ spirituality, the point when spiritual experience begins.

Indeed, sport can sometimes enable us to reach higher levels too. Once a sportsperson is ‘locked into’ a state of flow, unusual things may happen, and sportspeople occasionally experience these. They often speak of being ‘in the Zone.’ These are moments when suddenly everything ‘clicks’ and they shift to a higher level of performance and become capable of astounding feats.

Experiences like these are usually temporary, but it seems that the best sports players and athletes are always ‘in the Zone’ to a degree.

Many individual athletes and teams find prayer and spirituality can play a significant role as coping tools in such a high-stakes atmosphere. In many changing rooms, teams pray before going onto the field and some even have a team chaplain to pray with the players and to provide them with spiritual guidance. Prayer and spirituality are known to make positive contributors to mental health and well-being.

In sports, especially as the stakes increase at professional levels, spiritual well-being must be considered as athletes struggle with expectations, injuries, disappointments, losses, and other emotionally charged events.

I was involved ten years ago in a forum discussing the needs for chaplaincy for British teams at the Beijing Olympics. It was not about providing religious services or blessings, but about how do you provide the support for athletes and their coaches, particularly for athletes who, for example, come fourth – there is no medal for those who are pipped for a bronze by a fraction of a second – for those who fail to get through the qualifying heats, and for their coaches. And we often fail to remember that without proper support, the majority of Olympians, athletes and coaches, can come home wondering whether they are failures, not knowing most of us think the very fact of being an Olympian is a major achievement and success in itself.

A recent study in the Journal of Sport looked at people involved in diverse sports, including football, basketball and others. Through a number of different rating scales, they found that many inner aspects of competitive sports, including coping with adversity, freedom from worry, goal setting, mental preparation, confidence, achievement and motivation were more robust in the ‘high spiritual well-being’ group.

They found certain aspects of spirituality in athletes may add to the array of coping mechanisms they have to deal with adversity, as well as to serve as a buffer against stress.

Does this translate into improved performance on the field?

That is hardly the purpose of any discussion of spirituality and sport.

But, at the end of the day, prayer and general spiritual well-being appear to offer additional coping mechanisms for adverse situations and help to contribute to stress reduction, all of which can add to the ‘mental toughness’ aspect of athletes.

Some of you are early morning joggers, but I doubt that you run to win: running keeps you in touch with the body that God gives you, a body made in God’s image and likeness, and running or walking around the block here puts you in touch with God’s creation in a way that you know is never experienced by driving around the block.

Athletes make enormous sacrifices for a miniscule chance of victory. So they are not motivated solely by the gold medal. Instead, their motivations have more to do with the meaning of taking part and personal growth, says Dr Nesti. He adds that many philosophers and psychologists have noted that when we are playing, we are in love with what we are doing, and this means that sports are more important to individuals than merely learning the skills associated with it.

Being a sport means you are willing to play. Willing to play means you are involved or alive to the situation in which you exist.

It is said that what made the Australian cricketer Don Bradman – who was by far the best batsman who ever lived – so much better than everybody else was the amazing amount of time he seemed to have to play his shots. Although he never committed himself until the last moment, he always had more than ample time to position himself and find the correct stroke, as if the fraction of a second it takes a ball to reach a batsman from the arm of a fast bowler contained more time for him than for others.

Yet, when people get involved in sport, as players or spectators, they often get entangled with a system that can depend on delusion or hallucination that will look and feel real. We hope for the miracle, we believe in the impossible, we risk misery and suffering.

If you want to play a game, you must have the fire of wanting to win but also the balance to see that if you lose, it is okay with you. You never play a game to lose, you always play a game to win, but if you lose, it is all right with you. The sacredness of a sporting event is that individuals rise beyond their limitations, achieving a state of abandon that is usually known only at the peak of spirituality.

Sport is a way not only of balancing body and soul, but also as a way of breaking through to an experience of the Divine. The determined athlete can find that this determination and discipline allows him or her to break through the limitations of the body into the world of the soul where body and soul have become one.

Access to sport must be seen as a human right. It is about the right to having a healthy mind and a healthy body. There is a television promotion at the moment that plays on this right. But when you watch it in detail it turns out that it is not about access to sports but about access to a pay-to-view television channel.

Despite those statistics, access to sport for the majority of people is about access to being a passive spectator than being an active participant. And access to active participation often depends on money and social class.

On the other hand, I do not want to downplay the value of being a spectator. The fervour this summer around the Olympic Games and the UEFA European soccer championship over the summer months, illustrated the power of sport in bringing people together.

The attitude to sport has not always been positive on the part of the Church. In 1531, the Puritan preacher Thomas Eliot argued that football caused ‘beastly fury and extreme violence.’ Later in the 16th century, in 1572, the Bishop of Rochester, Edmund Freke, demanded a new campaign to suppress this ‘evil game.’

In his book, Anatomy of Abuses (1583) Philip Stubbs argued that ‘football playing and other devilish pastimes ... Football encourages envy and hatred ... sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood.’

But history shows that young men refused to accept any attempt to ban football. In 1589, Hugh Case and William Shurlock were fined 2 shilling for playing football in a churchyard during the vicar’s sermon.

Ten years later, a group of men in a village in Essex were fined for playing football on a Sunday.

Attitudes towards football began to change in the 19th century. Thomas Arnold, who became headmaster of Rugby in 1828, emphasised the importance of sport in young men’s education. Like most public school headmasters, Arnold believed that sport was a good method for ‘encouraging senior boys to exercise responsible authority on behalf of the staff.’ He also argued that games like football provided a ‘formidable vehicle for character building.’

Villa Park … Aston Villa was formed by members of a church cricket team in 1874

Like so many football clubs that started in the late 19th century, Aston Villa has its roots in church activities. (yes, I am a fan, and I regret it was just a 1-1 draw against Wolves yesterday [16 October 2016]). The club was formed in 1874 by four members of the cricket team at Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth. From as early as 1867, the chapel was known as Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. Local lore says the four founders of the club met under a gas-light in Heathfield Road to set about forming a new club. As cricket players, they were looking for something to keep them occupied during the winter, and they chose football after witnessing an impromptu game on a meadow off Heathfield Road.

The first match for the new side was against the local Aston Brook Saint Mary’s Rugby team on Wilson Road, Aston. As a condition of the match, the Villa side had to agree to play the first half under rugby rules and the second half under football rules.

William McGregor, a local draper, helped make Villa a successful and prestigious club and is also remembered as the creator of the Football League. At his funeral in the church in Wheeler Street, Aston, where he worshipped for more than 40 years, the Revd WG Percival, said that the best thing about him ‘was not so much the genial, kindly, honest sports man, but it was the Christian behind it all.’

Birmingham City’s origins are found in church life too. It was founded in 1875 by members of the choir at Holy Trinity Church, Bordesley, who had formed their own cricket team four years earlier.

To keep fit in the winter of 1875, half-a-dozen members of Holy Trinity Cricket Club decided to try the new sport of Association Football. But because the choir alone could not provide them with enough players, they thought a new name might broaden their appeal and the Small Heath Alliance Football Club was born. When they moved to Muntz Street and bought the lease to the ground in 1895, they changed their name to Birmingham City Football Club. They moved to new grounds at Saint Andrew’s, near Saint Andrew’s Church, in 1906 and have been there ever since.

Everton was founded in November 1879 at a meeting called by Saint Domingo’s Church. The church already had a cricket team but wanted to find another sport for the winter months. The Saint Domingo team played in Stanley Park and won their first game, against Saint Peter’s Church. The following year the club was renamed Everton FC.

The Revd Arthur Connell was the rector of Saint Mark’s Church in West Gorton at a time of high unemployment in Manchester. In January 1879, he set up a soup kitchen and a relief fund. His daughter, Anna Connell, who became involved, believed that the creation of male clubs would help improve the community spirit. This included the creation of the Saint Mark’s Church football team. In time, this team became Manchester City.

The Hotspur Football Club was formed in 1882 by boys from the Bible class at All Hallows’ Church. They were also members of Hotspur Cricket Club, named after Harry Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. In 1884, the club was renamed Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

Southampton Football Club, known to this day as ‘the Saints,’ was formed at Saint Mary’s YMA in 1885. The roots of the club can be traced to members of Saint Mary’s Church Young Men’s Association, who played their football at various venues in Southampton for 13 years, prior to the move in 1898 to the club’s former ground, The Dell, where it remained until 2001.

A proud name ... Saint James’ Park, Newcastle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Other football clubs that owed their origins to churches include Newcastle United, who still play at Saint James’ Park, Barnsley (1887) was formed by the Revd Tiverton Preedy, assistant curate at Saint Peter’s; Bolton Wanderers (1874) was formed by the headmaster of Christ Church Boys’ School and boys of Christ Church Sunday school, and the Revd Joseph Wright was its first president; Fulham (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd John Henry Carwell, curate at Saint James’s; Queen’s Park Rangers (1885) was formed by boys connected to Saint Jude’s Institute; and Swindon Town (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd William Baker Pitt, curate at Christ Church.

I’m told the colours of Drogheda United are meant to represent the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

In Gaelic Games, Croke Park takes its name from an Archbishop of Cashel who was a founding figure in the GAA and both the Semple Stadium and the Sam Maguire Cup are named after members of the Church of Ireland.

‘You’ll never walk alone’ ... football memories are found throughout Liverpool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is striking how much of the vocabulary of sport is an appropriation of religious words. Although there is only one Messiah and Saviour, I hear phrases such as ‘Messi the messiah’ and ‘Usain Bolt the saviour of athletics.’

The hymn ‘Abide with me’ has an inseparable association with Cup Finals in Wembley. But there is also a hymn-like quality to the singing of ‘My Old Man’ (Aston Villa), ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Liverpool), ‘Blowing bubbles’ (West Ham), ‘We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands’ (Nottingham Forest), and indeed Irish fans joining together to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry.’ There was a deeply religious moment among the Munster fans as they sang it yesterday in Paris as they tried to express their grief following the sudden death of Anthony Foleyt.

There is a liturgical quality to the responsorial chants, the seasonal team colours and the sense of community if not being in communion with one another.

How often fans asked for their ashes to be scattered on their club’s pitch, and no-one can fail to notice how football serves a quasi-religious function when you see the temporary shrines erected to dead fans and players outside grounds or the minutes’ silence observed at the start of games.

Sport often meets the spiritual needs of spectators who have drifted away from or been alienated from the Church. Why?

Bill Shankly once said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.’

Perhaps if the church could appropriate some of that enthusiasm and collective, positive good feeling, we might have as much to learn from sport today as the Apostle Paul did in his mission.

[Reflection, Discussion]

Closing Prayer:

Collect 1, The Second Sunday of Advent:

O Lord,
Raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness,
we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us,
thy bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord,
to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, world without end.

The Lord’s Prayer, the Grace …

Some Scripture passages for reflection:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32: 24-30).

If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan? (Jeremiah 12: 5).

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40: 31).

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9: 24-27).

I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain (Galatians 2: 2).

It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain (Philippians 2: 16).

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3: 14).

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? (1 Thessalonians 2: 19).

Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (I Timothy 4: 7-8).

And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules (II Timothy 2: 5).

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (II Timothy 4: 7-8).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12: 1-2).

From the Autumn Prayer Diary of Christians in Sport

Sunday 16 October: Clubhouse Xtra. Pray for those preparing for and delivering talks, training sessions and seminars at our student training conferences in January would prepare well, being motivated by a passion for the lost world of sport.

Monday 17 October: Partnerships with the local church. Pray that Christians in Sport would continue to serve the local church specifically in the area of evangelism to sport students. Pray for further partnerships to be developed with student churches in many university cities.

Tuesday 18 October: Injury. Please pray for students who have suffered serious injuries this season. Pray that the gospel will comfort them in their situations but continue to motivate them to stay committed to their university sports friends even when they are unable to train, play or compete alongside them.

Wednesday 19 October: Final-year students. Pray for students in their final year of study. Pray that they would make the most of the gospel opportunities that playing or competing in university sport brings before they graduate next summer.

Thursday 20 October: European Sports Mission. Pray for the students from across Europe who attended ReadySetGO Plus in July. Pray that God would use them to make a huge impact in the world of university sport following the training and experience they received in the summer.

Friday 21 October: Dialogue Dinners. Praise God for the 24 Dialogue Dinners we know of which took place last year. Pray that many students this year will be bold in asking their sports friends over for a meal in order to share the gospel through a testimony or short talk.

Saturday 22 October: Graduates. Pray for Christian sportspeople who graduated this summer. Pray that they would stay strong in their faith and continue to live out the mission of making disciples in the world of sport.

Supplemental Reading:

Marilyn Baetz and John Toews, ‘Clinical Implications of Research on Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health,’ The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2009, 54 (5): pp 292-301.

Joe Drape, ‘Increasingly, Football Playbooks Call for Prayer,’ The New York Times, 30 October 2005.

Jeffrey Heskins and Matt Baker (eds), Footballing Lives, As seen by the chaplains of the beautiful game (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2006).

Heather Ridnour and Jon Hammermeister, ‘Spiritual Well-Being and Its Influence on Athletic Coping Profiles,’ Journal of Sport Behavior, 2008, 31 (1): pp 81-92.

Dr Susan Saint Sing, Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2004, pb, 137 pp).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture in the chapel on 17 October 2016 was part of the module Spirituality, which is part of the Pastoral Formation programme for MTh students.

The moving church in Carlow
that died and found new life

Saint Clare’s Church, Graiguecullen, began life on the other side of the River Barrow as Saint Anne’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The church with the most unusual story in Carlow undoubtedly is Saint Clare’s Church in Graiguecullen, which began life on the other side of the River Barrow and at another end of the town as Saint Anne’s Church on a site next to Kelvin Grove on Athy Road.

It is strange that a church that began life as a Church of Ireland parish church could be been moved stone-by-stone across the river and begin a new life as a Roman Catholic parish church.

The story of this unusual church begins in 1841, when the Tory landlord, Colonel Henry Bruen of Oak Park, and Thomas Bunbury were elected MPs for Carlow by a close margin, defeating Dan O’Connell Junior, known as ‘Young Dan,’ and John Ashton Yates, who had been Liberal MP for Carlow from 1837-1840. Colonel Bruen was an antiquarian, and although he was a staunch Conservative, he voted in 1829 for Catholic Emancipation.

After the election, the Conservatives of Tipperary launched a presentation fund for Colonel Bruen (1789-1852). Other counties followed suit, and a deputation waited on Colonel Bruen at Carlow Clubhouse on 2 April 1842. They had £2,000 in hands and ideas about giving the colonel a service of gold plate.

However, Colonel Bruen declined to accept any personal favour. Just then he was building a private church in his demesne in the form of a Greek temple, so he suggested that the money be devoted to erecting a free church for the use and benefit of Carlow parish. To support this proposal, he donated the field next to Kelvin Grove as a site.

A meeting of subscribers was held in Morrison’s Hotel, Dublin, on 6 May 1842, and the project was approved. But even in those days £2,000 was too little to complete a project such as this.

Two years later, the Carlow Sentinel reported on 13 July 1844, wrote that half the Church of Ireland congregation could not find places in Saint Mary’s Church. the parish church in the centre of the town. It encouraged the Bruen Testimonial Committee to take steps towards building a new church.

Colonel Bruen responded by promising to make good the difference between the £2,000 raised in subscriptions and the cost of completing the church.

Inside Saint Clare’s Church, Graiguecullen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The church was designed by the London-based architect, John McDuff Derick (1810-1859), who also had offices in Oxford and Dublin. According to his obituary in the New York Evening Post, Derick was was the son of James Derick of Ballymote, Co Sligo, and was descended on his father’s side from an old Connaught family and on his mother’s from the Macduffs, Earls of Fife. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, was a pupil of Sir John Soane, and travelled in Normandy, the south of France and Italy. In the 1830s, when he designed the boatmen’s floating chapel on the Oxford Canal in the Grecian style.

Derick was one of the original promoters of the Oxford Architectural Society. He developed an extensive, mainly ecclesiastical, practice as a young man. During the 1850s, he was active in Ireland, designing three churches and the castellated gateway at Duckett’s Grove, Co Carlow. He was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1854, and read a paper on the monastic remains at Castledermot, Co Kildare, to the Oxford Architectural Society.

On 21 May 1852, Joyce Derick, wife of the architect, laid the foundation stone of the new church, forming portion of the east jamb of the south of the chancel. The stone contained a scroll and coins of the realm.

Soon after his work on Saint Anne’s, Derick retired early from practice because of domestic problems and failing health. But he was forced to resume his profession after suffering unforeseen financial losses. In 1858 he emigrated to America, where he died in 1859. He is described as modest and cheerful, honourable and generous and is said to have been a friend of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and some of the leading artists and writers of his day.

Saint Anne’s Church was regarded as a gem of Gothic architecture. However, the congregation dwindled over the decades, and eventually closed for worship.

In 1926, the closed church was bought by the Very Revd James Fogarty, Parish Priest of Graiguecullen. The church was taken down stone by stone, transported across the River Barrow, and re-erected – once again stone-by-stone – in Graiguecullen on property that once belonged to the Haughtons, a prominent local Quaker family.

The original parish church in Graiguecullen stood nearby on the site of Saint Fiacc’s Parish Hall – Saint Fiacc had established a monastery nearby at Sleaty in the late fifth century. In 1909, Father Hugh Cullen was appointed parish priest of Graigue-Carlow, and in his honour the name of the parish was changed to Graiguecullen.

Thomas Thompson and Sons engineering works got the contract to dismantle it and re-erect it in Graiguecullen. When the church was being taken down and being re-erected, a steeplejack was killed.

The foundation stone laid in 1852 was found during the demolition of the church, and the original scroll was handed over to the Ven Samuel Ridgeway, Rector of Carlow (1912-1950) and Archdeacon of Leighlin, and it was moved to Saint Mary’s Vestry. The fate of the coins is not recorded.

When the Poor Clares first came to Carlow, they lived a house built on Wellington Bridge spanning the River Barrow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1893, the enclosed order of the Poor Clares came to Carlow, and moved into a house built on the Wellington Bridge spanning the River Barrow. In 1900, they moved to a purpose-built monastery on a site beside the land where Saint Anne’s would be relocated, and so Saint Clare’s seemed to be an appropriate name for the rebuilt church.

The old Saint Anne’s opened as the new Saint Clare’s in 1929. The church still lacks its spire – the stones are awaiting a propitious time for erection. All that remains of the former church on Athy Road in the wall opposite Saint Dympna’s Hospital. The Oak Park estate, near Carlow town, remained in the Bruen family until 1957.

Saint Mary’s Church on Church Street was completed in the 1830s by Thomas Cobden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Carlow’s only remaining Church of Ireland parish church is Saint Mary’s Church on Church Street, just of Centaur Street. It is the third Church of Ireland church built on this site, and was completed in the 1830s by Thomas Cobden, the noted 19th century architect who also designed the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the Scots’ Church or Presbyterian, and Braganza, which became the residence of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Kildare and Leighlin.

Saint Mary’s Church stands in an area of long-standing religious importance. In the sixth century, Saint Croneybeg had her religious cell in this area. The present church dates from 1727, but the tower and spire, standing at 195 ft, were added in 1834 by Cobden who completed the building.

Inside, the church interior retains its traditional galleries. There are also several monuments including some by Sir Richard Morrison, the important neo-classical architect.

Carlow Town Hall was designed by William Hague and opened in 1886 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Across from the church, on the north side of the Haymarket, the Town Hall was designed by the Church architect William Hague (1836-1899) in 1884 and was opened in March 1886 by Carlow Town Commissioners. For over 120 years The Town Hall continued to be the centre of local government administration in Carlow.

Saint Mary’s Parish is also associated with the Deighton Memorial Hall at the junction of Castle Street and Dublin Street.

Until the early 1830s, this building functioned as the County Courthouse and the seat of the Grand Jury, the forerunner of the County Council. The cells for holding prisoners were in the basement with direct access to the courtroom. In 1909, a local businessman, Joseph C Deighton handed this building over to Saint Mary’s Parish to use as the Parochial Hall.

Deighton Memorial Hall was donated to Saint Mary’s Parish as a parochial hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)