24 July 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
56, Saint John’s Church, Valentia Island

The Church of Saint John the Baptist at Knightstown on Valentia Island … built in 1860 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning before the day gets busy to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This week’s theme of island churches continues this morning (24 July 2021) with photographs from the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Knightstown, Valentia Island, Co Kerry.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, Valentia … is this ‘the most westerly Protestant Church in Europe’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

I returned again to Valentia Island earlier this summer. Mug Ruith, or Mogh Roith, ‘slave of the wheel,’ a mythological, powerful, blind druid of Munster, is said to have lived on Valentia Island. But the first historical, recorded evidence of people living on the island is found in 1291, in the Papal taxations of Pope Nicholas IV, when a church on the island is valued at 13s 4d.

In church records, the parish was also known as Kilmore, but the list of vicars or rectors of Valentia only begins in 1627, when the Revd Donogh O’Giltenan was presented to the parish.

Canon John Warburton, who was Rector of Valentia in 1812-1830, was a younger son of Charles Morgan Warburton (1754-1826), Bishop of Limerick (1806-1820) and Bishop of Cloyne (1820-1826).

While Warburton was Rector of Valentia, he was the very model of a Georgian pluralist, absentee rector. He was, at various time, also Vicar of Kill and Lyons in the Diocese of Kildare, Vicar of Loughill, Limerick, Rector of Drumcliffe or Ennis in Co Clare, a minor canon or vicar choral of Cork and Cloyne cathedrals, and Precentor of Ardfert. He was also one of my predecessors as Precentor of Limerick (1818-1878), while his elder brother, Canon Charles Warburton, was one of my predecessors as Rector of Rathkeale (1813-1855).

Despite John Warburton’s lengthy absences from Valentia during his time as rector, a new Church of Saint John the Baptist was built at Kilmore in 1815, almost a generation before Knightstown was laid out and developed by Alexander Nimmo on behalf of the Knights of Kerry.

This was a Georgian hall and tower church, designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain, a pupil of the renowned London architect John Nash. The Pain brothers were involved in designing many of the churches in the Diocese of Limerick including, it is said, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, and Castletown Church.

The church could seat a congregation of about 60 people. However, as the Church of Ireland population of Valentia grew with the growth of Knightstown, the expansion of the slate quarry and the arrival of the transatlantic cable, the church became too small for the needs of a growing parish.

A new church, also dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, was built in Knightstown in 1860, when the Revd Edward Lee Sandiford was Rector of Valentia (1848-1869). This is one of the last churches designed by Joseph Welland (1798-1860).

The stained-glass windows are memorials to the Knights of Kerry. The oak panelling and the mosaics in the chancel date from 1925.

The other rectors of Valentia include John Godfrey Day (1830-1847), later Dean of Ardfert (1861-1879), father of Bishop Maurice Day of Clogher and grandfather of Godfrey Day, Bishop of Armagh and Archbishop of Armagh; Abraham Isaac, later Dean of Ardfert (1894-1905); the Revd Alexander Delap, father of the marine biologist, Maude Delap (1866-1953); and George Lill Swain, later Dean of Limerick (1929-1954).

Other clergy on the island also served in developing scientific roles. For example, the Revd Thomas Kerr, who is buried in Saint John’s Churchyard in Kilmore, was also Director of the Meteorological Observatory on Valentia.

The Church of Ireland population on Valentia began to fall in numbers with the loss of British officials in the early 20th century, moving the headquarters of the cable stations to London, and the eventual departure of the Knights of Kerry from Valentia.

Today, a sign claims the church in Knightstown is the ‘most westerly Protestant church in Europe.’ Although the church is closed this summer due to restoration and renovation works, it is normally open in summer from May to September, and the church is also the venue for an ecumenical Christmas service and regular musical recitals and lectures.

The Sensory Garden was designed by Arthur Shackleton to cater for people with disabilities and was opened by Bishop Michael Mayes in 2005.

A sign outside the church claims it is ‘the most westerly Protestant Church in Europe.’ But, of course, that depends on how you draw the boundaries of Europe. No doubt, churches in Iceland could make similar claims, but is Greenland part of Europe of part of the North American continent?

Putting those questions aside, Saint John’s Church is lovingly cared for by the churchwarden, Richard Williams, who also welcomed us to the former church at Kilmore and its churchyard last year, and pointed us to the graves of the Knights of Kerry, the Delap family, and the marine biologist Maude Delap.

The Revd Michael Cavanagh has been the priest-in-charge of Kenmare, Kilcrohane, Dromod and Valentia since 2010.

The sensory garden at Saint John’s Church in Knightstown was designed by Arthur Shackleton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 13: 24-30 (NRSVA):

24 [Jesus] put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn”.’

A sculptor’s workshop close to Saint John’s Church in Knightstown on Valentia Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (24 July 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for churches, activists and leaders working for gender justice. May we seek to amplify their voices and listen to what they have to say.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, built at Kilmore in 1815, was designed by James Pain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Successive generations of the Knights of Kerry are buried in the former chancel of Saint John’s Church in Kilmore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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