28 June 2021

Rosscarbery’s cathedral
may not be Ireland’s smallest
but it is the most southerly

Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral in Rosscarbery, West Cork, is the most southerly cathedral in the Church of Ireland(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The Cathedral Church of Saint Fachtna in the beautiful West Cork town of Rosscarbery standing above a narrow bay and on a site where Christians have worshipped for over 1,400 years.

Ross Cathedral is the most southerly cathedral in the Church of Ireland, although, despite the claims on many websites, it is not the smallest. It the main landmark in Rosscarbery, and its spire can be seen at a distance in the surrounding countryside.

This is the cathedral of the Diocese of Ross, within the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Dean of Ross is the Very Revd Chris Peters, and the cathedral group of parishes in West Cork also includes Kilmacabea (Leap), Myross (Union Hall), Kilfaughnabeg (Glandore) and Castleventry.

Saint Fachtna is said to have founded a monastic school in Ross in AD 590 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Irish name for Ross, Ross Ailithir, means the wooded headland of the pilgrims, and during this month’s recent road trip or ‘staycation’ in Co Kerry and West Cork, Dean Chris Peters offered this pilgrim a personal tour of the cathedral.

It is said Saint Fachtna, who had been the Abbot of Molana in Co Waterford, founded a monastic school there in AD 590, and that pilgrims and scholars came from near and far to the principal monastery of West Cork. Saint Fachtna died ca 600 at the age of 46, and is commemorated on 14 August.

Although the first cathedral on this site may have been built in the 12th century, Ross was not named as a diocese at the Synod of Ráith Bressail in 1111, and there was no Bishop of Ross at the Synod of Kells in 1152.

Inside Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral, Rosscarbery, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The first named Bishop of Ross is Nechtan MacNechtain, who died in 1160. A generation later, ca 1195-1198, two rival Bishops of Ross, Daniel and Florentius, went to Rome to put their claims before Pope Innocent III.

The monastic school may have gone into decline several decades before the Reformation.

When Bishop John Edmund de Courcy (1494-1517) resigned, a report commissioned for Pope Leo X described Ross as a walled city of 200 houses with the cathedral at the centre, while the bishop lived on the seashore, about half a mile from the city. The cathedral was described at the time as a cruciform, cut-stone structure, with a separate tower that had a bell.

Inside Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral, Rosscarbery, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Perhaps because the cathedral was so remote at the time of the Reformation, papal appointees continued to hold the see for many decades, and the Crown did not appoint a bishop until 1582, when William Lyon was nominated Bishop of Ross, and he soon became Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross (1583-1617).

He described Ross as being ‘so desolate and barbarous a place as it is not fit for an Englishman, especially one of his sort, to live in.’ Yet, when Sir Thomas Crooke, the founder of Baltimore, was accused of piracy in 1608, Lyon was among his defenders, arguing that he had worked miracles in creating a thriving town out of nothing in barely three years.

Lyon built a new school and a new bridge in Ross, and rebuilt or renovated the cathedral between 1589, and 1612.

Inside the narthex in Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral, Rosscarbery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The cathedral was badly damaged in the Rebellion of 1641, when the west end of the cathedral, the nave and the tower were destroyed. The two side chapels, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Fachtna, remained standing but were used as a slaughterhouse. The bishop’s house was burned, and his deaf and dumb daughter, Elizabeth, died in the fire.

Following the wars and conflicts of the mid-17th century, the cathedral was extensively rebuilt ca 1696, with a tower and spire.

The spire was removed in 1793 and a new octagonal spire was added in 1806 at a cost of £964: this was damaged in storms in 1886 and 1923, and restored on each occasion.

The chapter stalls in Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral, Rosscarbery, with the dean’s stall to the left of the door and the precentor’s to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

By the mid-19th century, the cathedral had two galleries, one of which was reserved for Lord Carbery who lived nearby as Castle Freke.

Significant developments continued in the cathedral in the 19th century. An increasing number of parishioners led to the north transept being added ca 1810-1815, the south transept was built ca 1835, the organ was relocated, and a dividing wall created a large narthex.

The appointment of the Very Revd Isaac Morgan Reeves as Dean of Ross in 1876 led to a period of change and refurbishment at the cathedral. During his 29 years at Rosscarbery, he removed the galleries, built the elaborate timber ceiling, and in 1895 inserted a new west door based on Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel.

The statue of John Evans-Freke (1765-1845), 6th Lord Carbery, in the narthex of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A new pulpit, lectern, font and bishop’s throne were installed, as well as communion rails, chapter stalls and stained-glass windows, mosaics were laid in the sanctuary, a new organ was put in place and a peal of five bells was installed.

When Rathbarry Church was closed in 1927, the Carbery monument was moved to the narthex of Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral, close to the large statue already in place of John Evans-Freke (1765-1845), 6th Lord Carbery, former MP for Donegal (1783-1790) and Baltimore, Co Cork (1790-1800).

The entire cathedral was restored in 2002-2005, the organ was rebuilt and the bells were restored and augmented by an additional bell, so that the cathedral now has a fine set of six bells in the key of G that are regularly rung.

The design of the west door, inserted in 1895, is based on Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The cathedral has a four-bay nave with two-stage bell tower surmounting the gable at the west façade, there are single-bay double-height transepts on the north and south side, and a single-bay porch at the north transept. There is a single-bay chancel at the east end, and a single-bay vestry to at the north side of the chancel.

Much of the cathedral’s long history can be read on the plaques, monuments and windows, giving the names and dates of the people who contributed to the building, including members of the Hungerford, Carbery and Becher families.

The limestone pulpit, standing on four colonettes of red Cork marble, was erected in 1876 in memory of Canon Horatio Townsend, and depicts three parables: the Sower, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; the brass eagle lectern dates from 1878; the white marble font was presented in 1886, and the bishop’s throne is from 1895. The oak chapter stalls at the west end were erected in 1896 in memory of Margaret Hungerford.

The four evangelists depicted in the stained glass in the East Window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The East Window has four lancets measuring 2540 mm x 740 mm, with 16 tracery-lights, depicting the Four evangelists. The window, in memory of Dean Reeves is attributed to the London studio of Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and was designed by the artist Horatio Walter Lonsdale (1844-1919).

Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and as the Light of the World (right) in a window by Mayer & Co of Munich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The south nave has two lancets, measuring 2390 mm x 480 mm; by Mayer & Co of Munich and depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and Christ as the Light of the World (right).

Saint George in a war memorial window by James Powell & Sons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The south transept has a rectangular window, 3050 mm x 1220 mm, depicting Saint George, made in the London studio of James Powell & Sons, and in memory of Henry Owen Dabridgecourt Becher.

The font in the narthex comes from the prebendal church of Inchidoney, in ruins since 1642.

A round-headed arch, standing isolated on the south side of the cathedral in the churchyard may be part of the mediaeval cathedral.

The royal arms of the House of Hanover above the door fromthe narthex into the nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The small Diocese of Ross stretches along little more than 60 km of West Cork coastline, from Ballydehob to Courtmachsherry, and has three parochial groupings: Abbeystrewry (Skibereen), Kilgarriffe (Clonakilty) and Ross.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Diocese of Ross is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Skibbereen.

The south side of Saint Fachtna’s Cathedral in Rosscarbery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
30, Preveli Monastery, Crete

Monastic bells in a tree in the courtyard of Preveli Monastery on the south coast of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning 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 prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This morning (28 June 2021), my photographs are from the Monastery of Preveli, on the south coast of Crete, continuing a week of photographs from monasteries in Crete.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence, and earlier in this series morning reflections, I have also visited Arkadi Monastery (1 May 2021) and the former Monastery of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai in Iraklion (8 May 2021).

The katholikon or main church in Preveli was built in 1835-1837 on the site of earlier churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Monastery of Preveli is 37 km south of Rethymnion, and while the monastery lies is within the Diocese of Lambis and Sfakion, it comes under the direct oversight of the Ecumenical Patriarch, making it the Holy Stavropegic and Patriarchal Monastery of Saint John the Theologian.

The monastery is famous among Greeks for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is celebrated in Greek lore and in books and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete in World War II.

Preveli is not one but two monasteries, with two sets of buildings. The ruined Lower Monastery (Kato Moni) is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, but is now deserted and fenced off and closed to visitors. It is another 3 km or so to the second living, active monastery, known as the Upper or Rear Monastery (Piso Moni), dedicated to Saint John the Theologian.

There is strong evidence that an early monastery stood on the site of the lower monastery during the Second Byzantine period in Crete, in the 10th or early 11th century. But the monastery was probably founded in the Middle Ages, when Crete was under Venetian rule.

The original name was ‘The Monastery of the Great River at the Island of Crete.’ Some stories say it was founded by a feudal lord named Prevelis. Others say it is named after a repentant murderer who fled his home in Preveliana village in the 16th century, found refuge in the monastery and gave his life savings in thanks for his life being saved. Another tradition says Preveli takes its name from Abbot Akakios Prevelis, who renovated the monastery in 1670. At least three or four abbots in the 17th and 18th century were from the Prevelis family, a family from Rethymnon descended from the Kallergis, a Byzantine noble family.

The earliest records for the monastery go back to 1594, a date engraved on a monastery bell. When the Turks occupied Crete in 1649, they destroyed the monastery of Preveli. But the monastery was restored, and in the centuries that followed became a centre for education and a centre for resistance to Ottoman rule.

Abbot Efraim Prevelis took part in the revolution led by John Vlachos or Daskalogianis in 1770. He was sentenced to death but was finally pardoned in 1798 after Patriarch Gregory V intervened with the Sultan.

To secure the monastery’s privileges and estates, Abbot Ephrem sought the protection of the Patriarchate, and Preveli received the status of a patriarchal and stavropegic monastery. As a sign of this new status, he returned from Constantinople with the Cross that has remained the most prized relic in Preveli.

In 1821, the Abbot of Preveli, Melchisedek Tsouderos – whose family was from Rethymnon and who were said to be descended from the Byzantine imperial family – became a member of the secret Greek revolutionary organisation, the Philiki Etairia (the Society of Friends).

On 25 May 1821, the abbot and a group of rebels hoisted the Greek flag on the hills overlooking the village of Rodakino, and he soon became the leading figure in the revolutionary events of 1821 in Crete.

The abbot organised, equipped and financed the first rebel units against the Turkish forces, and managed to rescue the monks before the Turks destroyed the monastery in a reprisal attack. Abbot Melchisedek’s force, made up of monks and civilians, went on to fight in many battles in western Crete. He was fatally injured in a battle near the village of Polemarchi in the Kissamos area on 5 February 1823. He died while his companions were trying to move him to the village of Platania, where he was buried. He is commemorated in the name of Tsouderon Street in Rethymnon.

Preveli was active again in organising rebellions against the Turks in the 19th century. The disaster at Arkadi in November 1866 did not deter Abbot Agathangelos and his monks, who fed and sheltered up to 200 rebels in Preveli on a daily basis. In a revenge attack on 7 July 1867, Resit Pasha and 8,000 Turkish soldiers set fire to the Lower Monastery and its farms in the neighbouring villages. The Rear Monastery was saved at the last moment and continued its active role until the end of the revolution in 1869.

When yet another revolution broke out in 1878, the Rear Monastery became rebel headquarters and the abbot fought at the front line. The revolutions were instrumental in securing Crete’s eventual autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece 100 years ago in 1913.

During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941 found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in Preveli and others were hidden in homes and farms nearby.

The Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines on the nights of 31 May and 1 June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941. In a revenge attack on 25 August 1941, the Germans plundered the monastery, the Lower Monastery was destroyed completely, and many of the monks were sent to Firka Prison in Chania. Among the precious items plundered by the Germans was its most precious relic, the miraculous Cross of Abbot Ephraim Prevelis.

But the monks who returned immediately began rebuilding the Rear Monastery with help from local people and from other monasteries. Meanwhile, Abbot Agathangelos had joined the Greek Army in the Middle East as a chaplain. In the courtyard, a series of monuments recalls the role of the monastery in World War II.

The Rear Monastery is at the foot of a mountain and overlooks the Libyan Sea. The monastery is the shape of an irregular letter Π, with buildings on the north, the west and part of the east sides of a level area, with the main church or katholikon in the centre of the courtyard.

The katholikon stands on the site of the older, probably frescoed church that was demolished in 1835. The present church was completed in 1837 and was consecrated that year. This is a large two-nave building, unified internally by a sequence of three arches.

A long, enclosed chamber, once used as stables, now houses the museum of the monastery. The collection of icons covers a period from the early 17th century to the end of 19th century.

The best-known item on display is not in the museum but in the katholikon. This is the large, richly decorated silver cross brought back to Preveli from Constantinople by Abbot Ephrem and now kept in a special shrine in the main church.

Today, there are only three monks living in the monastery. It is a crisis in monastic vocations that is hitting many monasteries throughout Greece. However, when I visited, I was warmly invited into the katholikon by one of the monks, who quickly realised I was a priest, and asked me which Church I was from and who was my bishop. He pointed out the icons, the patriarch’s throne, and other treasures in the Church. He told me the story of the Cross, put on his stole, took the Cross out of its shrine, and blessed me before I went on my way.

The bell tower at the west end of the katholikon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 8: 18-22 (NRSVA):

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ 20 And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 21 Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 22 But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’

The cells where the monks live on the north side of the monastery courtyard … today the community has dwindled in numbers to three (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (28 June 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Diocese of the Seychelles as they celebrate the anniversary of their independence.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Tablets in the monastery courtyard tell of the rescue of allied troops by the monks of Preveli 80 years ago (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