Fellowship members walk
together in a 2008 Good Friday
Ecumenical Service in Belfast’s
PHOTO BY MEL BOYLE
POPE BENEDICT XVI has spoken of
“the peace which is already bringing
renewal” to the north of Ireland.
At Good Shepherd Catholic
Church in southeast Belfast, the
theme of renewal has special significance.
The beautifully restored church was
reopened on December 16, 2007, and a new
altar dedicated in a ceremony that was both
solemn and joyful. Peace between Catholics
and Protestants was shown by the attendance
of Protestant clergy as special guests.
Catholic and Protestant clergy preserved
a pocket of peace in Belfast’s Ballynafeigh District
during 30 years of conflict. Bishop
Anthony Farquhar, who conducted the dedication
service, is a native of Ballynafeigh and
is proud of its strong ecumenical links.
Canon Robert Fullerton, parish priest at
Good Shepherd, was ordained in 1957 and
ministered in very troubled parts of Belfast
before coming to this parish 10 years ago.
Ballynafeigh is derived from Gaelic and
means “townland of the raven.” Unlike the
divided communities elsewhere, its Catholics
and Protestants live side by side. This has not
always been easy, but priests and ministers
held the community together through “The
Troubles”—three decades of violence between
Northern Ireland’s Catholics and
They united in prayer and plotted peace.
They approached relevant officials to solve
the political crisis. “Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship,”
says Bishop Farquhar, “shone the
light of Christ into some of the darkest corners
A Special Bond
It all began in 1973, when the worsening
conflict brought together two deeply spiritual
men: Msgr. Robert Murphy of Good Shepherd
Catholic Church in Holy Rosary Parish
and the Rev. Pat Lowry of St. John’s Presbyterian
Church. A strong and special bond was
formed between these two, who remained
close friends throughout The Troubles.
The late Rev. Lowry even said he was closer
to the monsignor than to some in his own
denomination. The current minister at St.
John’s, the Rev. Wilfred Orr, says this bond
was “a fellowship in Christ.”
The two men extended their friendship to
neighboring churches and formed a fellowship
of clergy who resolved to be friends
and to be seen as friends. They met openly
when many Catholics and Protestants were
afraid to greet one another for fear of being
seen as befriending the enemy.
They held services together: Christmas
carols, a Good Friday service and a Week of
Prayer for Christian Unity. Inspired and
encouraged by the clergy, others saw a need
to work together. An inclusive community
development association, formed in 1974,
began to arrange clubs, classes, day trips and
holidays, enabling Catholics and Protestants
Local parishioner Vicky McGlade believes
the Clergy Fellowship was “very keen to
reach out to the wider community in Ballynafeigh”
so that ecumenism was “not just a
Six churches form the Fellowship’s core.
The two Catholic parishes are Holy Rosary,
based at Good Shepherd Church on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, and St. Bernadette’s on
Rosetta Road. The Presbyterian churches
are St. John’s and Cooke Centenary.
Ballynafeigh Methodist and St. Jude’s
Church of Ireland complete the six,
with a few other churches more loosely
linked. The Fellowship’s boundaries are
flexible, reflecting the group’s openness
Msgr. Murphy remained in the parish
after his retirement. He died in 2001
and is buried in the grounds of Good
Shepherd Church. He is widely regarded
by Catholics and Protestants as a saintly
The ’70s began with rioting, internment
and the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday.”
Direct rule was imposed, and the
British army took up positions throughout
the province. Many Catholics were
Irish nationalists who saw the British as
an occupying force for maintaining
Protestant supremacy. Many Protestants
were politically Unionist who
regarded Catholics with suspicion. Fear
and hatred spread rapidly.
Major bombing incidents sent shock
waves throughout Northern Ireland,
and Ballynafeigh’s clergy helped to heal
sectarian division. After the Enniskillen
bomb in 1987, which killed 11 people,
Catholic and Protestant clergy held a
joint Sunday evening service in St.
After the 1998 bombing in Omagh,
all six congregations prayed together in
Good Shepherd Church. When violence
came to Ballynafeigh itself, the
clergy cooperated in calling for calm.
Whenever a local resident was killed in
a sectarian attack, Protestant and Catholic
clergy visited the bereaved family
The Fellowship talked to government,
police, health and education
services, and charities to heal divisions
and prevent existing problems from
becoming worse. Tensions erupted
when loyalist Orangemen (members
of the Orange Order, a Protestant organization)
marched through a Catholic
and strongly nationalist section of
Ormeau Road. The clergy offered to
By negotiating with representatives
from the Orange Order and nationalist
residents, the clergy played an important
part in resolving this issue peacefully.
Father Brendan Murray was parish
priest at Good Shepherd Church
through much of this troubled period.
When the Orange Order agreed to withdraw
their disputed parade in 1997,
Father Murray and two Protestant ministers
made a joint statement to the
press, calling the loyalist decision a
“magnanimous and statesmanlike
The clergy used public praise to
encourage restraint and prevent violent
confrontation. Meanwhile, the Fellowship
contributed significantly to
interchurch dialogue in Ireland and
the United Kingdom as part of the
wider peace process.
Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh describes
the impact of groups such as
Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship on the
development of peace in Northern Ireland
as “incalculable.” He praises their
perseverance and foresight that contributed
to the emergence of the 1998
Good Friday Agreement.
Good Friday had long been a focus
for the Fellowship’s mission to have
Catholics and Protestants be seen
together. After prayers in Ormeau Park,
a large wooden cross was carried in
procession, accompanied by a brass
band and TV cameras, along Ormeau
Road to Cooke Centenary Presbyterian
Church. Clergy and congregations
from all the churches took part in this
annual service, which remains part of
the Fellowship’s program.
The Rev. Jim Campbell, minister at
Cooke Church for many years until his
retirement, says, “It is essential to proclaim
to everyone in our district that
God’s love, seen so vividly in the crucifixion,
is a love that cherishes equally
all members of our community whatever
their views and affiliations.”
Teresa Duggan, a local Catholic
mother and grandmother, welcomed
the cross-community church groups, which enabled her children to grow
up feeling as if they were part of one
community rather than two.
“Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship
brought the community together. They
encouraged us all to make an effort to
reach across the divide,” she says.
As if peacemaking were not enough,
the clergy and congregations raised
thousands of pounds for charitable
causes both locally and overseas.
The Rev. Orr says the churches here
have had a friendly community, a “no-nonsense
community,” on which to
build. Myles McCormack, a young musician
who grew up in Ballynafeigh, expresses
this attitude. “Sectarianism goes
hand in hand with idiocy,” he says.
Ballynafeigh attracts people who
want a mix. Brendan Tansey, a Catholic,
moved in more than 30 years ago when
the area was predominantly Protestant.
“This area was heaven,” Brendan
says. “People came here to live a normal
life, which you couldn’t do in north,
east or west Belfast. People could drink
with their Protestant neighbors at the
local pub—the Errigle. Many people
chose this place because their children
would not be bothered by paramilitaries.”
And when paramilitary groups tried
to gain a foothold, “Ballynafeigh kept
its head,” Brendan asserts.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Gray, minister at
Cooke Church, says the Clergy Fellowship
is “one of the elements in the
story of Ballynafeigh that has made
this a very different area from elsewhere
in Belfast.” But Dr. Gray says
there has always been “an ecumenical
witness and an ecumenical embrace”
within this area.
Dr. Gray, who studied at Columbia
Theological Seminary, says fellowship
between Catholic and Protestant clergy
has succeeded in other areas, but
nowhere else has it been pursued with
Church strategy may be partly
responsible for ecumenical enthusiasm
among the clergy. Local resident
Duncan Morrow suggests some ministers
and priests may have been appointed
to Ballynafeigh because of their
Explaining lay ecumenism, Brendan
Tansey cites social class and the housing
“It had been a mainly middle-class
Protestant area, and became a refuge for
middle-class Catholics who knew they
would not be intimidated by the quiet
Protestant residents. When a house
went on sale, there were 10 Catholics
chasing it and the house prices went
up,” he says.
This was an incentive for others to
sell, and the denominations gradually
became more balanced.
When Ballynafeigh became more
socially mixed, conflict was often
headed off by a sensible attitude,
reflected in the graffiti. In 1993, a
minibus brought a group of children
from a very different area—the Protestant
section of West Belfast—to the
children’s playground in Ormeau Park.
The visitors spray-painted “Shankill
Road” on the wooden play equipment.
Catholic children elsewhere would
respond in anger, and a vicious fight
could have started with parents joining
in. But the local paint gang responded
politely, with the slogan “Ormeau Park,
Cardinal Sean Brady, Primate of All Ireland,
says, “The second millennium
was marked by division within the
Church and my hope will be that this
millennium will be marked by the journey
The Fellowship’s current plans include
a screening of Al Gore’s 2006 film
An Inconvenient Truth, to which all the
congregations and the wider public will
be welcomed. Youth groups are flourishing.
Rosario Club, known for its prowess
at soccer, is run by Catholics, but welcomes
all young people.
St. John’s recently took a mixed
group of 40 teenagers to Corymeela,
an ecumenical center on the north
Antrim coast. St. John’s has a full-time
youth worker, Jim McDowell, known as
“Jimbo,” who specializes in peace and
His program includes comedy, rock
music and drama. A keen bungee jumper, Jimbo is suitably qualified for
an ecumenical leap across Belfast’s religious
Ormeau Churches Together is a lay
group which arranges ecumenical talks,
retreats and community meals, including
an annual breakfast for all six congregations.
The idea for the group came
from Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship,
who may have had an ulterior motive.
“The clergy depend on the laypeople
to do all the cooking,” member Vicky
The churches where the fellowship
began—Good Shepherd and St.
John’s—have maintained strong links
and still play a leading role in cross-community
activities. The two churches
cooperated in a Habitat for Humanity
project last summer in Nkwazi, Zambia.
A group of 20 people—10 from each
church—spent a year meeting and planning
the trip, which took place in July
Local experts supervised the project.
Together with the Zambians who were
to live in the houses, the Belfast group,
aged 17 to 78, made bricks by hand
with earth and cement, and built four-room
houses. Clearly, a lot of hard work
is done by the laity.
But Michael McLaughlin, a Good
Shepherd parishioner who went to
Zambia, applauds the clergy’s role.
“Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship provided
a much-needed focus for joint
worship throughout the worst years of
The Troubles, and on into the most
recent decade when our community
has thankfully been leaving those bad
times behind,” he says.
The cross-community group forged
strong and lasting friendships with each
other and with the Zambians.
“We all got on terrifically well,”
He describes how the Irish joined
the Zambians in an ecumenical service
every morning. The Belfast group held
its own prayer and reflection session in
Denominational Sunday services—Catholic and United Church of Zambia—lasted three hours. The walk home
took another hour, then they all played
soccer: Ireland vs. Zambia.
“One of my personal highlights was,
after the match ended, the sun
descended behind the houses. And we
players, surrounded by the compound’s
many children, walked back toward
our houses, with the kids singing ‘Olé!
Olé! Olé!’ at the tops of their voices,”
Dialogue and respect for differences
are among the values developed by
interchurch groups during the conflict
and adopted later by U.K. and Irish
governments. Cardinal Brady has spoken
of unity in difference: “We need
boundaries, but these must be porous
Ballynafeigh’s clergy have thought
deeply about difference. The Rev. Blair
believes some differences arose simply
because groups wanted to be different.
He says Methodists developed a suspicion
of ritual and symbol because they
wanted to be different from Catholics
and Anglicans. This led early Methodists
to misinterpret their leader’s
(John Wesley’s) aims, he thinks.
The Rev. Blair explains that John
Wesley was against a formal split between
the Churches, and the split happened
after his death. Blair adds that
early Anglicans may not have intended
to split from the Catholic Church.
Difference was an important topic on
October 17 when clergy came together
for Donald Shriver’s talk on Peace and
Remembering. The Rev. Shriver, past
president of Union Theological Society
in New York, was accompanied by
his wife, Peggy, former assistant general
secretary of the National Council of
Churches in the United States.
Both Don and Peggy Shriver think
differences can be a good thing. Don
says an individual can be both Irish
and British. Peggy believes it takes a
willingness to become comfortable with
unfamiliar traditions, while retaining
“This takes time,” she admits, “but it
can be done.”
The meeting was hosted at Cooke
Presbyterian Church by Dr. Mark Gray.
Catholic priests present were Father
Paul Armstrong of St. Bernadette’s and
Canon Robert Fullerton of Good Shepherd.
Ballynafeigh Methodist Church
was represented by the Rev. Wesley
Blair, current chair of the Fellowship.
Also present were Canon Norman
Jardine of St. Jude’s and the Rev. Wilfred
Orr of St. John’s.
“The Church is often the source of
division in society, not only the cure for
it,” Don Shriver warned at the meeting.
This was true in Northern Ireland,
where division has been encouraged
from some pulpits.
“The Churches are sometimes an ally
and sometimes an enemy of reconciliation,” the Rev. Shriver added. He
quoted American poet Robert Frost
from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Something
there is that does not love a wall.”
This was poignant since walls still
divide Catholic and Protestant housing
areas in parts of Belfast. Dr. Gray linked
the poem to St. Paul, who said Christ
breaks down the walls that come
What challenges face the churches now
that the violence of The Troubles is
over? The Rev. Orr says the challenge
now is that “there is nothing to force us
out of our camps.”
In the face of a growing secularism,
churches may concentrate on maintaining
their own membership at the
expense of working together. Dr. Gray
believes it is important to continue the
peace process. The churches can heal a
broken community and create a truly
inclusive community grounded in justice,
where everyone’s gifts and talents
The challenge is learning to embrace
the stranger. Strangers are no longer
simply Catholic or Protestant, but
include migrant workers from other
Some of the migrants are Catholics.
Canon Fullerton and Father Armstrong
now have parishioners from India,
Africa, the Philippines and Eastern
Europe, especially Poland. They occasionally
offer Mass in Polish, and
recently held an international food festival
to encourage people from different
countries to make friends.
The Clergy Fellowship continues to
meet regularly and work for a peaceful
community. Duncan Morrow, director
of the Community Relations Council,
says of the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship:
“They continue to show us that
our future together is as brothers and
sisters, not enemies.”
Good Shepherd Church was reopened
on Gaudete Sunday, December 16. The
magnificent high altar has been restored,
and a new altar carefully designed to
blend with its surroundings. Marble and
sandstone, carvings and pillars, brass
and bronze, mosaics and stained glass
have been skillfully restored.
Bishop Anthony Farquhar, auxiliary
bishop of Down and Connor, officiated
at the Mass, which incorporated
the dedication, anointing, incensation
and lighting of the new altar.
“The author of beauty has created
these things. Often, such beauty is the
most eloquent testimony to the abiding
presence of God,” Canon Fullerton said.
Cardinal Cahal Daly, 90, was present
at the side of the sanctuary. He said
the architect and builders had risen to
the challenge in restoring the original
1914 church. The alterations after Vatican
II were thought, at the time, to be
the least required. The church has now
been restored to its original form,
except that the new altar enables celebration
facing the people.
Renewal is about linking past, present
and future, and this was reflected in
the language, music and imagery.
Bishop Farquhar spoke of the timelessness
of the communion of saints and
how we are all supported by our spiritual
Gaelic hymns and the traditional
Latin Creed were intoned with reverence.
Light and water, oil and incense,
color and sound, tradition and change,
memory and hope—all these elements
intertwined to create a deeply resonant
Bishop Farquhar said, “Christ’s light
reveals the path of light, and all who
carry the name of Christ, from all Christian
traditions, should carry it.”
Perhaps the most significant ritual
took place at the end of the service,
when Bishop Farquhar and Cardinal
Daly came forward and shook hands
with the Protestant clergy who were
in the front pews.
The church was restored, and fellowship
among Christians was renewed.