Although there had been some relaxation of the notorious penal laws towards the end of the 18th century, Catholics of Irvinestown and surrounding districts had no church building in which to worship.Open air Mass was celebrated in a little Mass garden beside the road at Lisaroo. This location, still easily identifiable today, is about halfway between Lisnarick and Irvinestown, in the townland of Coolaness.
The property was part of the Castle Archdale estate. Although the landowner at that time, Colonel Mervyn Archdale, was opposed politically to the principle of Catholic emancipation, he gave the Lisaroo site to the local Catholic people for the building of a small chapel in 1800. This modest building was to serve the parishioners up until 1910, when the Sacred Heart Church was built in Irvinestown. The Irvinestown writer Shaun B. McManus, who had been an altar boy in Lisaroo, gives us this description from a period around 1900 in his book ‘Yesterdays’;
“Here, beside the road, Lisaroo chapel nestled beneath tall trees, totally inadequate to accommodate the large congregations, some members of which had travelled five or six miles, that attended Mass or Benediction.
The chapel was a long building, capable of holding five or six hundred people, women to the left of the aisle facing the altar, men on the right. There was only one door, around which late-comers usually crowded, which faced the roadway. The site…was so small that a separate door to the sacristy could not be provided. Stairs, near the doorway led to a gallery where the choir and its organ were placed facing the altar. On the gallery were additional long forms which were pre-empted by the ‘Ballynecairn’ (Irvinestown) elite. Passing through a gate in the Communion rail, one entered the sacristy through a door to the right of the altar. Stairs from the sacristy, which was the priest’s and sacristan’s domain, led to the clerk’s room. Underneath this room the priest’s horse, and the horses of far-away parishioners, were stabled. I found the clerk’s room very interesting, for in it were piled hundreds of old books"
Note: Ballynecairn appears to be a fanciful creation of a gaelicised place-name by McManus, as the town originated as a Plantation settlement and had always been known in accordance with the names of the landowners of the local estate at Necarne. They were Lowthers and Irvines respectively, so it was first called Lowtherstown and later Irvinestown.
Sacred Heart Church Construction
By end of the 19th century it was clear that a new Roman Catholic church was needed in the Irvinestown area, as the old chapel building erected in 1800 on a cramped site at Lisaroo was in poor repair and generally unfit to provide for the congregation at the time. A cemetery was also required. Canon O’Doherty, who had become parish priest in July 1906, took the responsibility of addressing both of these issues following the sale of local estate lands to tenants, as this meant that various possible sites owned by parishioners were available for consideration.
The site selected to accommodate church and cemetery was at Burfitt’s Hill overlooking the Lisnarick Road on land given by Hugh O’Reilly. The church architect was William Scott, Dublin. The construction was done by the firm of James McAdorey, Dundalk, with the first sod being cut on 12th March 1909. (Burials in the new cemetery ground began in May 1909). Much effort and ongoing commitment was required in the parish to raise finances through organised events, collections and donations. The total cost was £5,500. To economise, Canon O’Doherty decided to omit the spire planned for the belfry-tower as this would have cost a further £500 then. In effect the total debt was cleared off shortly afterwards, but the spire had to wait for eighty years.The foundation stone was blessed on Sunday 9th October,1910. During the first Mass in the new church Canon O’Doherty thanked all who had contributed in various ways and made special mention of the support of ‘Protestant neighbours’. The first marriage in the Sacred Heart Church is recorded on the 23rd November 1910. The first baptism is recorded on 29th January 1911.
Sacred Heart Church Extension
In 1989 this major extension and renovation was undertaken to enlarge and enhance the existing building under the direction of Canon Gerard Timony PP assisted by Fr. Joe McVeigh CC. The architect was Rosslea born Tom Mullarkey, while local firm J. & I. Conway, Irvinestown, did the main construction. The stonework required to tie in with the original was carried out by cut-stone specialists from Co. Down. There were echoes of the parish commitment of eighty years earlier as people responded generously to the efforts of a hard-working fundraising committee. The total cost of the considerable demolition and rebuilding was £700,000. The project in the main involved extension of the rear of the church to accommodate seating behind a new altar, the construction of a two-storey wing to provide a new sacristy area and toilets with committee-room above, and finally the addition of the belfry spire which had been in Scott’s original plan. Bishop Joseph Duffy rededicated the church and the new altar on 3rd August 1990.
The Whitehill Crosses
During the rebuilding of St. Molaise Church, Whitehill South, around 1862-1864, two large metal crosses were commissioned to be placed on the gables. Before they could be erected however, they mysteriously disappeared from the site on the night after they were delivered. Replacements were subsequently put in place. Then many years later, a Catholic on board a ship sailing to Australia happened to overhear another passenger boast of how he and some accomplices had stolen the crosses and buried them at the Bullock Hole in nearby Dring Bog. The Catholic passenger managed to ascertain in what part of the country this deed had occurred, and on arrival in Australia he wrote directly to the parish priest in Whitehill relating what he had heard. However despite searches of the area, nothing was found at the time. Then in the summer of 1909, a man called McQuaid working in this part of the bog unearthed one of the crosses. The news of this spread quickly and soon a follow-up search by eager parishioners revealed the second cross. Both crosses were carried in triumph to St. Molaise Church, in front of which Canon O’Doherty had them erected in 1910 on two granite pedestals. These are inscribed to the memory of Fr. Patrick Traynor PP and Fr. John McLoughlin CC, the two priests of the parish at the time the crosses had been stolen.
Cemetery Improvement Programme
In the year 2000, work commenced on the scheme of improvements decided upon by the parish committee, beginning with the construction of a stone wall around the two sides facing East and South. The list of other improvements was effectively completed with the erection of the large Celtic 'Daimhinis' cross in 2002. Parishioners were invited to have personal historical involvement in the latter project, as special parchment was provided on which they recorded the names of their family deceased. These names were then buried in a capsule underneath the cross.
Various firms were involved in the different aspects of the work:
Architects - Keys and Monaghan.
Walls, Store & Gateways - Harold Graham Ltd.
Paths & Kerbing - James Balfour & Sons.
Landscaping - Hamilton Greenwood, Newtownstewart.
Electrics - Anthony Maguire.
Celtic 'Daimhinis' cross - Feelystone, Co. Roscommon.