OPINION: St Eugene's Cathedral 150 years on: A building where everyone belongs

“The spire of St Eugene’s seems to vanish, in the distance o’er the city seems so high. My childhood dreams they never seem to vanish when I wondered if they reached up to the sky”, are the words of ‘My Home Town on the Foyle’ written by Johnny McCauley, who though born in Fahan in 1925 lived as a child and young man in Rosemount before emigrating to London.

For the thousands and thousands of people leaving from this city all those years ago, many never to return again, the spire of St Eugene’s was to be the last actual sighting of their home town. We can only imagine their mixed emotions of leaving family and friends and their desire for a new life on a different continent far away.

For many of those who remained in this city St Eugene’s was their spiritual home. The place of Prayer, Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Marriages and the place where loved ones were brought for funeral Masses.

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For most of us living in the 21st century it is hard to visualise what this city must have been like 150 years ago. Housing conditions were grim, with multiple families living in the same building. Apart from the shirt factories and the docks, employment was in short supply for men.

St Eugene's Cathedral and Fr Michael Canny.St Eugene's Cathedral and Fr Michael Canny.
St Eugene's Cathedral and Fr Michael Canny.

Despite the challenging economic conditions and the widespread discrimination that has been well documented in the pages of history the Catholic people were a proud people, a people of faith and hope and for the Catholic people giving praise and thanks to God was central.

“Always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise,” is at the heart of the Catholic Eucharist (Mass). It is easy to gather and give praise to God on happy and joyful occasions but people also gathered on difficult and challenging occasions. On the morning of the outbreak of World War 1, and at noon on the declaration of World War II, Mass was celebrated. Likewise on the evening of the Bloody Sunday murders Mass was celebrated and parishioners gathered in St Eugene’s Cathedral to give praise and thanks to God.

“Built on the pennies of the poor, the sixpences of the not quite so poor and the shillings of those who were much better off,” as well as money from Derry emigrants in America, the proud faith parishioners of St Eugene’s had their first Mass celebrated on May 4, 1873. Every day apart from a short period in the late 1980s, when the Cathedral was closed for renovation, Mass has been celebrated. People have gathered and given praise and thanks to God.

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The simple, yet beautiful building made only of wood, stone and glass has played an important part in the spiritual life of hundreds of thousands of people. A building where everyone belongs and nobody is excluded or beyond hope has seen many happy and sad occasions as well as offering the opportunity for the passer-by to drop in for a quiet prayer and a few moments of reflection.

St Eugene's Cathedral, Fahan Street and the Bogside.St Eugene's Cathedral, Fahan Street and the Bogside.
St Eugene's Cathedral, Fahan Street and the Bogside.

In a world where many people live vacuous lives the Cathedral is a reminder of values that have endured and of the fidelity of so many people over 150 years. The people who built the cathedral, all those 150 years ago, did not build in vain because the Lord built with them and that same Lord is with us today. God never promises perfection but only painful growth.

May the faith community at St Eugene’s be a community of trust and friendship, of love and openness. May they bring to their neighbour a faith tried by years of conflict, a love seasoned by the salt of pain and an undying hope for the future.

Just as the childhood thoughts wondered if the spire reaches to the sky, the “praise and thanks” of the people of St Eugene’s and all who visit will continue to rise far beyond the sky.

Fr Michael Canny.Fr Michael Canny.
Fr Michael Canny.
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