ALL SAINTS’ CHURCH MULLINGAR ; 800 YEARS OF HISTORY. (5min read)
All Saints’ Church,Mullingar is one of the most historical places in Mullingar. The present church building is two centuries old but there has been a church on the site always known as All Saints’ for more than 800 years. All Saints’ can be described as being the very soul of Mullingar,with a history stretching back to the very beginnings of the town.
**THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH **
The story of All Saints’ begins with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans to this area in the 1180’s. The lands between Loughs Owel and Ennell were granted to William Petit by his cousin and feudal lord,,Hugh De Lacy. Petit built a castle on the site now occupied by the County Buildings along the banks of the River Brosna. The first chapel in Mullingar was in this castle,with a priest and curate saying Mass daily for the Petit family and their entourage.
As the town of Mullingar began to develop in the shadow of the castle, a church was built around 1202 just a little to the north-east of the castle. This church was the first All Saints’ building. The rector was Father Ralph Petit who was William Petit’s brother. Father Petit would later become Archdeacon of Meath. In 1227,he was appointed as Bishop of Meath-one of two rectors of All Saints’ to have have served as Bishop of Meath to date.
The Parish of Mullingar was created around 1205 and All Saints’ became the parish church. The parish had a curious relationship with an Augustinian Monastery in England called Llanthony,-near Gloucester under which the tithes raised in Mullingar parish went to Llanthony and the Prior of the monastery was the parish priest of Mullingar.
(There was a similar arrangement with the parish of Rathconnell). Llanthony had been founded by the De Lacy family and was close to the place of origin of the Petit family. Since the Prior did not live in Mullingar he appointed a rector to care for the parish. This arrangement continued until the Reformation.
All Saints’ also enjoyed a close relationship with the Augustinian Priory of St Mary,which was founded by Bishop Petit in 1227. The priory was located just to the north-east of All Saints along a site which stretched from the modern day town park across Austin Friars Street as far as Mill Rd.
The congregation of All Saints’ Church comprised the descendents of the immigrants who had settled on the Petit lands,having come to the area from Wales,England,France,Flanders and other places. The native Irish of the area would also have worshipped there.Day after day Mass was said in the Church in the Latin language which was then the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church.
REFORMATION AND CIVIL WARS : 1540- 1700.
The Protestant Reformation reached Ireland in 1536 when Henry V111 proclaimed himself to be Supreme Head under God of the Church in Ireland. The monasteries-including the Augustinian House in Mullingar,were dissolved and English began to replace Latin as the language of the Mass. In 1559,the Anglican Church was formally established in England,with the creation of the Church of England.
A sister Church-the Church of Ireland was set up in 1560. This was now the State religion and all existing church properties-including All Saints’ became Church of Ireland property. As the Liturgy changed the Roman Catholics withdrew to worship elsewhere and All Saints’ became what it remains -the Anglican Parish Church of Mullingar.
The brutal Civil Wars which swept Britain and Ireland from 1640 to 1653 left All Saints’ in ruins. Many parishioners including the Parish Clerk,were killed during this time.The church was rebuilt in the 1660’s when Ralph Adams of Rathconrath was Rector . The re-building work was financed by Sir James Leigh of Piercefield,High Sheriff of Westmeath,whose coat of arms may be seen over the entrance door.
THE 18TH CENTURY CHURCH 1700-1814
During the Williamite War of 1689-91,a double wall was erected around the churchyard to protect the place from possible attack by the Roman Catholic forces loyal to King James II. However,no attack on the town took place.
The 18th century saw the church re-built once more. The congregation seems to have grown during this time. Notices appeared in the newspapers listing Roman Catholics (“Papists” as they were referred to in the language of the time ),who had joined the Church of Ireland and received Communion in All Saints.
A fairly substantial number of local Catholics do appear to have joined the All Saints’ congregation over the years. In 1769,for example,it was reported that about thirty had received Communion at Easter and more were expected to join by Christmas. Those named as having “recanted ” Roman Catholicism included John Nugent,Thomas Downes,John Kennedy and John McCormick.
Among the rectors who served All Saints’ during the Georgian era was the splendidly named Rev Champagne,who was Rector for an incredible 46 years,from 1743 to 1800. He was of French Huguenot origin and was an ancestor of Winston Churchill.
In April 1814,work commenced on the building of the present All Saints Church. An organisation called the Board of First Fruits granted the Select Vestry (the people responsible for running the parish) a loan of £1200 to carry out the work. Money was also provided through a levy on the parish and by a gift of £200 from Kings’ Hospital school. The work was completed after four years ,and a wall to enclose the churchyard was built in 1815.
In 1828,a spire was added . This spire was rebuilt in the 1890’s.
**** THE VICTORIAN CHURCH ****
During the early 1820s,the congregation of All Saints’ included the famous Co Tyrone born novelist,William Carleton. Carleton came to Mullingar to work as a teacher and his pupils included the sons and daughters of many of the local Church of Ireland parishioners. Although he did not have a particularly happy time in Mullingar (he was imprisoned for debt for a short time),he loved All Saints Church.
Prominent members of the congregation in the early Victorian era included Doctors Robert Barlow of Annebrook House and the Governor of Mullingar Jail,Mr Fielding. The Select Vestry of the Parish raised large sums of money for poor relief and the many medical men who served on the Vestry risked their own lives to care for the victims of the cholera pandemic of 1832,which killed hundreds in the town.
Rev Francis Hopkins,who was Rector from 1856 to 1864 carried out more building work on the church including the erection of galleries and new windows. After his death,Rev Hopkins was commemorated by the beautiful “Hopkins Window” in the chancel behind the communion table.
By the 1860s,the congregation numbered around 400 and included prominent local citizens such as Edward Gordon,postmaster of Mullingar; Jane Siggins,proprietor and Editor of the Westmeath Guardian newspaper and John Charles Lyons,Chief Magistrate of Mullingar, author, historian and world authority on orchids,whose printing press is on display now in the County Library. The Lyons family pew,installed behind the pulpit ,is known as “The Lyons Den”.
Rev Charles Parsons Reichel,who served as Rector from 1864 to 1875 was one of the most prominent Anglican clergymen of his time. He played a major role in the re-organising of the Church of Ireland to meet the challenges which it faced following disestablishment in 1871 (when the Church of Ireland ceased to be the State Church).He was a brilliant preacher and a distinguished academic. In 1885 he became Bishop of Meath.
While in Mullingar,Dr Reichel raised funds for a new bell for All Saints’. The bell was cast by the firm of J Murphy of Dublin and was described as being,” one of the largest bells of its type in Ireland,it is 15ft in circumference and five feet tall.” It weighed two and a half tons. It peeled out for the first time in October 1870.
In 1878,All Saints’ was visited by the parents and grandparents of Winston Churchill. Winston’s GRANDFATHER, the Duke of Marlborough,was Viceroy of Ireland and Lord Randolph Churchill,Winston’s father,was the Viceroy’s Secretary. For some weeks the Viceregal Court relocated from Dublin to Knockdrin Castle and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough worshipped in All Saints’ on a couple of occasions,accompanied by Lord Randolph and Lady Sarah Churchill.
As mentioned,one of the 18th century rectors,Rev Champagne was actually an ancestor of Winston.Interestingly,Winston Churchill’s wife,Clementine,was a descendent of William Petit-brother of the first Rector of All Saints.
Rev Francis Swift of Keoltown succeeded Reichel. He was very popular and is commemorated with a beautiful window in the South transcept depicting the Ascension which is known as the “Swift window. ” During his time in Mullingar ,a new organ was installed,which is one of the glories of All Saints.’ It is a two manual pedal instrument with 776 pipes ,ranging from 8 feet to a half inch.
* * ALL SAINTS SINCE 1900 * *
Rev Robert Seymour served as Rector of All Saints’ for an incredible 32 years,from 1893 to 1925. He guided the congregation through the dramatic events of the early 20th century-the First World War,the 1916 Rising and War of Independence and the Civil War and Irish independence. Many parishioners served in the First World War and,in 1915,the then Bishop of Meath,visiting the town, described Mullingar as “the most interesting parish in the diocese.”.
Another very long serving rector of All Saints’ was Rev George Berry who arrived from Cork in 1926 and remained till 1958. In 1932 electic light was installed in the church and in the Parochial Hall next door. All Saints was among the first buildings in the town centre to switch from gas to electric lighting.
During the Second World War the Parochial Hall was used by the LDF and LSF for training use. Special Services were held in All Saints’ to honour the Defence Forces during what was known as “Step Together Week”. Church of Ireland members of the Forces attended the Services in uniform and Rev Berry blessed flags and pennants. A number of parishioners served in the British and other Allied Forces during the war.
The decline of the Church of Ireland population in the 20th century led to the amalgamation of parishes and closure of many rural churches. Mullingar Parish grew and expanded as parishes such as Moylisker, Portnashangan
,Rathconnell and Enniscoffey were united with Mullingar.
By the start of the new Millennium ,All Saints Church was part of the largest parish in the Diocese of Meath. Stained glass windows from several closed churches such as Ballymore and Mount Temple are now in All Saints’ . Among these windows is a Sarah Purser work from Moylisker. Also from Moylisker is a window commemorating Lt Cooper from Dunboden House,who was killed while rescuing slaves off the coast of Tanzania in the 1870s.
In 1958,Canon Ian McDougall came to Mullingar from Moate. He carried out major refurbishments on the church in the early 1960s. The Select Vestry members at the time included Colonel Charles Howard-Bury of Belvedere House ,who had led the first reconnaissance of Mount Everest in 1921.
In 1964,All Saints’ National School moved from Harbour Street where it had been located since the 1820s to a new site just behind All Saints’ school. Generations of pupils from the school have been baptised and confirmed in the church and many have also been involved in the Boys Brigade/Girls Association. The Banner of the Brigade is now in the chancel of the Church.
The 1960’s and 1970s saw an enormous improvement in relations between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Ireland following the Vatican Two reforms. This was reflected in All Saints’ when,in October 1972,the Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath ,Dr John McCormack,preached at a special Ecumenical Harvest Festival Service in All Saints’ .
The Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath ,Dr Robert Bonsal Pike also took part in that historic service. Rev McDougall was a strong ecumenist who worked well with Father Joseph Dermody during the years when Father Jo was Administrator in the cathedral. The choirs of All Saints and the Cathedral sang together in cathedral and church and Ivan Bourke,organist of All Saints’ played the organ in the cathedral when the cathedral organist,Mrs Dore was on holiday.
Canon McDougall (who was the grandfather of actress Niamh Alger),retired in 1984 and was succeeded by Rev Fred Gilmor. During the decade he spent in Mullingar,the parish expanded further following amalgamations with Killucan and Kilbixy parishes.
The parish celebrated the 175th anniversary of the present church building in 1989 and major restoration work was carried out on the organ. All Saints’ Choir also sang in the cathedral at the Mass celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the cathedral in September 1989.
A particularly historic occasion in the long history of All Saints’ Church and Mullingar Parish took place on Advent Sunday, December 1st,1991. On that day Rev Sheila Zietsmann was ordained to the Priesthood in All Saints’.
She was one of the first female priests in the Diocese of Meath. The atmosphere in the packed church on the day was described as being “warm,joyful and enthusiastic.”. Rev Zietsmann worked as a chaplain at Wilsons’ Hospital School for five years before moving to Glendalough Parish in 1996.
The late 1990s saw further refurbishment in All Saints’ Church. A new gallery was put into the church and the western end of the nave turned into a new church hall,with modern seating replacing the older pews in the nave and transepts. The Parochial Hall was sold to the Greville Arms hotel. Rev Pat Carmody was now the Rector and he presided over the major celebrations which took place in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the first All Saints’ Church.
In June 2009,Rev Alastair Graham became Rector of Mullingar Union of Parishes. Special celebrations took place in 2012 to mark the bicentenary of the Rectory,which was built in 1812 just behind the church and school buildings . In 2013,the Fiftieth Anniversary of the relocation of the school to its present site was also marked.
In January 2014,All Saints Church was visited for the first time by the newly consecrated Bishop of Meath and Kildare,Most Reverend Pat Storey,who had made history in September 2013 when she was elected as the first female Anglican Bishop in Ireland and Britain. On September 22nd 2014,history was again made in All Saints’ when Bishop Storey ordained Ruth O Kelly as a Deacon. This was the first ordination by a woman bishop in the Church of Ireland.
Over the last decade All Saints’ has hosted concerts featuring noted Westmeath musicians and singers such as Ailish Tynan,Helen Hassett,Cian Brennan Gavin ,Mullingar Town Band the Lynn Singers and the Midland Youth Orchestra,as well as visiting musicians from across Ireland,Europe and the United States.
The Senior Choir of All Saints’ have sung in both Christ Church and St Patricks’ cathedrals in Dublin and on RTE television.They are the only four part choir in the Diocese of Meath. The church has also hosted noted guest speakers including Father Peter McVerry,Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski (a former parishioner) and former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland,Seamus Mallon.
For over eight centuries now,All Saints has been a place of worship week after week. It is one of the most significant buildings in Mullingar and an immensely important part of our spiritual and cultural heritage. It will surely continue to be a part of the life of Mullingar for as long as Mullingar exists.
RUTH ILLINGWORTH Historian ©