– Seán Beattie
Built in the Romanesque style of Wicklow granite, the Church dominates the landscape of the plain of Maghtochair, an ancient sub-kingdom of the peninsula of Inishowen. Some 1,500 years ago, St Patrick founded a monastery here which became part of the town name. Evidence of Christian worship has been continuous since then, with the Donagh Cross, the Marigold Stone, Mass Rock and the pillar stones standing as emblems of the faith.
It was against this background that Bishop Neil Farren and a Killygordon-born priest, Fr. James Bonner, accepted a tender of £60,866 for the construction of a church on Barrack Hill. The architect was Ralph Henry Byrne and Murphy Bros of Dublin were the main contractors. In a time of hardship and deprivation during World War 11, Bishop Farren blessed the foundation stone on 12 July 1942. The original pestle which he used can be seen in the little museum in the church. It was the culmination of two decades of intense fund-raising which came to fruition in the 1930s when Fr. Daniel Reid as parish priest came into possession of the site which was donated by a parishioner. He died in 1940 aged 62 and so did not live long enough to see construction begin. In many respects, he had done the ground work for Fr. Bonner, who saw the project to completion. Fr. Reid was not forgotten and an elaborate memorial from the parish was presented to him before he died. It can be seen in the museum. Fr. Bonner had great ambitions during his thirty-three years as parish priest. He deserves some credit for overcoming the initial opposition of Bishop Farren, who questioned the cost of the project at a time when Europe was engulfed in war and the Irish economy was in the doldrums.
Fr. Bonner was not a man for half measures. He commissioned one of the most celebrated sculptors of the post-Celtic Revival period, Albert Power, to sculpt 4 larger-than-life figures which are dominant on the dome. They were transported to the town by train. Visitors to the church may observe that the statue of Colmcille – whose 1,500th anniversary we celebrate in 2021 – was positioned so that his gaze was directed towards Iona.
Fr Bonner had not to look far for the Stations of the Cross. They had been sourced some years earlier in Italy by Fr. Philip O’Doherty, a noted historian, who built the Colgan Hall.
Every family in the parish contributed to the construction of the church but some have gone an extra mile. James and Mary Lanigan were devout parishioners and owned a shop in the Diamond. According to local folklore, they had a collection of gold sovereigns which were donated for the gold tabernacle on a side alter. Today, a plaque stands in the Diamond which commemorates the generosity of Susan Lanigan, the last surviving member of the family, who, in 1962, bequeathed her business premises and home to the church to provide a walk between the Diamond and the Church. Likewise, Margaret Teresa Doherty donated a building which was demolished to provide access known as the Painter’s Way.
A portrait of the Franciscan priest, John Colgan, was executed by the well-known Derry iconographer, Sr Aloysius.
The baptismal font was gifted by the Simpson family. A statue of Padro Pio was recently added to the statuary in memory of a local business man, Oliver Simpson, who died in 2016.
Vera Butler, organist for over 50 years, was awarded the Bene Merenti Medal as a papal reward for her outstanding services to sacred music and as choir leader.
There are several artefacts to be seen which adorn the interior: an original oil lamp from the old church donated by Noel White, carved plaques from Renaissance churches which were presented by donors, the altar tapestries, the antique, coloured hand-made Norman glass slabs which adorn the lancet clerestory, a number of restored classical paintings with Biblical themes, (see above, The Ascension) and statues from the Convent of Mercy. The acrylic panels surrounding the statue of Saint Anthony were painted by a Derry artist, Mary Kelly. The stained class windows were manufactured in the stained glass studios of A W Lyons, Westland Row, Dublin. There is a striking brass candelabra with twelve lights over the altar, which is carved from Portland stone.
The church was re-dedicated by Bishop Seamus Hegarty on 2 August 1998. The interior was redecorated and a mechanical heating system was installed. The existing tiles were retained but a hardwood timber floor was laid in the seating area. Overall, parishioners were impressed with the refurbishment which has contributed to an improvement in the prayerful atmosphere of the interior.
The church museum features lists of all the clergy who have served the parish of Donagh over the years. Chalices, record books and photographs can also be seen.
The year 2020 is a key date in the history of the church – it has served the community well for over 75 years and remains an important landmark in the community of Donagh.
2020, Culdaff. SB