Some weeks ago I wrote of St. Michael's Parish Church on the Carlow Road and its near neighbour across the River Barrow St. Dominic's Church. I had intended to deal in time with all the local Churches, both existing and those now gone and give the readers an appreciation of the rich diversity of our religious heritage. Other matters and events since intervened so that it is only now that I have an opportunity to deal with the story of the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street.
The Methodist movement originally began as an evangelising movement within the Church of England in the 18th century. Three Ministers of the Church of England brought about the Methodist revival in the early years, John Wesley, his brother Charles and George Whitfield, although it is John Wesley who is usually regarded as the founder of Methodism.
The first Methodist preacher to come to Ireland was Thomas Williams in 1747. A Methodist Minister was first appointed to Athy in 1790. In the absence of their own separate Church the local Methodists were initially closely associated with the Church of Ireland in Athy for religious observances. It was the break up of the local Quaker community in the second decade of the 19th century which led to the Methodist taking a lease of the former Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane. Located on the site of the present Dispensary, the Meeting House had originally been built in 1780 with the active support of Duke Street linen draper Thomas Chandlee who had arrived in Athy from Dublin in 1775. Married to Deborah Shackleton, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballytore, and sister of Mary Leadbetter of Ballytore Annals fame, Thomas Chandlee’s presence in the town lead to a revival of the Quaker community which was not however to last.
In the 1827 map of Athy prepared by the Duke of Leinster by Clarges Greene the building in Meeting Lane was still described as a Quaker Meeting House. Ten years later the Ordinance Survey map of the town described the same building as "a small house of worship formerly belonging to the Quakers and now to the Methodists." Around that time Athy was part of the Carlow Methodist Circuit and was to remain so until 1970 when it was included in the Portlaoise and Tullamore Circuits.
The success which accompanied the missionary works of itinerant Methodist preachers throughout the midlands during the 19th century led to the growth of Methodism in Athy. The former Quaker Meeting House by 1860 was no longer large enough for the members attending Sunday services and Sunday school. In 1867 Alexander Duncan, then in his second term as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners and a resident of Tonlegee House, purchased a site for a new Church in Woodstock Street. The foundation stone was laid on the 12th of June, 1872 by his wife. Two years later on Friday the 12th of June, 1874 the new Church and Sunday School which cost £2,200 to construct was dedicated. The first Sunday service was held in the new Church two days later when Rev. G.T. Perks, President of the British Methodist Conference preached the sermon.
The Church is a stone building in the Gothic style with a tower. On either side of the Communion Table are two memorial tablets inserted in the east wall of the Church. One tablet commemorates Alexander Duncan who died on the 30th of September, 1887 while the other memorial is to his widow who died in 1907.
During the 1870's Sunday Service was attended by an average of 120 persons. Today the congregation has fallen dramatically in numbers and the once strong Methodist tradition in South Kildare, which developed after John Wesley's trip through the area in April 1789 is now on the wane.
For those in the Methodist Church following in the steps of John Wesley their continued separate existence in Athy is uncertain. Whatever the future may hold they can look back on an honourable past of men and women working in the service of God amongst the community in South Kildare.