The Methodist revival ushered in a period of critical examination within the Church of England which many will claim culminated in the Oxford Movement of the 1830’s. During that period several small sects were formed such as the Walkerites, the followers of Rev John Walker of Dublin, the Kellyites, followers of Rev. Thomas Kelly of Athy and the Plymouth Brethren’ founded by a former Church of England Curate John Nelson Darby.
The Kellyites initially operated within the Church of England in much the same way as did the early Methodist Group and like them eventually broke away from the State Church to formalise their own structure. Rev. Thomas Kelly who often preached in the local Church then in Emily Square was an acquaintance of John Nelson Darby and at one time both discussed the possibility of coming together to form an evangelical movement. Darby subsequently left Dublin for Plymouth in England where his Sunday Prayer Group in time evolved into the Plymouth Brethren.
The Church of England Rector during part of Rev. Thomas Kelly’s leadership of the local Kellyites was Rev. Frederick Trench, son of the Dean of Kildare. He was married to Helena, daughter of Lord Arden and her brother John Perceval was an associate of John Henry Newman, John Keble and Edward Pusey of the Oxford Movement which sought to restore High Church Principles within the Church of England. Newman was later to become the first Cardinal of the English Catholic Church after his conversion to Catholicism in 1841, while Keble a poet and a divine was regarded as a brilliant intellect who shunned preferment and instead spent his latter years as a Rector in a country Parish in England.
The Oxford Movement was the Anglo Catholic wing of the Church of England which claimed historical connection with the Catholic Church and sought to revive ceremonial practices in the Church. Keble was a friend of the Trenches and spent a vacation with them in Kilmoroney House during which he officiated in the present St. Michael’s Church at the wedding of one of the Trench’s daughters. Frederick Trench supported the High Church movement and for a while sought to observe the Saints Days and Holy Days by holding services in St. Michael’s Church. This did not find favour with some of his parishioners and Michael Carey, a member of the local Church of England congregation in Athy noted in his diary for February 1851 :-
“The Reverend Trench has taken down all the emblems from his Popish windows and made an apology to his congregation. The Duke and the Bishop condemned them at once. He stated to the congregation that he had not the slightest notion of Puseyism or Popery. My publicly denouncing the pictures and windows before the congregation on that Sunday set them all going”.
Clearly religious diversity was not confined to the different strands of Christian Churches to be found in the town of Athy. Despite Trench’s difficulties with some of his congregation regarding what was viewed as his over zealous adherence to High Church practices, he nevertheless was highly regarded within the Athy Community. His death in November 1860 following an accident at Preston’s Gate at the bottom of Offaly Street was a great loss to his congregation and to the town in general. The following year a beautiful pulpit was erected in St. Michael’s Church in memory of Reverend Trench who had served as Curate and as Rector of the Parish of St. Michael’s for almost 40 years. As an interesting aside on the Trench Family connections, I should mention that Reverend Trench’s wife Helena was a niece of Spencer Perceval the British Prime Minister who was assassinated in the House of Commons on 11th May 1812.
The alignment of St. Michael’s Church is somewhat unusual in so far as the Chancel or Sanctuary is on the West side when traditionally it is to be found on the East of a Church. Presumably, the difficulty of getting access from the Carlow Road around the back of the Church fixed the location of the Sanctuary on the West side. In last week’s article I mentioned that local builder George Cross completed the Church Steeple almost sixteen years after the Church itself had been dedicated. Quite obviously the Architect, Frederick Darley had planned the Church and its steeple so as to give the very handsome grand avenue effect as one approaches St. Michael’s from Church Road. Internally the Church is of a very simple design and as usual in Church of Ireland Church’s in Ireland, due and proper recognition is given in a number of wall plaques to some of the dead of World War I. The four Hannon’s killed in that war are remembered as is another local man who has the unique distinction of being the first officer killed in the Boer War, Captain George Weldon of Kilmoroney.
The remaining four Churches in the town are Catholic Churches. The Church attached to the Convent of Mercy and that attached to St. Vincent’s Hospital are part of the story of Catholic Church building in the town which commenced with the foundation of the Monastery of the Crouched Friars in the first half of the 13th Century. The one link we have with the Medieval village of Athy is the Dominican Order whose ultra modern Church opened in 1965 provides a welcome contrast to the traditional style adopted in the Parish Church built a year previously. These two Churches serve the needs of the Catholic Parishioners of St. Michael’s even though the Dominican Church is not part of the Parish infrastructure. Its passive role in the Parish is one which has evolved over the years and is one which meets the needs of Church goers who align themselves with the Dominican rather than with the Parish Church. This does not of course, indicate any division within the ranks of Catholicism in the town but rather a long standing practise founded on the dividing effect of the River Barrow. It was that same river which saw the town develop on opposite river banks in different ways and at contrasting paces over the centuries.
The Religious Diversity reflected in the different Churches to be found in Athy provides an appropriate back drop for the social diversity of the local community. The once rural town is becoming more and more cosmopolitan as each week goes by, and the expected influx from the overgrown metropolis of Dublin will in time give new life to the local churches which are now somewhat in decline.