It was 1952 when the senior curate in Athy, Fr. John McLaughlin, addressed what the local newspapers described as “a well attended and representative meeting” of parishioners in the Christian Brothers School one Friday night. It was the first night of a campaign which would continue for over 20 years to give Athy a new Parish Church. Fr. McLaughlin or “Fr. Mac” as he was affectionately known came to Athy in the summer of 1948, a senior curate to the ailing Archdeacon McDonnell. It was not long before Fr. Mac gave proof of his rare business acumen and genius for organising. This was not surprising, given that his sibling was Thomas McLaughlin who as a young engineer left Ireland in December 1922 to work with the German firm of Siemens Sehuckert. Thomas McLaughlin recognised that electricity was the key to Ireland’s economic development and he it was who suggested and developed the Shannon Electrical Scheme which was completed in 1929.
Fr. Mac was a former I.R.A. man who fought in the Irish War of Independence and I have before me a press report of April 1950 which under the headline of “1,000 Veterans Parade Athy” described how Fr. McLaughlin addressed veterans drawn from eight midland counties who had arrived in Athy for the Easter Parade organised by the County Kildare Old I.R.A. Association. He welcomed them as men who had fought for Irish freedom, but claimed that they had failed miserably in not handing on to their children the splendid tradition of faith and fatherland for which they fought and which was passed on to them by their parents.
Two years later when addressing the public meeting in the Christian Brothers School Fr. McLaughlin indicated that £60,000.00 was required to build a new parish church. The foundations he claimed could be laid within two years and the church completed by the end of 1956. He spoke of the old Parish Church situated in Chapel Lane which was torched following the 1798 Rebellion and of the difficulties experienced by the local clergy in the years immediately thereafter in procuring alternative suitable premises in which to say Mass. Eventually a site was obtained from the Duke of Leinster in the area known as “the Slough of Athy” which was marshy ground forming part of what was once the commonage of Clonmullin. It was there the new Parish Church of St. Michael’s was built in 1808 and it was still in use when Fr. McLaughlin spoke at the meeting in the Christian Brothers School 144 years later.
As far back as 1908 consideration was given to replacing the early 19th century Parish Church and following a partial roof collapse in 1937 the issue became even more urgent. It was around then that Fr. McDonnell, later Archdeacon McDonnell, arrived as the new Parish Priest. In 1951 architects carried out a detailed examination of the church structure which confirmed that urgent remedial work was required which for substantial expenditure would only serve to postpone for a comparatively short time the issue of building a new church.
Fr. McLaughlin acted immediately. Consulting Engineers were engaged to make trial holes at a number of sites in the town to consider their suitability as a location for a new church. The Abbey at the rear of Emily Square, the site of the first Dominican Friary in the 13th century, was one of those locations, the others being the Old Mill site at Duke Street, a field at Greenhills, the Maltings in Stanhope Street and the grounds of the existing Parish Church.
In the meantime a weekly Parish Draw was inaugurated which attracted support from 2,700 parishioners and contributed almost £100 per week to the Church Building Fund. The planned Giving Campaign, which is still ongoing, was inaugurated a few years later and with a combination of many other fundraising events the funds required to build the Church were painstakingly accumulated over many years.
On 24th September, 1960 the Parish Church of St. Michael’s which had served the people of Athy for over 150 years was vacated for the last time. Immediately work began on demolishing the old structure to make room for the new Parish Church which by then was estimated to cost £150,000. Also demolished was St. Joseph’s School where generations of Athy boys had started their schooling under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy. The C.Y.M.S. rooms were next to be leveled to the ground, as were the adjoining buildings which had been used as part of St. Mary’s Secondary School. The first sod on the site of the new church was turned by Fr. Vincent Steen, Parish Priest, on 29th September 1960 and on 15th October the following year Archbishop John Charles McQuaid laid the foundation stone of the new St. Michael’s Church.
On Sunday, 19th April 1964 the new Parish Church of St. Michael’s was blessed and opened by the Archbishop of Dublin. The Parish Priest, Fr. Vincent Steen, celebrated the High Mass on the day of the opening, assisted by local man Fr. Paddy Finn and by Fr. Seamus Conway. The Parish Curates, Fr. Frank Mitchell and Fr. Joe Corbett assisted the Archbishop while the Master of Ceremonies for the day was their colleague Fr. Philip Dennehy who is now our Parish Priest.
Built at a cost of approximately £200,000 it had taken the main contractors, Messrs C. Creedon & Sons of Newmarket, Dublin, three and a half years to complete the new Church. The architects were Richard Guy and Patrick V. Moloney of Dublin. Approximately £90,000 had been collected within the parish for the Church Building Fund before the official opening, leaving the balance to be gathered over the following years.
Designed in the Lombardic Romanesque style the Church had a seating capacity for 1,100, which capacity was subsequently reduced following changes to the layout of the Church interior. The Church generally is constructed in brickwork, facing bricks being used as finishes to both the internal and external wall surfaces, with reconstructed stone dressings to window and door surrounds, eave bands and string courses.
In the new church the windows of the transept had been donated by Mrs. J. Owens, Nicholastown, the windows of the nave by the Men’s Sacred Heart Sodality and the baptistery windows by the Women’s Sacred Heart Sodality. The Tabernacle was donated by the employees of Bowaters Wallboard Mills, the sanctuary lamps by Athy C.I.E. station employees, the altar crucifix by the men employed on the building of the church and St. Joseph’s Shrine by a Mr. Byrne of Willesden, London. [Can anyone tell me what was Mr. Byrne’s connection with Athy] Incidentally Fr. McLaughlin, who 12 years previously organised the first meeting which would give us a new Parish Church, left Athy in November 1957 to become Parish Priest of Celbridge.
Architecturally the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, Athy has its detractors, the common complaint being its size which many feel lacks scale, while its style is not to everyone’s likening. Probably the fourth Catholic Parish Church in the town, St. Michael’s is the proud inheritor of a tradition extending back beyond the Penal Law decades and the pre-Reformation period when the first St. Michael’s Church served the medieval village of Ath Í.