Monday 9 May: Mullingar to Ballyconnell (via County Leitrim and Bailieborough, Co Cavan).
For the fourth year running, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams has climbed behind the wheel to travel around Ireland looking for stories of faith, life and reality... here's just a taste of what she has found...
For the final day of the Finding Faith Tour the focus was on often-overlooked rural Ireland. As the tour has never stopped in Leitrim before, I decided to take some extra time to "shadow" Rev. Linda Frost - the Rector of the South Leitrim group of parishes who is currently looking after 12 churches!
I meet Rev. Linda at the Hunt National School where the 40 pupils are preparing for the bi-centenary of their local church by learning its history. Whenever she is able, Rev. Linda visits the school to lead assemblies.
We call over to see Mohill Church with its beautiful stained glass windows - recently Rev. Linda introduced a family service which doubles the size of the congregation once a month! From Mohill we head on to Carrick-on-Shannon where St. George's church has been turned into a Heritage Centre. Beautifully refurbished by the Heritage Council, the church is manned as a museum throughout the week but is still home to a small congregation for Sunday services. The care and up-keep of buildings that have been classed as ancient monuments, is one of the challenges for many rural ministers, Rev. Linda explains.
At the nearby Bush Hotel, we meet hotel owner Rosie Dolan who is also the parish secretary. Rosie shares a fascinating family faith story: "My family has been in the area for over 300 years," she tells me. "In 1762, John Wesley (preacher and founder of Methodism) visited the farm belonging to my family and preached under a hawthorn tree. He signed the family Bible and this precious heirloom remained in the family until 1925 when it mysteriously disappeared."
Rosie treats us to a delicious meal of soup and sandwiches at the hotel while Rev. Linda shares her heart for the ministry in Leitrim, "My personal vision is to bring the light and love of Christ wherever I go. There are so many opportunities out in the community. People are looking for someone who will accept them and love them as they are. We may be small as a church, but small is important to God. One person showing the love of Christ can still have an effect."
Our final stop in Leitrim is at the local hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon where once a month, Rev. Linda leads a communion service. Sitting in the hospital chapel, it is a beautiful, simple service. One highlight is listening to this video from Rev. Liz McElhinney (former Rector of the Roscommon group of parishes) who was recently diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
It is quite a cross-country drive from Carrick-on-Shannon to Bailieborough in County Cavan and it takes me a good hour and a half or more before I reach the home of the Rev. Ian Horner, his wife Jennifer and their two adorable little boys.
Rev. Ian looks after four churches and he's excited at the potential for the future. "People write the countryside off and think, 'What can you do?' I firmly believe these churches could fill up. This used to be full once. I don’t see why that is not possible again."
The four congregations have begun to look to the future and consider what they what to be known for as churches. That has been an exciting process, Ian shares. People seem hungry to hear Bible stories. Recently, Ian was teaching a series on the Old Testament character of Jacob. He would end each sermon on a bit of a cliff hanger. "It was like Eastenders," he shares. "People were glued to the stories and desperate to find out what happens next."
That same hunger is evident across other churches. Once a month local Christians from a number of different church backgrounds gather in the home of an 80-year-old local lady to study the Bible. "She asked me to speak and I didn't know what to expect, but when I got there, there was a large room that was completely wedged with people. There were Catholics and Orangemen sitting side by side, people from all different churches and backgrounds. It is a house in the middle of nowhere and yet they meet once a month and there is a real sense of hunger for God's word."
We talk about how the walls of our churches can sometimes be a barrier, keeping people away from God. I notice that the family has chickens in the back garden and Jennifer shares this story, "We came home yesterday and one of the chickens had escaped. It was running around the fenced-off area, desperate to get back inside." People can have misconceptions about the concept of freedom, Jennifer explained. The fence was actually keeping the chicken from being where it wanted to be (in a place of safety where there was plenty of food and water).
I'm deeply grateful for a lovely home cooked meal with the Horner family before once again I tackle the winding Cavan roads to reach my B&B for the night. I then hit a snag... being out in the countryside means the slowest wifi you could imagine (think dial-up speed or worse - if you can remember that far back). After countless attempts, I finally accepted the fact that the blog would not be finished before bedtime.
On Tuesday morning, I headed straight for home through Fermanagh and Tyrone and then back across the border into beautiful County Donegal. It feels a little emotional to drive back into Buncrana after a week on the road. Time now to finish the blog and then have a bit of a rest!!