St Joseph’s…an Irish fairy tale come true

St Joseph’s…an Irish fairy tale come true St Joseph’s Church, Urlaur.
The Notebook
Fr Vincent Sherlock


MARGARET CAFFERKEY, a young woman from the parish where I now work, went to America when she was 16 years of age. Hearing God’s call, she later entered an order of Enclosed Nuns in Newark, New Jersey. She took the name Sr Mary of The Blessed Trinity and when I think of her, I am reminded of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’: “Between my finger and thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.”

She may not have dug with her pen, but she fished with it! When she got word that a church was being built in her native parish of Kilmovee, she wrote a letter to the New York Times that resulted in two journalists travelling to interview her. They met a shy woman who firstly spoke to them about their own families, wondering if they had children and when one said he had three, she said: “I hope they will be priests!”

He told her two of them were girls and she laughed but didn’t give up – she encouraged the sisterhood!

They said this talk helped them all relax and then she spoke to them of home and of her priest wanting to help build a place where her people could worship. She spoke, too, of Urlaur Abbey and of how it had been plundered and destroyed by invaders hundreds of years earlier. Sr Mary, 55 years in the Convent, told her visitors that she had not received a visitor in the room in which she met them in more than 50 years. One of the reporters recalled it was 20 minutes later the reality of that statement hit home with them.

They thought of how easily they had called to make an appointment and how difficult it must have been for Sr Mary to walk into this room for the first time in 50 years. Both journalists agreed and reported back to their boss that there was “no way you could say no” to this woman.

Nat Goldstein, of the New York Times and of Jewish faith, later said the line that caught his attention was that the local priest wanted to build a little church “where the people can pray and worship”.

He said he firmly believed the world would be a better place if it had more places of worship. He wrote to friends, requesting $5 to help make “an Irish fairy tale come true” and to give to the people of Urlaur a church that was “600 years overdue”. He raised $10,000 – about half the cost of the church.

In May 1969, he attended the opening of the church together with his wife, Pat Reynolds (also of the New York Times), his wife and the Commissioner of NYPD and his wife. Sr Mary’s letter touched many hearts.


In recent weeks, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the opening of St Joseph’s Church, Urlaur, Co. Mayo. We recognised, I believe, where we were as a ‘place of worship’.

The day before the celebration, I spent a bit of time in the church – just to get a sense of it. I looked at bricks in the interior walls and wondered if the entire church is built of brick, but I don’t think it is. I wondered, what if it were.  Imagine pulling out a few of the bricks – maybe near the bottom, then a few rows up – gaps appearing, emptiness where there should be solid stone. Then the balance gets shifted and some of the bricks further up begin to lose their holding and slip. It is certain that if enough bricks were removed, the building would collapse.

The bricks lower down might represent our youth…they are strong and supporting what rests above and what has gone before but if removed, there’s a glaring gap and an unsteady building.

Urlaur Abbey was destroyed by invaders. Its treasures were plundered, and its voice was silenced. Today, the plundering is more subtle, and the invaders don’t necessarily come from other places. Some of them do no more than walk away. The suppression may well be less violent but there’s a strong desire to quieten the voice.

I’m convinced we must recognise that truth as we give thanks for this church and all it has stood for. We must ensure that all the bricks are in place, lending support to each other and that gaps are avoided so that the structure remains solid and the place of worship remains just that.

So, while these lines might come from a local story, I believe they are about every church in every parish.

As they say so often on London’s Underground: “Mind the gap…”


A thought and prayer for the many young boys and girls receiving First Holy Communion around this time. A mother once told me that her little boy returned to his seat, having received his First Holy Communion and after kneeling for a while, no doubt as his teacher told him he should, he sat up and whispered to his mother: “I’m not as full as I thought I’d be”.

That’s the way Jesus comes into our lives, to fill yes and to leave room – always – for more.  He is such a gentle and constant presence.