Eight years ago, the Church of St Michael and All Angels Waterville would have been, by any sensible measure, a candidate for closure. A well-meaning but misguided renovation in the 1960s left faded pink-washed walls, a dry-lined ceiling, a vestry with a rotting chipboard floor and heating provided by calor gas cylinders in the main aisle. It was not unusual for ministers at the monthly service to find themselves the sole members of the congregation; in the summer months seasonal visitors boosted numbers by a few every now and then.
In contrast, on Sunday August 29th 2018, a congregation upwards of 80 people enjoyed an ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the work, mostly done by local volunteer craftsmen, which has transformed the building into a house worthy of the God whom we worship within it. Local clergy Revd Brian Rogers and Revd. Michael Cavanagh were joined by Fr. Gerard Finucane, P.P. of St Finians Waterville; sisters Maddy and Maeve sang a close-harmony setting of the 23rd Psalm, and after the service the home-made cakes and biscuits added to the sense of celebration.
The renewal of St Michael’s has not happened overnight – rather the Vestry and local community have worked together to implement a pragmatic strategy which enables the building to become a resource not just for the Church, but the wider community.
This co-operation has been key to what we now enjoy. Starting with the relationships created by the offer of use of the building for the annual Charlie Chaplin film festival, and building a shared desire to see St Michael’s as a part of the Waterville Heritage, a leasing agreement has now been agreed between the RCB and the IRD (Integrated Resource Development Waterville) initiative, strongly supported by the South Kerry Development Partnership, allowing the building to attract external grant funding.
In conjunction with generous financial support from legacies and local people, this has enabled a complete renovation. Restored stained glass windows are mounted on hinged brackets to allow natural daylight if required (and if the sun shines!). The fibreboard lining has been removed revealing a beautiful oak-beamed roof. A new floor in the vestry and at the rear of the chancel complements the original tiling. Complete redecoration, including new doors, restoration and revarnishing of the pews, inspired a local resident to donate a set of very comfortable pew cushions; a new heating system ensures that the congregation don’t have to shiver through winter sermons; striking contemporary lighting and a state-of-the art sound system support the worship environment.
In all of this, St Michael’s continues as a place of worship, but also provides opportunities for the establishment of a Local Heritage Centre, and a venue for a wide range of cultural activity. The lease model points the way to making sure that ‘seasonal’ churches, with a small resident population but nonetheless a very real ministry to visitors, can be supported with grant funding. to proclaim the Gospel in surroundings that are worthy of Him.