Before St Margaret's
It is one of history's ironies that Mid-Argyll, once the hub of the kingdom of Dalriada, heartland of Celtic Christianity, should in the 20th century have had no Catholic Church.
It was at Dunadd that Columba crowned Aidan as the first Christian monarch not just in Scotland but in the whole of the British Isles. The sixth century was a spiritually rich one for this part of the world, blessed as it was with the arrival of St Columba from Ireland.
As he took his mission the length and breadth of Argyll, settling eventually on Iona where he could no longer see the homeland which tugged at his heart strings, Christian communities grew. Many of our place names today reflect those Christian roots. Kilmory, Kilmichael, Kilmartin, Kilberry... the list is endless and each one reminds us that a chapel (kil means cell or chapel) was built there and that our ancestors worshipped Christ according to Celtic tradition.
In time, it was to Rome that the whole church looked for leadership. But there were abuses of power and often it was the poorest people who suffered most - the poor runrig farmers, for instance, whose widows had to give colpach (their best cow) to the priest to have a Mass said for the dead.
In time, the Reformation came to Scotland and in Argyll, different clan leaders demanded loyalty of their followers in secular, military and religious matters. The MacDonalds remained Catholic; the Earls of Argyll - particularly during the dreadful times of the civil wars - were perhaps guided more by politics than by faith when it came to pledging allegiance alternately to the Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopal factions.
The Seventh Earl, who succeeded to the title in 1584, who was granted lands in Kintyre in 1607 for supplanting the MacDonalds and creating a Presbyterian Lowlanders settlement there, converted to Catholicism later in life and served the King of Spain. The Eighth Earl of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, was known as both the Covenanting Earl and Cross Eyed Archibald and he, too, changed sides (and religious adherence) several times.
Many of the people of Argyll remained steadfast in their Catholic faith, however, despite the politicking infidelities of their chiefs.
They were helped by missionaries like Patrick Hegarty, who came to Kintyre from Ireland on the 15th of July, 1624, to bring spiritual help to the people of Argyll. With his companions, he landed on the island of Sanda where he preached, baptised four children and confessed 40, including fishermen from Kintyre.
The missionaries separated and for the next two months, Hegarty hid in caves and preached at night, sometimes saying two Masses ten miles apart before daybreak.
He crossed to Arran, where there had been no priest since before the Reformation the previous century, and then spent time in Gigha, Islay, Colonsay and parts of mainland Argyll.
Patrick crossed back and forth to Ireland to escape persecution and to raise funds for his mission. By the time he died in 1647, having spent some time in prison as well as many sleepless nights in the hills of Argyll, he had reached out to thousands who wished to stay within the Catholic faith.
After all the horrors of the civil wars, the Duke of Argyll helped to put William of Orange on the throne and although there was political peace, there was little spiritual peace for the Catholics of Argyll.
The 20th Century
By the early 20th century, there were just four families openly professing the Catholic faith in Lochgilphead - three Italian and one of Irish origin.
There was no church, and Peter Ciarella, a schoolboy in the 1920s, recalls Mass being celebrated in the building which today is the opticians in Union Street.
"The Church had bought the house," Peter says, "and we used a room there. The children used to go there for catechism every day before school and Fr Collins, who stayed in the Royal Hotel - what's now the Grey Gull - in Ardrishaig, used to come to Lochgilphead in a pony and trap."
At school, other children started the day with their own religious instruction and Peter says: "We went into school after that."
In 1927, the nearest church was Oban - and the road was even more difficult then than it is today. But as Peter says, only the Ciarellas, the Capoccis, the Cascis, the O'Neills and a couple of other families were practising Catholics.
He says: "In Tarbert there were McGlynns from Donegal, but because of the conditions at that time, nobody dared to say they were Catholic or they would have been thrown in the harbour."
Then the Marquis of Bute donated money to buy ground in Lochgilphead for a Catholic church. The Marquis, grandfather of the present Marquis, had built other churches and this latest one was consecrated in September 1929.
Peter Ciarella says: "The young Marquis - the present Marquis's father - used to come to Mass at Lochgilphead when he went sailing through the Crinan Canal."
The first priest was a Monsignor Comon who bought a house opposite the church. When the houses were built in Lorne Street, he moved into No 1.
For a while after the Monsignor died, there was no priest in Lochgilphead, but Canon Butler came across from Bute on the midday boat many Saturdays to say Mass and went back to Rothesay on the Monday. After his death, the 'singing priest' Sydney McEwan swept into Lochgilphead and spent 17 years in the parish.
His was a unique ministry. Already famous as a recording star, Peter believes he was sent to Argyll to raise funds to finish Oban Cathedral, which was then at a standstill because of cash flow problems. Certainly, he spent a lot of time on tour in Australia and America, and because he wouldn't fly, these journeys were made by boat and often took as long as six weeks to reach his destination.
Fr Sydney made changes in the 1950s, building the parish house next to St Margaret's, which had been named for the Marquis of Bute's wife.
The original church building which went up at the end of the 1920s was erected by Lochgilphead contractors called Carmichael. There were oil lamps in the church and a coal burner for the central heating. The boiler had to be built below the level of the building because there were no pumps in those pre-electric days.
It wasn't until 1936 that Lochgilphead was electrified. Peter was the first apprentice employed by the Campbeltown and Mid-Argyll Electricity Company and was there to help electrify St Margaret's. That electrification was paid for by the Greene family of Greene's Playhouse in Glasgow, who used to come to Lochgilphead on holiday.
A plaque which read "Pray for the Greene family" disappeared long ago. We could, of course, pray for our benefactors without the plaque!
The building in its early years was very basic. There were chairs rather than pews and the walls had a cement finish which wept in damp weather (and it is often damp in Argyll!).
When a company called Hall of Aberdeen came to the area to build houses for the Forestry Commission, the manager, Henry Moir, took a look at the cement rendering and came up with a solution - he strapped the walls, gyp rocked and plastered them. Peter says: "He wasn't a Catholic. He did that out of friendship."
Peter adds: "By this time the congregation was growing. In summer a lot of visitors came because Sydney was there but social attitudes were changing too."
The original plain glass windows in metal frames were eventually replaced by stained glass windows donated by local families. Other donors included Irish workers, the local nurse, Fr Sydney McEwan and two of the Argyll and the Isles bishops.
The windows at the altar were given by the Ciarella, Capocci and Casci families. They could only, of course, be installed because the altar was brought forward and the wall behind it was exposed - during Fr Sydney McEwan's time in pre Vatican II days there had been a red velvet curtain draping that wall.
A wooden floor had been laid straight onto the concrete floor and in time that warped. It was replaced with a terrazzo floor when the new altar was installed. The chairs were replaced by pews during Fr Sydney McEwan's days. Improvements were paid for by the then central diocesan fund, which presumably means St Margaret's as well as the cathedral benefited from Sydney's singing tours!
Going Softly Forward
After his 17 year ministry, Fr McEwan went to Rothesay, leaving behind a garden which he and Peter Ciarella had fertilised, mowed and deadheaded within an inch of its life. Fr John McCormack (no - not the Irish tenor. We were not twice blessed with such talent!) who took his place didn't have the gardening bug and according to Peter the garden has never seen the same glory days again.
Parish priests have included the very different personalities of Fathers McIntyre, McShane, Kennedy, Murphy, Fraser and Campbell, and in 2003 came Fr Michael Hutson.
Fr William Maclean: 2006 - 2011
St Margaret’s was Fr William Maclean’s first parish and he was immediately thrown in at the deep end with the arrival of the Mthunzi Culture Group, an exchange visit organised by the Mthunzi and Lilanda Initiative (M.A.L.I.).
However, he not only opened his heart to the young Zambians - he opened his home, too, and hosted the group’s leaders and continued to be supportive of the Mid Argyll charity throughout his stay in the parish.
Fr William also supported the work of Jumbulance, MOMA and SCIAF.
During his time in Lochgilphead, he taught Spanish at Argyll College, trained as a CAB counsellor, and was part of the chaplaincy at Lochgilphead joint campus.
He lent a helping hand at coffee mornings, the sale of work and the summer fayre, where he was even willing to take his turn in the stocks in the name of fund raising.
Fr William encouraged and supported parents and children’s liturgy leaders, and developed a great rapport with St Margaret’s little ones. Understanding shyness, he patiently helped new altar servers learn their role.
The re-decoration of the church took place during Fr William’s tenure, and he oversaw the renovation of the sacristy.
The Catholic community in Inveraray was very important to Fr William. We do not have our own building in Inveraray and when the Episcopal Church that is our home there fell into disrepair, he was happy to accept the kind offer of the Church of Scotland minister to share the historic parish church in the centre of the town, forging a strong ecumenical friendship that will not be forgotten even though we are now back in the Episcopal Church and Fr William has moved on.
A keen cyclist, enthusiastic footballer and cat lover, Fr William and his Norwegian Forest cat Freya became well known in the wider community.
Fr William’s moved to Skye in 2011 and Fr David Connor, who was ordained in June 2011, was welcomed to St Margaret’s.
The rest, as they say, is history: a much kinder history than that of the 16th and 17th centuries and even than that of the early 20th century when Catholics still felt the after shock of oppression.