Category Archives: Features


1987 Mass Broadcast from St Comgalls

Back in 1987 Mass from St Comgalls Antrim was broadcast on television. The Mass was celebrated by Father Eamon McAnernay pp and concelebrated by Fr Stephen McBrearty cc, Father Paul Fleming assisting.

Altar Servers were: Tony McGlennon, Gareth McHugh, Aidan O’Hagan and Gerry Allen.

Jim Gallagher was the Eucharistic minister on the day, the choir was conducted by Frances Robinson and the organist was Hillary Cush who recently retired after 43 years teaching in St Comgall’s Primary School.


Mass Rock



  Did you go then to the grey rocks,

And behind a wind-swept crevice there,

Did you find Our Mary gently waiting,

Our Lady, sweet and fair?

Did the sun shine gently round her,

Making gold darts through her hair?

And will you stay silent as the day

When the wind has left the air?

– “Were You At the Rock?”

(Traditional Gaelic hymn)

Nevertheless, it is Sunday and you owe an obligation to God that is higher than any to the English government.  Arising at midnight, your wife readies the children for the long, chilly walk outdoors.  In darkness the family silently marches out the back gate, down the grassy trail toward the mountain and then disappears into the thick green trees.

Before a massive rock, Irish men, women and children kneel on the heather of the hillside.  Sentries stand watch on the surrounding mountain peaks for the approach of British troops.  A curtain is pulled around an altar built of loose stones but noises come from within as a man and a boy prepare the implements for Mass: book, tablecloth, wine, water, bread.  No one can see those behind the sanctuary curtain – and thus could never be forced to identify who offered them the Blessed Sacrament.  In the black stillness, a baby’s cries are muffled by a soft maternal hand.  Then, it is quiet.  

After the consecration, a line forms quietly behind a protruding rock near the sanctuary curtain.  Each takes a turn kneeing on the cold stone.  A hand reaches out from behind the veil and places a Communion Host on every tongue.

After the reading of the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection.  A few stay behind to have their confessions heard.  Afterwards, only a boy and a man remain, hiding any evidence of what occurred.  With the man’s blessing, the youngster heads off into the woods.  Finally, the man, his Priest’s kit stowed safely under his arm, slips into the forest, disappearing like a thief in the night.

Scattered throughout Ireland, often found hidden deep within lush, green forests in remote mountains, what appear to be ancient open air amphitheatres carved into the mountainside can still be found, and intrepid travellers occasionally stumble across them.  At the centre of each is a large pile of loose stones resembling a makeshift altar.  Frequently, a small box-like structure, looking not unlike a confessional booth, is nearby.

These are no ordinary rustic relics.  Rather, they are “Mass Rocks,” vestiges of the persecution of Catholics by English Protestants from 1536 to 1829.  Here, when the Faith was outlawed and priests hunted down like criminals, Mass was celebrated secretly for the faithful.  For several periods in Irish history, it was at these Mass Rocks where the light of the Faith continued to flicker, even unto the darkest of nights.

 For Catholics, this is Holy Ground.

 Under the English Yoke

To understand the significance of Mass Rocks, one must understand Irish history.  Ireland’s long, torturous relationship with England began with the granting of Ireland by Pope Adrian IV to King Henry II in 1155 after the king promised to reform and protect the Church there.  This was the first but by no means the last of the British monarchy’s broken promises regarding Ireland.

Centuries later, when King Henry VIII broke with Rome, a diabolical attack was launched against the Catholic Church.  The king appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533.  Cranmer was deeply influenced by the Protestant ideas sweeping the Continent, especially regarding the Sacrifice of the Mass.  In 1534, the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making Henry Head of the Church.  The Irish Parliament passed a similar Act in 1536, bringing the Protestant Reformation to Ireland by making Henry Supreme Head of the Church.  Although many Irish chiefs accepted the act, neither the clergy nor most commoners followed them in their apostasy.

After Henry’s death in 1547 and the succession of the ten-year-old Edward VI, Cranmer began revising the liturgical books as part of this theological revolution.  For the Reformation to take place, he observed that two primary elements of the Catholic faith must be rooted out:  “the doctrine of Transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood at the altar…and the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the Priest for the salvation of the sick and the dead.”

Thus if the sacrilegious rebellion was to succeed, the Mass had to be eradicated.  All references to a sacrifice were eliminated from the service.  Altars were torn down and replaced by communion tables.  Belief in Transubstantiation was considered a heresy punishable by death.  Cranmer’s assault on the Holy Eucharist provided the impetus for laws passed by parliaments to exterminate the Mass from England and later from Ireland.

But Cranmer’s plans were interrupted when Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary became Queen in 1553.  She repealed the Act of Supremacy in 1554 and punished those who spread national discord through heretical teachings.  Catholics hoped for a respite from the years of brutal persecution experienced under the last two monarchs.

Unfortunately, Mary’s short reign ended in 1558.  Her sister, Elizabeth, picked up where Henry VIII left off.  In 1559, Queen Elizabeth reinstated the Act of Supremacy, making herself Supreme Governor of the Church in England.  While the effort to “Protestantize” England proceeded apace, attempts to displace Irish culture and religion had been unsuccessful.

But “Good Queen Bess” was not to be deterred:  She commanded that Ireland be brought completely under her authority and that the Protestant religion supplant the Catholic one.  She was prepared to use strong measures – to say the least – to enforce her directives.  As Protestant author William Cobbett observed, “The Protestant religion was established by the gibbets, the racks, and the ripping knives.”

In 1560, a compliant Dublin parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy (establishing Elizabeth as Head of the Irish Church) and Uniformity (abolishing the Mass).  The Pope’s claim to spiritual jurisdiction was declared treasonable, and any priest caught saying Mass was liable to severe punishment.  Catholics refusing to attend the new Protestant service incurred substantial financial penalties.

Naturally, the surest way to stamp out the Mass was to eliminate Priests.  But the English found that these brave men, though imprisoned, starved, tortured and executed, were not so easily exterminated.  When the door to educate Priests in Ireland closed, a window in Europe opened.

Young men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain specifically established to provide for the persecuted Irish Catholics.  With great courage, these men returned to Ireland knowing their lives would be continually in grave danger.  Nevertheless, “a strong and enthusiastic Irish world was being built up abroad,” writes historian Edmund Curtis, “and as the idea of a Counter Reformation grew, the Irish abroad, acting with leaders at home, determined on a Crusade to recover Ireland for the Faith.  The easy-going religion of the old sort was replaced by zeal, determination, and the conscious knowledge of the grounds for one’s religion.”


The First Mass Rocks

Once back in Ireland, an underground sustained the Catholic clergy.  Many befriended the Priests, hiding them in their homes and caring for their material needs.  Through concealment and subterfuge, sacraments were offered in private houses.  But a venue to allow larger groups to receive them was needed.

Thus, the use of Mass Rocks arose.  Because of the persecution, the banned Holy Sacrifice had to be celebrated outdoors on a mountainside or in a remote field.  The faithful were secretly notified of the meeting place where they could come to Confession, hear Mass and receive the Blessed Sacrament.

Virtually every parish in Ireland has at least one Mass Rock.  These sites were especially common in Northern Ireland because of Cromwell’s plan to displace Catholics with Protestant farmers.  Mass Rocks – the Irish word for Mass is      An Aifrean – have given names to towns such as Ardanaffrin, Mullachanafrin, and Lugganafrin.

As one might expect, their locations varied greatly.  Far from the main roads, some were hidden in the mountains, some in rough wooden glens, while others could be found in well-known landmarks like old forts. Some were close together so that the Priest and Congregation could shift the altar during bad weather to provide respite from wind and rain.  Many were near streams so footprints could not be traced.


The Protestant Ascendancy

By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the religion of England.  In Ireland, however, it was clear that attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, largely because of local resistance.  As Edmund Curtis writes, “To the common man of the time no doubt the Pope and theories of religion were far-off things, but the old familiar Mass and Sacraments were what touched him close, and when the service was in English and the altar was removed from the east and a communion table put in the centre, the majority of Irishmen felt this was not the old religion which they believed Christ founded and committed to Peter.”

Elizabeth was followed to the throne by James VI of Scotland, who became James 1 of England in 1603.  Under James I and later Charles I, despite the latter’s efforts to seek toleration for Catholics, little improvement occurred for the Irish.

However, after defeating the British in the 1646 battle of Benburb, the Irish once again tasted religious freedom.  “Mass-houses” (the word “church” was reserved for Protestant sites) were tolerated and priests free to go about their business.  But this brief respite ended in 1649 when fanatical, Catholic-hating Puritans took control of the English government. 

With the arrival of Oliver Cromwell in Dublin in August 1649, the most furious assault yet on Irish Catholics began.

No mercy was shown under Cromwellian rule.  Catholics were massacred and whole towns razed.  Entire tracts of land were confiscated and given to soldiers and Protestant ne’er-do-wells.  Irish landowners were presented with the options of going “to Hell or to Connacht.”

Catholic clergy were ordered to leave Ireland, and put to death if they refused.  Those who sheltered them were liable to receive the death penalty.  As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states, “To such an extent was the persecution carried that Catholic churches were soon in ruins, a thousand priests driven into exile, and not a single bishop remained in Ireland but the old and helpless Bishop of Kilmore.”

From 1650 to 1671 Down and Connor had no bishop and was ruled by Vicars-General.

In May 1671, Dr Mackey, a secular priest was appointed Bishop by the Holy See.  By Christmas 1673 he was dead but in the short years in between, this wonderful man had ordained so many Priests that 31 years after his death, there were of them living, 6 in Co Down, 1 in Co Antrim and 10 in other parts of Ireland.  When Dr Mackey died, the Vicar-General again ruled until 1717.

What was it like to be a Catholic in Antrim in those days? When was Mass said? How did word get out about the time of Mass? There is an account of the diocese of Clogher in 1714 and the conditions described there by Dr Hugh McMahon are typical of Ulster as a whole.  He says “During these years a person was afraid to trust his neighbour lest, being compelled to swear, he might divulge the names of those present at Mass.  Moreover, spies were continually moving around posing as Catholics….Greater danger, of course, threatened the priests as the government persecuted them unceasingly and bitterly, with the result that priests have celebrated Mass with their faces veiled lest they should be recognised by those present.  At other times Mass was celebrated in a closed room with only a servant present, the window being left open so that those outside might hear the voice of the Priest without knowing who it was, or at least without seeing him….All over the countryside, people might be seen on meeting, signalling to each other with their fingers, the hour Mass was due to begin, in order that people might be able to kneel down and follow mentally the Mass which was being celebrated at a distance.  I myself have often celebrated Mass at night with only the man of the house and his wife present.  They were afraid to admit even their children so fearful were they.” (Journal of the Clogher Diocesan Historical Society).


The Penal Laws

Following the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick guaranteed Catholics freedom to exercise their religion.  Soon after, however, the Protestant ascendancy cynically disregarded the treaty.  They persuaded King William of Orange that passing a substantial body of anti-Catholic legislation, known as the Penal Laws, was the only way to subdue the Irish natives.  Edmund Curtis observes, “The majestic and world-wide system of the Church of Rome could not be tolerated like some Protestant sect seeking a modest toleration; the very greatness of her empire and the completeness of her claims over the souls and minds of believers marked her out for special persecution from the narrow Protestant and English nationalism of the age.”

Under the odious Penal Laws, the Catholic faith was banned and priests exiled.  If they didn’t leave they could be put to death.  Laity were no better off.  Catholics could not teach or attend Catholic schools.  They were excluded from Parliament, the army and navy, the legal profession, and from all civil offices.  They could not vote, carry arms or own a horse worth more than five pounds.

No Catholic could act as a guardian or marry a Protestant.  A Catholic could not acquire land or hold a mortgage.  If the wife or son of a Catholic became a Protestant, she or he immediately obtained a separate income, providing a strong incentive to apostatize.


Mass Rocks Used Again

Under oppression again, Catholics adapted.  Denied official education, the Irish young learned literature and religion in secret hedge schools, whose teachers were often fugitive priests.  Meanwhile, underground agrarian societies formed to protect peasants against Protestant landlords and their punitive rents.

At ordinations, not only the Bishop but also several others together with him laid hands on the Priest so that the episcopacy member could not be identified.  Sheamus MacManus observes, “Bishops and Archbishops, meanly dressed in rough clothing trudged on foot among their people, and often dwelt and ate and slept in holes on the ground.  Thus, in the bogs and barren mountains, whether wolfhounds and bloodhounds trailed them, the Catholic clergy sheltered all that was noble, high, and holy in Ireland.”

Once more, sacraments were received and the Faith sustained at the Mass Rock’s improvised altars.  Masses were confined now to secret places, lonely valleys or the shelter of a hill, but always with a lookout ready to ring the alarm.  The belief of some hardy souls can survive for extended periods without the sacraments, but for most, access to these avenues of grace is vital.  Thus, Mass Rocks again proved to be essential in sustaining the Old Faith in the Olde Sod.


A Modern Revival

 By 1730, active persecution of Catholics tapered off and it became clear even to the most hardened Protestants that laws to prevent the growth of “Popery” had been a resounding failure.  Catholic emancipation eventually came in 1829 and the faithful finally were allowed to use their Mass houses in peace.  Yet even after emancipation, the liturgy continued to be celebrated often at Mass Rocks because of the refusal of Protestant landlords to allow Catholic churches to be built on their property.

 We have information about the Priests of the parish during those troubled years. O’Laverty states at a General Sessions of the Peace held for the County of Antrim at Carrickfergus on the 12th July 1704  –  Daniel O’Mulhollan was registered as Parish Priest of Drummaul, Antrim, Donegore and Shilvodan. His sureties were Samuel Shennan, Antrim, Gentleman and John McDonnell
Yeoman, each bailing him for £50 that he would keep the law.  The Dickey Family (Linen Merchants), who lived in Holybrook, Magherlane, concealed this Priest and another named O’Neill in meal barrels fitted with false tops in times of severe persecution.

A Priest named McGregor succeeded Fr O’Mulhollan, then Fr Felix Scullion around 1730, followed by Fr John McCormick in 1758 (He was a Franciscan Friar, a native of Cushendall).

For Antrim Catholics, Mass was said on the site which later became the Milltown Graveyard (donated by Lord O’Neill as he wanted commoners to be buried outside his estate) or under a tree on the old race course at Magillstown on the road between Antrim and Shanes Castle.

For the Shilvodan congregation, the Mass station was at Drumkeeran hill which is about a quarter of a mile from the present church of Tannaghmore. At Shilvodan old graveyard, there still exists a Mass Rock but changes to the present Craigstown Road has lead to it cutting through the old graveyard thus separating it from the Mass Rock which is now on the opposite side of the road. This Mass Rock was pictured in the Centenary Booklet for St Comgalls in 1970 but alas today it is covered in brambles and thicket.  Interestingly, the Craigstown Road name relates to “Craig” which is Scottish Gaelic for “A Rock”  





In the townland of Caugherty (Parish of Kirkinriola, Ballymena), Mass was celebrated at a Mass Rock on Ascension Thursday 7th June 1798, the day of the Battle of Antrim.  It’s said that some of the worshippers attended the Mass and the went to the battle.


Our Lord tells us, “Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends.” This is as true today as when He said it two thousand years ago.  It may be too late now to thank those who laid down their lives for the Faith, but it’s never too late to remember them.



Oh, my Mary, long we wait here

While the hunter combs the mountain high,

And the soft wind whispers “Guard her,”

Though as hunted we must die.

Oh, the dawn is longtime coming,

And the long night clings with care,

But they shall not find with their chains to bind

My Mary, pure and fair.

Were You At The Rock?

Father Malachy’s Morning Prayer

Morning Prayer

God of my life, I welcome this new day.

It is your gift to me – it is the first day of the rest of my life.

I thank you for the gift of being alive this morning.

I thank you for the sleep that has refreshed me.

I thank you for the chance to make a new beginning.

Lord this day is full of promise and opportunity:

Help me to waste none of it.

This day is full of mystery of the unknown:

Help me to face it without any worries.

During this day, may I become

– a more thoughtful person,

– a more prayerful person,

– a more forgiving person

– a more generous and kindly person.

Lord, bless this day for all of us.



Sister Joan SawyerSister Joan’s story is virtually unknown in her own home parish yet she is remembered in Lima each year on December 14th the anniversary of the day she, along with seven of the prisoners she administered to in Lurigancho Prison, was slaughtered.

Joan’s parents George and Brigid nee Deegan, were natives of Killanure, a small townland west of Montrath in Co Laois. In 1924 they moved to Antrim in search of employment with their first three children. The family grew and in 1932 Joan was born.

When she reached school age Joan walked the one and a half miles each day to Rathmore Primary School, where they were the only Catholic family. She experienced acceptance and love at Rathmore
Primary and learned the meaning of tolerance and how to harmonise differences in belief.

The family belonged to St Comgall’s Parish in Antrim where Joan was baptised, received her First Holy Communion and Confirmation. The religious education of the Sawyer children was the responsibility of the parish priest Father Vincent Davey and so they received religious instruction from the parish curate Fr Dan McAlister once a week, along with a small number of other Catholic children who lived in the
Donegore area. At home too the children experienced and were taught the meaning of Christian faith. Together their parents instilled in them a love for God, a habit of prayer, fidelity to religious observances and attendance at religious instruction classes.

John Lily Kathleen Peggy Maureen Joan

By the time Joan had reached the end of her Primary education she had been given a foundation in faith and love which was to take her very far from her beloved Donegore.

Joan always valued her relationship with her loving God and her deepest desire was to live her life
according to that value. She’d had little contact with nuns but she harboured the feeling that there was ‘something more’ and gradually came to the realisation when she was about sixteen years of age that God was calling her. The next step was to take the advice of the parish priest. Fr Davey knew the Sawyer family well and recognised Joan’s special qualities and believed in her religious vocation. He had spent time working as a missionary priest in Nigeria and believed that Joan had the qualities to give her life in this way also. He decided to put the idea to her and to assist her as far as possible in making her own decision about the future.

Two Columban Sisters, Sister Mary Vianney who was Superior General and Sister Mary Rose were visiting schools in Down and Connor that year and Father Davey took the opportunity to introduce
Joan to the visiting nuns. They were impressed with her and had no doubt about her missionary vocation. Joan introduced them to her parents and promised to think and pray about her future. On 24th September the following year Joan entered the novitiate in Cahiracon, the first step of her journey to become a Columban Sister. On 22nd April, 1952, at just twenty years of age, Joan Mary Sawyer, now Sister Mary Paschal, vowed her life to God as a Missionary Sister of St. Columban. Five years later she made her Final Profession of Vows, giving herself to God as a missionary Sister for as long as she lived.

Like all who enter a Missionary Order, Joan’s hope was to be given an overseas assignment, even though this normally meant leaving these shores forever. This was not immediately the case for Joan however and it was 1971 before she finally left Ireland destined for the United States to help with the mission promotion effort there. As a result of Vatican II there were many changes taking place and Sisters were given the option of retaining the names given them at reception or reverting to their  baptismal names. Joan chose to return to the name she had received in baptism in St Comgall’s Church Antrim and became known as Sister Joan Sawyer.

Even though this latest assignment took her to foreign fields she continued to serve the Congregation’s
mission from within the confines of an office as she had done since her Profession in both Ireland and England and not as she yearned to do, in being with those who had not yet heard the Good News. Joan had become particularly drawn to Peru and on a short holiday home in Ireland shared her feelings with the Superior General fully aware that in obedience to her vows she would go wherever she was sent. And so it was that in December of 1977 at the age of forty-five Sister Joan Sawyer stepped into the final chapter of her life. She arrived in Peru. She had studied Spanish in preparation for this mission but wasn’t as yet sufficiently fluent to enter into a lengthy conversation. However, her heart was wide open to the people to whom she had been sent to serve; people who existed in dire poverty, with poor housing, insufficient food and poor health.

Joan began her ministry in the parish of Condevilla, a parish of almost one hundred thousand people and after setting up office in the priests’ house began the daily routine of visiting families, trying to see how their situations could be alleviated. Her forte was in working with families. She visited, advised, encouraged and, when she thought it necessary, gave material help. She was often criticised for this by those missionaries espousing the principles of liberation theology. They held that to make people really feel their sufferings was important, so that they would organise themselves to seek their rights. Joan did not agree and didn’t believe in letting children, or anyone else, reach starvation point or die of disease if she could prevent it. Her desire was that the people might come to know how much Christ loved them and she saw herself as His agent in their midst. She believed in the people she ministered to, in their dignity, as children of God, equal to all others and in their right to be treated accordingly.

Joan continued her work in the  parish of Condevilla giving totally of herself. She became the voice of the
poor, pleading at times for food for families newly arrived from the mountains into the city. Families benefited from her guidance; children were encouraged to go to school; food kitchens were put on a sound footing thanks to hours of journeying, representing and requesting in the offices of Relief organisations in the city. In 1982 the Columban Sisters decided after an evaluation of their ministry in Condevilla that they had accomplished what they came to do and it was time to move on. In June of that year Joan left Lima for the Mountains of Recuay but only for a short time, the altitude didn’t agree with her health and so in December Joan returned to Lima within three months she had begun her new mission as a pastoral agent in Lurigancho Prison, situated on the outskirts of Lima among the city’s poorest inhabitants. Conditions were dire; it was a sad, depressing, foul-smelling, unhealthy place. As well as being grossly overcrowded, prison officials were corrupt and imprisonment without trial was normal. The prison had been built twenty years previously and was initially intended for 1,800 prisoners. Now there were 6,500 men living in appalling conditions. More prisoners continued to be sent there while the numbers being released were very low. It was a place full of despair not only for the prisoners but also for their families who came to visit them.

Joan had access to two cell blocks, each with three hundred and fifty men aged between eighteen and thirty years old. She learned all their names and the addresses of their families. She learned the reasons for their imprisonment and whether they were having legal aid. She spent as much time as possible with them, when she could she prayed with them and helped them prepare liturgies for the weekly Mass. Their one desire was to get out of the ‘soul-destroying’ environment and Joan felt their pain. She felt the frustration of being able to do so little to help them. Yet to anyone looking on she did an enormous amount. She was a familiar figure in the office of the Department of Justice in Lima where she went to verify the reasons for prisoners’ condemnation and the court’s decision regarding their sentences. She sought for the trial of those not convicted or applied for reduction of time in prison for those with a record of good behaviour. She visited their families, acting as messenger between them and the father, husband, son or brother who was imprisoned. She literally poured herself out in service of the prisoners to the extent that her health was suffering. Her voice became so weak that she needed therapy to improve it; she had frequent headaches and was losing weight, and prison conditions already bad were getting worse. There was restlessness among prisoners, fear and foreboding in the air.

December 1983 and the tension in the atmosphere in Lurigancho Prison was tangible, yet Joan had no fear of the prisoners however she was afraid of the guards. Conditions continued to worsen to the extent that it was almost intolerable. Sporadic riots broke out and were quelled and followed by severe punishment for those involved. Asked if it might not be better to stop going to the prison until the unrest had quietened she replied that the prisoners needed her more now that ever. Christmas was approaching and Joan knew the promise of a trial, hope of legal aid or a termination of imprisonment would be the best gift that any prisoner could get and so she journeyed frequently to the Department of Justice. Normally Joan didn’t visit the prison on Wednesday but because of Christmas preparations on Wednesday 14th December she set out by bus for Luriagancho intending to return home for lunch.
She had two important messages with her, which the mothers of two of the prisoners had brought to her house early that morning. One was a small plastic jar of food, the other a small sum of money to help pay for legal aid.

Having signed herself ‘IN’ in the small office used by the chaplains and the pastoral workers, Joan went off to do her rounds and deliver her messages. That finished, she was on her way out of the cell blocks accompanied by the prisoner assigned as ‘collaborator’ to the chaplains. She had not intended returning to the chaplaincy office, but stopped there almost automatically when her companion, supposing that she was going to sign herself ‘OUT’ knocked on the door. When Joan entered she found three Marist Sisters, Ana, Teresa and Pedro, pastoral agents like herself, two women who had come to help with the entertainment for the Christmas celebration, and nine prisoners crowded into the room. This was the day the nine prisoners had decided to break free of prison or die in the attempt and Joan had inadvertendly stumbled upon their attempted escape.

The prisoners’ plan had been to hold the pastoral agents and social workers as hostages until the prison
authorities provided transport to take them beyond the prison confines. Sister Ana Marzola, a Marist Sister, who had worked in the prison for ten years, was assigned to act as intermediary between the prisoners and the authorities. Instead of going directly to the prison authorities Ana hurried to report to
Cardinal Landazuri and the bishops what was happening. Then she went to the prison authorities with the plan.  In the meantime the atmosphere in the little room was tense. Sister Joan was not afraid of the prisoners; she did not however trust the prison guards. She was anxious about the contents of her handbag; it held private information relating to the prisoners and their families as well as the money she’d been given by the young prisoner’s mother earlier that day – he’d requested that she return it to his mother. Knowing the money was hard earned she transferred it to her inner clothing for safety.

One of the prisoners Alejandro Velasquez, also known as Cri-Cri, a prize winning poetic genius who because of his poverty, never had a chance to develop his gifts and whose one burning desire was to be free asked Joan for a pen and paper; hastily he wrote something and handed it back to her. She never read it but it was found after her death, it read:

In this fatal moment of destiny I make an effort to secure my liberty.

Will I succeed? Help me my God.

I do not wish to do evil nor to endanger anyone

But one more time I do it,

And how many more time will I have to repeat it?

Only God and the time will tell.


14th December 1983

At five o’clock the negotiations ended. The authorities had agreed to provide them with an ambulance and driver to take them from the prison. The hostages would be no longer in the custody of the prisoners whom they trusted; they didn’t know what awaited them beyond the small window through which they were pushed before entering the ambulance.

Joan was one of the last to enter the ambulance and sat on a small seat just inside the back door.  As soon as the vehicle left the prison grounds shooting started. A group of strategically placed police opened fire on the ambulance and its wheels. The driver tried to gather speed but the vehicle was no match for the police cars which gave chase, and even though they knew there were innocent hostages in the ambulance the police continued to shoot at it. Having been abandoned by its driver the ambulance careered to a stop but still the machine-gun fire continued in a final crazed barrage of bullets until at last the doors were opened to reveal the carnage. Sister Teresa, the two social workers and two of the prisoners had gunshot wounds. The other seven prisoners including Cri-Cri were all dead and Sister Joan who had been hit by five bullets was drawing her last breath. Joan appeared in one newspaper photograph held like a baby in the arms of a policeman her head fallen backwards in death, her arms limp.

At the spot where Sister Joan was Shot with Sister Eileen Rowe

It was six o’clock and back in the house in Cueva, Joan’s place at the lunch table was still set and her lunch was still keeping warm in the oven.

Joan’s dedicated work in devotion to the poor in Peru was done in a quiet unobtrusive way but her tragic death was responded to by those same people who came in their thousands to the church in Cueva to await the arrival of her body. They had to wait for twenty-four hours because of the obstruction caused by the authorities who insisted that none of the bodies would be released for autopsy until relatives brought lawyers with them for identification. They were too poor to be able to afford lawyers and once again Joan, even in death came to their rescue as the lawyer who came with the Sisters acted as legal representative for the bereaved prisoners families.

When Joan’s body finally arrived at the church, it had been adorned with flowers by the poor of Lima, the people among whom Sister Joan had lived and ministered for six years, helping them to find food for their children, to take care of their sick and latterly to ease the lot of those who were imprisoned. That they loved Sister Joan and had clear insight regarding the meaning and value of her death was evident in the large banner which hung above the altar.

“I was in prison and you visited me,” (Matt. 25:36), “There’s no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.” (John 15:13)



The church was full to over-flowing the following morning. Cardinal Landazuri with some eighty
concelebrants officiated at the funeral Mass. Most of the people present were in tears and they responded with a tumultuous ovation when the Cardinal denounced the cause and circumstances of Sister Joan’s and the prisoners’ deaths, and called for a thorough investigation of the event.

After Mass the people who had packed the church walked the journey of ten kilometres (about six miles) that lay between the Church and the cemetery called El Angel. They prayed, sang and took turns with the Sisters and Priests in carrying Sister Joan’s body to its final resting place.

In Lurigancho prison the first reaction to her death was one of total devastation. The prisoners who knew Sister Joan were deeply saddened by her untimely death. One of them expressed his reaction in a letter:

“Minutes before Sister Juanita was taken hostage I was speaking to her when she came with a packet sent in with her by my mother. I can still see her eyes which reached to eternity. Her love, pure and gentle, which reflected her great love for people. Her spirit of kindness and sacrifice towards us prisoners will be my most precious memory.” Julio

Once the shock and horror of the killings had partially subsided, the Sisters and the Church officials knew that they must follow up on the call for an investigation which was initiated and lasted for eight months resulting in two conflicting conclusions. It was feared that the case might be dropped because of the conflict, but the Sisters and the Episcopal Commission on Social Action insisted that it be proceeded with. There was strong support from around the world demanding that the Government of Peru and its Ministry of Justice proceed with the case through a just trial.

Seven months later when the final hearing was complete, the verdict concurred closely with the findings of one of the earlier investigations headed by the Provincial Attorney imputing responsibility to Armando Castrillon, a former prisoner who had become Inspector of Prisons. He was found guilty of wounding Sister Teresa, but acquitted of all other charges and sentenced to six months imprisonment. A policeman guilty of killing one of the prisoners, was sentenced to one year in prison.

No one was convicted of the murder of Sister Joan and the six prisoners.

The two prisoners who survived the shooting had two further years added to their sentence because of their attempt to escape.

It was a disappointing outcome and the State Attorney and the Attorney for CEAS, together with counsel for the bereaved families and Sister, appealed to the Supreme Court but nothing has come of that.

In a letter written to The Honorable George P Shultz, Secretary of State, Washington on October 30th 1984 Rev Msgr Daniel F Hoye, General Secretary United States Catholic Conference said:  “Since ten months have now passed since Sister Joan Sawyer’s death and there has not yet been a report rendered on the promised investigation, it occurs to me that, as some American missionary personnel in Peru have stated, there may be a desire on the part of Peruvian officials to drop the case or let it simply fade away.

I hope that the United States Government will press for a thorough and impartial and timely investigation of the events that resulted in the death of Sister Joan Sawyer. I shall very much appreciate any information that your office may be able to provide me concerning this matter.”

BLACK WEDNESDAY is how 14th December 1983 is remembered in Lima.

In the years since Sister Joan’s death the prisoners have continued to be inspired by her love and sacrifice. Each year on the anniversary of her death they recall her dedication to reconciliation and her quiet service. The inmates of cell blocks 6 and 8 who knew Joan best sold their allowance of bread and donated the money to buy the oil paints necessary for a large mural of their own design: Joan between two lions, one fierce looking, one calm. The mural is touched up each year in preparation for December 14th when an anniversary Mass is offered on the patio of Pavilion 6. The scant collection of books in the Pavilion which is called the library, has been renamed impressively: “Biblioteca Juana Sawyer”.

Those who knew Joan well, the people of Condevilla and Cueva and the families of prisoners in Lurigancho, cherish her memory as of one who came amongst them, and helped in her gentle way as though she had been with them all her life. They have given her name to a Mother’s Club, to a Retreat Centre and a Centre for school leaving companions, and they bring flowers to the huge wooden cross which was placed where the fatal shooting happened. This cross has become a place of pilgrimage for many of those whose family members are in prison; for many who are struggling with the cross of oppression and want, and for others who know in their hearts that the degradation of any section of its people is not a way forward for a nation.

The Last resting place of Sister Joan

140th Celebration



In November 2010 our parish marked the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the solemn dedication and blessing of our present chapel, St Comgall’s Antrim, by the Most Rev Dr Dorrian, Bishop of Down and Connor on 30th October 1870. This notable landmark in the history of the Parish of Antrim brought together the past, the present and the future.

The day of celebration centred round a magnificent exhibition of documents, newspaper articles and photographs that told the story of our parish, which many of us either didn’t know or had forgotten. In the booklet published to mark the event Fr Sean Emerson said, ‘ it is not just the building that we are grateful for but the faith that the people of many generations have shared, are sharing and will share that is really important’.

On behalf of the parishioners and priests of the parish, Fr Sean Emerson PP warmly congratulated and thanked our sacristan Brendan Smith for the whole idea and presentation; his planning and organising of the day’s events and for his tireless work and great enthusiasm which inspired everyone who visited the exhibition.

A huge tribute was paid to the hard work and dedication of Father O’Loughlin under whose personal supervision St Comgall’s Chapel was built.  During the building of the church he was obliged to reside in the Sacristy of the old church but before long he started building our present beautiful Parochial House. The parishioners were greatly honoured and welcomed Father O’Loughlin’s relatives who joined us from Donegal for Mass and to celebrate the memorable event.

As was fitting for the occasion the day finished with a dignified celebration of evening prayer in St Comgall’s Church led by Bishop Noel Treanor along with Fathers Sean Emerson PP, Felix McGuckin CC and Canon Malachy Murphy (Assistant Priest). The music and singing led by the choirs from St Joseph’s, St Mac Nissi’s and St Comgall’s truly added to the wonderful celebration and the parishioners were delighted to welcome back many of the priests who had lived and worked in the parish in more recent years who returned to joined us in marking the event.