Three churches, three traditions

A few minutes’ walk from the imposing limestone grandeur of St Patrick’s Church, the Assembly of God Mission in Ballyhaunis is conspicuous by its location, a commercial building shared with a furniture store and a gym. Few people knowing they’re passing a church when they walk down the side lane known as Barrack St.

In an ironic twist of fate the far-off lands to which congregants of Catholic churches in Ballyhaunis and similar towns sent missionaries and funds are now sending their own churches to Ireland. But thus far it’s largely to cater to a growing African and Latino community rather than actively seeking local converts. 

As I climb the linoleum covered stairs to the Assembly of God Mission the church announces itself by its music. A guitar group with guitar, bass and drums plays upbeat Christian pop rock at regular interludes in the Saturday evening service which runs for two hours.

Half an hour before service begins the Pastor Alexandro Carvalho, is down in a back corner of the room at a soundboard, picking and playing rocky Christian songs on the sound system before the congregants arrive. The gelled hair, skinny jeans and tightly tailored grey sports jacket don’t say pastor but then the congregants when they arrive are equally dressed to impress and pray to the Lord.

The congregants sway, clap, chant and sing their way through the two hours, sitting when they do on white garden furniture. Large heaters operated by gas drums stand in each corner of the room. This was once the store room of a supermarket but the bare block walls have been panelled with dark brown timber and a simple wooden cross.

Pastor Carvalho is 43 and has been living in Ireland for over a decade but his English is minimal so the translation is done by a friendly lay associate, Douglas. The bearded pastor splits his day between a job in the large Dawn Meats plant on Clare Road, and his own barber shop on the town Square. The name on his barber shop window, framed with a Brazilian and an Irish flag, is in keeping with his mission: ‘Renew’.

“New Year rather than Christmas is our major celebration,” explained the pastor when I ask him how he’s preparing for the approaching season. “Of course we also celebrate Christmas,” he said while clutching one of the large Portuguese-language bibles which are carried by several of the congregants when they arrive for service.

Everyone here works in Dawn Meats, explained Douglas. And in January fifty more workers will arrive, he added. “The men come first, then they bring their families after a year.” Home to the world’s largest meat processing firm and the globe’s leading exporter of meat, Brazil has become a go-to location for recruiters seeking boners and butchers for Irish meat companies like Dawn.

There are over 250 Brazilians living in Ballyhaunis (a town of 3,500), said Douglas, and most plan to stay. “But housing is so expensive! I pay EUR800 for a house in the Maples,” he suggested before shrugging “yes it’s normal for here”.

There are signs that the church has preceded the recent surge of Brazilians into Ballyhaunis. A ‘Certificate of Incorporation” on the wall is dated May 2008, Dublin. That certificate was obtained by an associated church in Gort, Co Galway, which drew a large Brazilian population a decade ago – again many of them working in the meat industry.

The influx of Brazilians into Ballyhaunis is more recent and many also attend St Patrick’s Church – “our church sacristan Irene has incorporated some of the musicality of Brazilians church service into the masses,” according to Fr Stephen Farragher, parish priest of Ballyhaunis. “I very much encourage that,” he said.

Another short stroll from the imposing hill-top grandeur of St Patrick’s Church is yet another Christian Church. The setting is again commercial and just as when I visited the Brazilian church I’m guided by the music and not any sign or steeple. Arriving for the Sunday service at the Word of Life Parish in Ballyhaunis Enterprise Centre I’m guided by the call and response chants. Shouts of “Praise the Lord! is followed by a chorus of “Alleliua!” and the taps of conga drums. Worshippers climb the stairs to the second floor of the enterprise centre which is now home to the Word of Life, an evangelical Protestant mission.     

Unlike Brazilian Pastor Alexandro the Word of Life Parish’s Pastor Emmanuel Olanrewaju of is a full time clergyman. Originally from the Nigerian commercial capital Lagos, he drives from Mullingar every Sunday to officiate at the “bible following” church which is now in its 15th year in Ballyhaunis serving a largely Nigerian congregation made up of past and present residents of the direct provision centre in the town.

“We have several Irish people who also come to our services in Ballyhaunis,” explained Pastor Olanrewaju whose Word of Life Parish is part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) – one of the “mega” evangelical Protestant churches in Nigeria which operate from giant churches drawing huge crowds. 

“We are here not to compete with the Catholic Church but to complement it,” stressed Pastor Olanrewaju, a soft spoken 62 year old with a gap-toothed smile.

“All the churches are the same, the only difference is we teach the bible. Most people don’t have a relationship with Jesus. Catholics I meet know Joseph and Mary but not Jesus. Mary and Joseph and only the vessels god used. Jesus is the son of God.”

His church is guided solely by the Bible, Pastor Emmanuel adds: anything that is “not scriptural” isn’t entertained in his church. Jesus is a name he referenced continuously in our conversation: Christmas is celebrated by the Word of Life parish because “Jesus is the reason for the season”. Gifts are given by members of his church because the wise men brought gifts were following the star of Jesus,” explained Pastor Olanrewaju. “We give gifts to those who cannot afford or are homeless”

Framed by floor to ceiling sequined white curtains and facing a projector screen showing various pieces of scripture, the congregation at the Enterprise Centre is remarkable in vibrant and colourful in the traditional formal attire of Nigeria.

A large part of the two hour service is taken up with what the pastor calls testimonials. Members of the church go to the microphone and share a recent trial or turbulence in their lives. One of the few male congregants describes how he left his iron on during the previous week’s service but rather than return to a burnt shirt or worse the iron lay on the garment without leaving a burn. This is taken as a sign of God. “Alleliua!” intones Pastor Olanrewaju. There’s claps, nods and shouts of “yes!” from the congregants.

Scripture also dictates the church’s approach to funding. Congregants give 10 percent of their incomes in a tithe. A sign displayed to the right of the main door at the back of the church reads ‘You cannot defraud God and be prosperous. Therefore pay your tithes and offerings regularly.”

When I mention the poster Pastor Olanrewaju said “The tithe is scriptural, it’s in Malachite chapter three verse 10. God commanded ten percent of income should be tithed”.  But only those who “have conviction” must pay, he adds, and 30 percent of his Ballyhaunis flock pay the full ten percent. “The Bible says we are not to come empty handed to God.”

In both Brazil and Nigeria “mega churches” have become politically influential in the manner of the Catholic Church in earlier European history or the current evangelical movement in the US.   Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (to which the Ballyhaunis church belongs) is a flamboyant, celebrity figure in Nigeria who adheres to the ‘prosperity gospel’ encouraging personal wealth which is also espoused by many US evangelicals.

Protestant evangelicalism has become a driving force in Brazilian society and politics – the country’s current president converted from Catholicism in 2016 with a well-publicised baptism in the River Jordan by a leader of one of the evangelical churches who look set to displace Catholicism as the dominant Christian faith in Brazil.

Demographics alone suggest that churches from Brazil and Nigeria will become more visible globally. Already there are hundreds of parishes of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Ireland with pastor Olanrewaju overseeing churches in Castlebar and Tuam as well as Ballyhaunis from his Mullingar base.

The most populous nation in Africa with approximately 210 million people, Nigeria’s population on current UN projections will double by 2050. With a median age of 18 (compared to Ireland at 38) Nigeria is a very young country. Brazil’s population, as the world’s sixth largest with 214 million inhabitants, appears to be peaking at 214 million.

After the service at the Word of Life Parish there’s a table loaded with packets of 7up cans and silver foiled snacks. “It’s a treat, one of the sisters got her permission to remain in Ireland and she is sharing her joy with the rest of the church,” explains Pastor Emmanuel.

The joy of Christmas may be curtailed this year given the spread of Covid, a threat which Fr Stephen Farragher said he’s “monitoring day by day.” He expects restrictions on seating capacity to continue with every second pew is cordoned off.

A popular and erudite cleric, Fr Farragher said he feels no sense of competition from newer churches. Even as the local Christian community becomes more diverse and facing an uncertain Christmas the Ballyhaunis parish has widened its own audience by embracing technology.

“We can see that the masses we broadcast from the church webcam on Facebook are drawing very high viewing figures in the UK and US so it has given us a new audience,” noted Fr Farragher.

Listenership figures for masses broadcast on Midwest Radio were high throughout the various Covid lockdowns while a refurbishment of the parish radio transmitter has allowed a quality broadcast of all masses to the area, explained Fr Farragher. With its three churches God then will truly reside in Ballyhaunis this Christmas.

Ballyhaunis churches Western Star Mark Godfrey

Article published in the Western Star Magazine of the Western People, December 2021.

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