St Peter's Cathedral - History

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History

Main body of CathedralBernard 'Barney' Hughes could have been a threefold wealthier man. When he died in 1878 he had retained only part of the abundant riches he had created; far removed from the penniless eighteen year old baker's labourer and native Irish speaker who drifted into a fast-expanding Belfast town from County Armagh in 1827. Aside from his affluence that came with owning the largest baking and milling empire in Ireland he had given a second fortune away to charities and worthy causes. The third, hidden element of this remarkable man's wealth and generosity was the potential riches he had declined to accept. These he also charitably diverted to the poor of the town in the form of the cheapest 'staff of life' in all Ireland.

Despite being in a position to literally charge what prices he wished when the potato famine years of 1845-1850 caused a yawning gap in the basic food supply, he steadfastly refused to increase his prices despite the urging of his competitors, who found it difficult to operate with the famine-inflated prices of flour and other raw materials. His very efficient production and distribution tactics made him the market price dictator and his fellow bakers were forced to compete with his relatively cheaper price or close down.

When the potato vanished from the diet of the poor, the next alternative sustenance on the bottom rung of the food supply ladder was cereals: oats as porridge and wheat in the form of bread. It was an opportune time for ruthless food traders and manufacturers to make their fortunes. Barney Hughes came to the rescue of the poor and introduced specially priced and formulated nutritional loaves during those hungry years to help bridge the inflated food prices gap and he frequently added bonus bread in the form of extra weight at the standard price when he was able to do so. His grateful customers praised the slower digestion and hunger-quelling qualities of their benefactor's loaves and satisfyingly excaimed that Barney Hughe's bread 'stuck to you like lead'. The additional and longer-lasting bonus he gave to hs co-religionist was to make the building of St Peter's Catheral possible.

When the youthful and ambitious Barney Hughes arrived in Belfast the population of the town was around 65,000 inhabitants. Catholics numbered around 18,000 of this total and there were only two churches to tend to their pious needs: St Mary's Chapel Lane, the mother church of Belfast Catholics, built in 1784 with the liberal help of the 'Protestant and Dissenting' fellow townsmen; and St Patrick's Donegall Street, built in 1815. By 1840, as Belfast's prosperity drew more people of both religions into the town, the populaton had grown to over 70,000 and a third of these were Catholics.

To try to cope with the burgeoning increase in the numbers of the faithful, clustered around the Cromac Street area, St Malachy's in Alfred Street was built in 1844. However, the town's predominant Catholic areas were located in the densely populated central district comprising Smithfield, Millfield and in Hercules Street, destined to become part of the future Royal Avenue, and around the growing Pound and Falls Road district. The nearest places of worship for 'down-town' Catholics were St Mary's and St Patrick's. As the number of Catholics in Belfast grew it created a chronic lack of church accommodation in all three venues even standing space could not be guaranteed. The Catholic population of the Pound and Falls had grown so numerous that at Sunday Masses in St Mary's the congregation overflowed into the street. Inevitably, the situation led to busy workers hurrying to mills and other places of employment, being unable to wait. Church authorities became worried at the high levels of non-attendance at Masses. Barney, as a regular worshipper at St Mary's, was well aware of the increasing problem of overcrowding.

He had opened his first bakery clost to St Patrick's in Donegall Street in 1840 and seven eventful years later he opened his second factory in fashionable Donegall Place, which was nicknamed the 'Railway Bakery' because of Barney's novel idea of a short railway track to convey his bread sixty yards from the Fountain Lane bakery to the shop which fronted Donegall Place. As the population of Belfast expanded, his baking output also grew at an exponential rate and the demand for his bread and the delectable 'Barney's baps' had exceeded the capacity of his bakeries to satisfy the ravenous stomachs throughout the potato famine years and its aftermath.

By 1854 he had started to look for suitable location to build and state-of-the-art bakery and planned to double his production. However, his political career intervened, when his membership and support for the Belfast Liberals led to him being the first elected Catholic councillor in Belfast. It was not until around 1857 that he proceeded with his expansion plans. He decided to build the bold development to his business close to Ardmoulin Mills, later Belfast Mills, located beside today's Percy Street on the fringe of the town and owned by John Alexander & Co.

His choce of location also benefitted from the fact that a large part of his production was consumed by the inhabitants of this district and the population of the area was growing steadily. Alexander, from Milford in Co. Carlow, was the landlord of most of the ground around The Pound area. Barney had established a friendly business relationship with the wealthy miller, which became even more cordial when he started his own baking business. He obtained a perpetual lease on a large plot of what was probably vacant ground on the southern side of Divis Street, at the top of Pound Street, on what was to become the corner site of Gilford Street. Here he built his Model bakery which was to be his flagship bakery for the remainder of his life.

 

 

Administrators of St Peter’s Cathedral

Fr William Blaney1866-1873
Fr Andrew McAuley1873-1882
Fr Patrick Convery1882-1895
Fr John McCartan1895-1898
Fr John Tohill1898-1905
Fr Bernard Laverty1905-1911
Fr John Healy1911-1919
Fr Thomas McDonald1919-1929
Fr Alexander McAteer1929-1930
Fr George McKillop1930-1943
Fr John McLaverty1938-1943
Fr George Watson1943-1945
Fr Leo McKeown1945-1949
Fr Laurence Higgins1949-1955
Fr Patrick McAtamney1955-1960
Fr Joseph McConville1960-1963
Fr James McCloskey1963-1966
Fr Sean O’Neill1966-1967
Cannon Padraig Murphy1967-1971
Fr Francis Teggart1971-1974
Fr Alec Darragh1974-1978
Fr Vincent McKinley1978-1983
Fr Joseph McGurnaghan1983-1986
Fr Sean Connolly1986-1990
Fr Anthony Alexander1990-1994
Monsignor Thomas Toner1994-2006
Fr Hugh Kennedy2006-Present