The present church stands on the spot where St Patrick is said to have built his first church upon arriving in Ireland in 432. It was built in 1932 and replaces an older structure, whose ruins can still be seen in the graveyard if you look carefully. It's a very simple, small stone building with a round tower. Inside it is clean and simple too: a vaulted wooden roof, several plain latticed windows and a single stained-glass window in the chancel depicting St Patrick lighting the first ever paschal fire on the hill of Slane at the spring solstice.
It's part of the Lecale group of churches, consisting of six churches or chapels plus the cathedral. There is one Sunday service plus a weekday service on Monday only at St Patrick's, but on other days at other churches in the group.
The name Saul apparently comes from the Irish sabhall, meaning barn, and so the town and church take their name from the tradition that a nobleman named Dichu, one of St Patrick's earliest converts, gave him a barn in which to celebrate mass. The church is located two miles outside Downpatrick, which is where St Patrick's grave is located. Nearby is a huge statue of the saint with bronze panels illustrating scenes from his life.
Holy Communion was celebrated by the Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, with the Rt Revd Harold Creeth Miller, Bishop of Down & Dromore, also present. The Very Revd Henry Hull, Dean of Down, opened the service. The sermon was preached by the Very Revd Dom Mark-Ephrem M. Nolan, OSB, superior of the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery (Roman Catholic) at Rostrevor. Other monks from Rostrevor joined in at various parts.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
I arrived over 40 minutes early and was just in the nick of time to get one of the few seats inside that remained. Before long there were people standing at the end of the aisles and several hundred more left outside.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I sat down beside a dear old lady who chatted warmly with me while we waited for the service to begin. This is the church she attends weekly, so she gave me some useful inside information. She told me how there had been panic in the lead-up to the event because no one could be found to repair the organ until the last minute. Apparently it lay in pieces until 6.00 the previous night.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard wooden pew. It started to hurt a little by the time the service began.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a lot of chatter and a palpable sense of expectation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I was caught off guard here when Dean Hull started two minutes earlier than advertised. "I'd just like to welcome you all to Saul. This is where it all began."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a service booklet that had all the prayers and songs printed in full.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, which gave out the occasional bum note. A young woman named Julie played a violin solo at the very start.
Did anything distract you?
I was distracted right before the start of the service by a man sitting very close to me who was furtively taking notes. He was just about close enough for me to read them but I couldn't make out his handwriting. For a while I thought he may be a Mystery Worshipper too, so I started to feel a little pressure from the idea of some competition!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very traditional. The liturgy was Prayer Book and there were several hymns. No incense. The Benedictine monks chanted during the eucharist itself.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dom Mark-Ephrem stood stock still in the pulpit but spoke clearly and with conviction. It was a powerful sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 (treasure in clay jars). He spoke about Patrick's "gentle humility grounded in his sense of powerlessness" and asserted that "God's power shines best in human weakness." We can choose to adopt this posture, which Patrick and Jesus adopted, without fear if we depend on the power of God. It is in the "humble sowing of fragile seeds watered by God's gentle grace" and the "experience of humiliation" that drives the church forward, he went on to say. "The church should never speak from a position of power."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The whole service was transcendent there were many moments of pure spiritual delight. However, if I had to pick one, I could mention the very beginning: Dean Hull's opening statement that "This is where it all began" with the sun shining through the stained-glass behind him. This, coupled with the beautiful violin solo, set me in the right spirit straightaway.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing at all!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No time for that. The moment we finished the last hymn, everyone was assembling outside behind a large wooden cross for the traditional two-mile pilgrimage to Down Cathedral and St Patrick's grave. I joined in and followed along.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Today was special, so I doubt worship here is normally like this. But it is a place of natural beauty and the one person I spoke to from this congregation was very natural and friendly indeed.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I was transported.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Probably (for the sake of pure novelty) receiving the communion bread from the Archbishop of Canterbury and his terse "The Body of Christ" as he placed it in my hands.