The history of the Christian activity in the area of Larne dates back to St Patrick himself, who is said to have tended sheep on nearby Slemish and who had many profound experiences of prayer during that time. After his captivity, he later felt called to return to preach the Good News to the people of Ireland, and it was one of his own followers, MacNissi, who became the first bishop in our area and subsequently patron of the church in Larne and of the Diocese. Another son of the area is St Comgall, who founded the great abbey of Bangor that became a powerhouse of prayer and learning in early medieval Europe.
For a long time, during the Penal Days, there was no church for Catholic worship in Larne. Mass was celebrated instead in a private house and subsequently in a disused slaughterhouse outside the town. At this time, only one priest served a large area including Larne and Carrickfergus. The first dedicated chapel was built two years after Catholic Emancipation in 1831, dedicated to Saint MacNissi and the forerunner of the present chapel.
St MacNissi’s Church (Larne town centre)
With the increase in the local Catholic population, the small chapel of 1831 was too small for the needs of the community. In 1859, a new and larger church was built on the same site, which was extended in 1905 to its present shape and size including the addition of the transepts. Some further enlargement was carried out in 1994 in the sacristy.
The interior of the church includes an impressive vaulted dark wood ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. The marble reredos stands behind the free standing altar, giving a focal point on the wall of the sanctuary and holding the tabernacle, wherein the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. The church stands with a car park to one side and Saint MacNissi’s Primary School to the other, with some of the priests who served in the parish buried beside the church. The church building is listed, and is one of the most historic and beautiful buildings in the town.
St Anthony’s Church (Craigyhill)
The beginnings of the more recent church of the parish were beset by disaster early on. As Canon A.G. Molloy recorded:
“The growth of Larne as a busy seaport saw an increase in the number of parishioners and necessitates the building of another church in 1974 dedicated to Saint Anthony, to serve the new estate of Craigyhill.
Unfortunately, just one year later, to the very day, it was completely destroyed by fire. The parishioners were in deep shock at the desecration of their beautiful new place of worship yet their faith and determination remained firm. After facing up to many difficulties and overcoming many obstacles they were proud to gather to celebrate the solemn dedication of the new church on 16th March 1980.”
Since 1980, Saint Anthony’s Church has also received a substantial renovation and is the larger of the two churches in the parish. Above the central door of the church is an etched window of the Risen Christ. In the church grounds stand a parish house and Saint Anthony’s Hall.
Source material taken from ‘Down and Connor: A Short History’ by Monsignor Ambrose Macauley, using also the Foreword by Canon Archie Molloy.