Fond memories of Rosary rally in Downpatrick

Fond memories of Rosary rally in Downpatrick

9 September 2020

ONE of the biggest religious events ever held in County Down is being fondly remembered.

In 1954, an estimated 30,000 people attended a Rosary rally in a field outside Downpatrick.

It was the brainchild of an Irish-born American priest and was part of a global celebration attended by millions of devout Roman Catholics.

Father Patrick Peyton was born in Co Mayo on January 9, 1909. He was one of nine children and his wish from an early age was to be ordained priest. Unfortunately, his family was unable to meet the cost of his education.

At the age of 19, he and his brother, Tom, emigrated to the United States to join their sister, Nellie. In America he returned to full-time education and studied for the priesthood. Two years before his ordination he contracted tuberculosis.

He credited the Virgin Mary for his recovery from the often deadly disease and began a Rosary Crusade by way of thanksgiving. He was eventually ordained at the age of 32 on June 15, 1941.

Fr Peyton took his Rosary Crusade around the world. It came to Ireland in 1954 and opened on April 25 at a GAA ground in Tuam, Co Galway, attended by thousands of people.

There were to be similar events at venues across Ireland before, on Sunday, June 20, the Rosary Crusade came to Downpatrick.

There were extensive preparations and due to the vast numbers expected to attend it was hoped that the rally would be held at Downpatrick Racecourse. Unfortunately, it was not available that day and so a nearby field on the Ballydugan Road was made ready.

Many Downpatrick people recall the rally as one of the greatest events of the time. One of them is Ellen Vance, who was a young schoolgirl at the Commercial School in the town which was run by nuns.

“The girls from the Commercial School, under the direction of Sister Mary Philomena and the nuns, took part in forming the 15 decades of the Rosary,” she recalled. “We went out three or four times a week in the days leading up to the rally in order to practice in the field, which was kindly made available by Mr Kelly.

“I remember my outfit was made up of a light blue material, which the nuns ordered and which we had to get made made ourselves. As I was named the ‘Our Father’ of the Visitation - Five Joyful Mysteries, I was given a bright yellow sash with the name Visitation written on it. All those who were named as ‘Our Fathers’ in the various Mysteries had one of these.

“We all welcomed the break from school during the week. Not many cars were available to take out to and back from the field so my friend, Marie McQuoid, whose father was a local ambulance driver, arranged on one occasion for her father to give us a lift in his ambulance on his way home from a meeting in Newcastle. What a relief it was to get into that ambulance and lie down on the stretchers.”

Of the event itself she says: “A very memorable Sunday and I remember Fr Peyton going round and blessing us all.”

Other local girls taking part included Iris Lynch (née Pleasants), Marie McGlogan (née McComb) and Elizabeth Smyth, who were three ‘Hail Marys’ at the beginning of the Rosary. 

Downpatrick man John Mullen remembers proudly serving as altar boy at the Mass, while another local man, Tom Craig, remembers his father taking him by the hand and walking out to the field.

Fr Peyton died in Los Angeles, California, on June 3, 1992. Many of his family still live in Mayo where there is a centre in memory of him at Ballina. He was named Venerable by Pope Francis in 2017.