The present Long Tower Church began life, though on a much smaller scale in 1783. It was the inspiration of Father John Lynch, a native of Balteagh, Dungiven, and theological graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, who was the Parish Priest of Derry at that time. He lived in a house off Ferguson’s Lane, the site of which is preserved today as a rest area.
The Bishop of Derry at that time was Dr Phillip McDevitt (1766-1797), also a graduate of the Sorbonne, but he did not live in the city until well into his episcopate. He was a native of Fahan, and as Bishop he originally took up residence in Moville and Clady in County Tyrone where he carried on for a time a small seminary for students to the Priesthood.
Fr Lynch had, up to this time, said Mass either in his house in Ferguson’s Lane, or when weather permitted, near the Hawthorn tree which marked the traditional site of the Teampall Mor, the great Cathedral of Derry. Fr Lynch considered times were favourable to the building of a Church in the city and in 1783 he set about raising funds, including 200 Guineas from the Protestant Bishop of Derry.
“Building commenced in 1784”
Building commenced in 1784. The design of the church was a straight forward rectangle, comprising one of the transepts of the present church with the altar near the present side door facing Bishop Street. It had an earthen floor and was estimated to hold 2000 persons standing. It was still unfinished when Father Lynch died on December 20th, 1786, but as a mark of honour it was opened for his funeral, the preacher addressing his congregation from a pile of stones left in a corner by workmen. At his own request Father Lynch was buried beneath the Hawthorn Tree where he had so often said Mass in harsher times, and he is remembered on a tablet which bears this inscription:
“Here grew the Hawthorn Tree under whose shade during every lull of the persecutions, Mass was frequently offered from 1585 – 1784. The last Penal Mass was celebrated here in 1784 by Father John Lynch, who partly rebuilt the Long Tower and who lies buried beneath. He died, December 20th 1786. RIP.”
Father Lynch was succeeded by Rev Charles O’Donnell, a nephew of Bishop McDevitt and Dean of the Diocese. Doctor O’Donnell was later made Bishop in 1797, and continued residing in Ferguson’s Lane where he acquired the adjoining houses and opened a small seminary for students of the priesthood. In 1810 he began the enlargement of the Long Tower Church, by adding a nave and galleries, and changed the altar to the northern side of the Church. The general pattern and outline of the altar has remained unchanged to the present day. Originally, the four large columns supporting the canopy over the altar were made of timber, but the Corinthian capitals of Italian marble which rest on them are the originals, acquired from the Protestant Bishop, Lord Bristol, when his plans for building a house at Ballyscullion were abandoned.
Once again the Protestant community contributed generously towards the cost of the work. The Bishop of Derry, Dr Knox, contributed 50 Guineas, the Corporation gave a similar amount, and the Protestant Dean, Dr Hume, gave 10 Guineas. A subscription list opened among Protestant people raised £321.00, and a similar list among Catholics raised £812.00.
Additions and Improvements
Over the years many additions and improvements were made to the church. The building itself contains an abundance of historical artifacts; stained glass windows, the Hannigan Monstrance, the organ in the Central Gallery, the Communion rail constructed from Carrara marble and the opus sectile pictures around the church all come together to add to the historical look and feel of this magnificent building.