The return of the Catholic Church to Strathearn after the Reformation dates from the end of the 17th century. In 1687 James Drummond, Earl of Perth became a Catholic and established a chaplain, Fr Cooke, in Drummond Castle from which Fr Cooke reported that “he found the people well inclined, had made a good successful mission and had received severalls”.
By 1786 he was based at Balloch, an idyllic spot two miles south of Crieff, on the edge of the Drummond estate, from where he travelled extensively, even as far as Kingshouse and occasionally to Glasgow. After an absence of some years, Fr MacDonald returned to Balloch in 1797 and then began the transfer of the mission to Crieff, prompted by the changing population and the influx of Irish workers.
In 1799 he writes to the Abbe Macpherson “I am about to quit my present headquarters. In June last I purchased in a pleasant situation close by Crieff, an area of ground measuring 1212 square yards, which furnish me with a stance for a house and a sufficient garden. “The building measures 36ft. by 16. In the ground storey I have three fine rooms and a pantry; in the second storey will be my chapel 24ft. in length and a bedroom”.
The money for this development was given partly by Bishop Hay (£30) and partly by his parishioners (£20).
Fr MacDonald must have been a remarkable man. Except for two brief absences, he served Crieff for 55 years until his death in 1837. He was a Gaelic and Latin scholar, contributing to a Gaelic dictionary and publishing a well-received translation of Ossian into Latin. He must have been well-respected in the area because he was one of the founders of the Strathearn Agricultural Society of which he was Chaplain and Librarian.
It is also recorded in Porteous’ History of Crieff that in 1820 James Thomson became the parish schoolmaster when the school was removed to Commissioner Street. “Before being appointed he was examined, as was customary, by the Presbytery; but being weak in his Latin, he had got Mr Alexander McDonald, the Roman Catholic priest, to grind him up, as the latter was a well known Latin scholar.
The parish minister, the Rev. William Laing was against him; but the Rev. Colin Baxter, of Monzievaird, and the priest were in his favour, so eventually he got the post.” This seems a remarkable testimony to the influence of a Catholic priest and to the spirit of tolerance in Crieff at a time when Catholics were still excluded from much public business.
After Fr MacDonald’s death, there was no resident priest in Crieff, except for the years 1863-1865, and it was served from Perth, but in 1868 the Rev. John Fraser took charge and in 1869 he was succeeded by Fr Peter Cumming who established the parish as we know it today.
The Catholic population of the area had risen to over 600, largely as a result of Irish immigration following the famine of 1846, and the small chapel opened in 1799 was now insufficient for its needs. The spare ground which surrounded the priest’s house now became the site of a new church. The architect was Andrew Heiton and the building cost £700 which was raised by Fr Cumming, who laid the foundation stone on 13th April, 1871.
The altar, organ and many valuable paintings and furnishing were from the disused Chapel at Murthly Castle.
In November the church was opened by Bishop Strain of Edinburgh and dedicated to St Fillan. There are several St Fillans but this was probably the 6th century missionary from Ireland who gave his name to the village of St Fillan’s- and whose preaching station was at the hill called Dundurn just east of the village.
Fr Cumming died at Crieff in February 1875 and was buried in the vault of St Fillan’s beneath the sanctuary.
St Dominic’s School founded
In 1890 there was a further expansion of Catholic activity in the parish with the opening of a Dominican convent by Mrs. Mary H. Elwes (Mother Mary Ignatius), a native of Crieff. Almost immediately she also opened a school in the convent and 30 pupils attended it. Unfortunately, the convent closed soon after, but the school survived and prospered, being transferred to a new building near the Church in 1896, while Canon Crumley was parish priest. It was appropriately named St Dominic’s and its site can still be seen in what is now the car park.
Despite difficulties in maintaining attendance in the face of frequent outbreaks of illness and the need for children to help raise money for their families, the school flourished, supported by a small government grant but dependent mostly on the parishioners’ generosity.
In 1903 a new house was built for the priest and in 1919 the school came under the Perthshire Education Authority, lifting a financial burden from the Parish. About this time too the Parish hall was built as a memorial to the dead of the first World War, under the guidance of Canon Joseph Keenan, one of the longest serving parish priests, who served St Fillan’s from 1916 until 1935.
Within the Crieff parish, at Comrie, a chapel-of-ease was built, dedicated to St Margaret. Its founder was Fr Charles Williamson, a convert and heir to the nearby Lawers estate. His faith looked set to cost him his inheritance- as his father, Colonel Williamson, resented his son’s actions.
Undaunted, Fr Williamson, the gentleman priest, was well-loved by his parishioners. It was he who gave home to three war widows with their children the Foylans, McGhees and O’Keefes. In the course of time, three of these children became priests, Michael and Peter Foylan and Joseph McGhee. Michael was later, Bishop of Aberdeen and Joseph, Bishop of Galloway.
Fr Peter Foylan was appointed parish priest at his native St Fillan’s in 1951. He oversaw the demolition of the ruins of the original priest’s house and chapel, which had become an eyesore and replaced it with a rockery and shrine to Our Lady.
In 1965, Fr Felix McBride became parish priest and in 1966 a new school was built in Broich Road under the headship of Mr Denis Cairns.
Fr McBride organised the alterations to the church interior to bring it into line with the recommendations of Vatican Council II and the celebration of the centenary of the church building in 1971. The old altar furnishings were stored away and, in 1988/89, they were returned to the Chapel of Murthly Castle from which they had originally come.
Fr Tony McCarthy undertook the introduction liturgical reforms which came from the Vatican Council II. He also led more than 200 parishioners to the Papal Mass at Bellahouston, Glasgow in 1982. St Fillan’s 160 year old organ, thought be one of only six surviving instruments by Hamilton of Edinburgh, was restored at that time.
Fr McCarthy, together with St Dominc’s headteacher Mr Alec Duncan, also strengthenned links with St Columba’s High School in Perth.
In 1988 the church porch was extended using the stone from the demolition of the old school. This was done under the aegis of Fr Fitzgerald who later died whilst in-service as parish priest and who is commemorated by a stained glass window in the church.
Bishop Logan dedicated a new stained glass window at the 200th Annivesary Mass, to commemorate the spirit of faith which has flourished in the parish from 1799 to 1999.
Looking to the future
“A milestone such as this 200th anniversary is an occasion for reflection, for looking back over the years,” said Bishop Logan. “We look back with gratitude for and appreciation of the people and priests of St Fillan’s and with thanksgiving for the fruit borne by these branches of the vine to the glory of God the Father.”
“This 200th anniversary, however, is also an opportunity to look to the future, acknowledging all that has gone before, and asking ourselves how that rich past can help us shape the future, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
“That is the challenge which I would like to place before the parish community of St Fillan’s.”
“How are you preparing to hand on the precious gift of your faith to those who will come after you, the faith that was handed on to you by your parents and grandparents?”
“What is the Lord calling us to be and to do, as individuals and as a parish community in the Diocese of Dunkeld, as we enter a new century and a new millennium?”
“Your forebears were familiar with such questions and they addressed them, not only in what they said but also in what they did. That is why they are so historically, spiritually and pastorally significant in the Diocese of Dunkeld.