New Church of Ireland dean says Limerick 'needs to regain its confidence after recession'

Gráinne Keays in conversation with Very Rev Niall J Sloane, Rector of Limerick City Parish and Dean of St Mary's Cathedral

The Rev'd Canon Niall James Sloane, Dean of Limerick and Ardfert with his wife Karen and daughter Evelyn Picture: Dave Gaynor

The Rev'd Canon Niall James Sloane, Dean of Limerick and Ardfert with his wife Karen and daughter Evelyn Picture: Dave Gaynor

THE Limerick City Parish encompasses three Church of Ireland churches: St Mary’s Cathedral, Bridge Street; St Michael’s Church, Barrington Street and St John’s Church, Abington, the new bailiwick of the Very Rev Niall J Sloane, Dean of Limerick and Ardfert:

Gráinne Keays: Can you firstly tell me a little about yourself and your background?

Niall Sloane: I grew up in Loch Gowna, in Cavan. We had the Post Office and a shop. I have two brothers and a sister. My parents are of an “inter-church marriage.” I studied theology and history at Trinity and was ordained in 2005. I was curate in Portstewart firstly and later senior curate in Taney Parish (Dundrum, Dublin) and then Rector of Killiney in Dublin from 2012 until I came to Limerick in 2015. I’m married to Karen and we have one daughter, Evelyn.

GK: When and why did you decide that religious life was for you? Was it always something at the back of your mind or was it a light-bulb moment? 

NS: It wasn’t a sudden thing at all. I originally wanted to study hotel and catering management and was very keen on that idea – I still have a keen interest in the area. I used to help out a bit at the church in my home parish - readings, taking up the collection, what have you. When I was a teenager, there was a vacancy in the parish and Roy Jackson, a retired cleric (and father of the Archbishop of Dublin) came to help out until the vacancy was filled.  One day he asked me if I had ever considered ordination. I hadn’t. But after that the idea was there in the back of my mind. In the end, instead of heading to Shannon to study hotel management, I went to Trinity and studied theology.

GK: How do you see the role of a Church of Ireland minister today?

NS: Pastor and priest. Taking services, obviously, but equally importantly, I think the job is about caring – caring for the whole community, whether Church of Ireland or not. Reaching out to broken souls and showing them that they are loved. Visiting is key, I think – getting to know people and taking the message to them that we care about them.

GK: What challenges are faced by the Church of Ireland today?

NS: Relevance. What has the Church to say to the community? We need to find ways of reaching out to everyone, especially those on the margins. For instance, the issue of suicide – we should be asking why the rate is so high, especially here in Limerick, and we have a role to play in the solution. We have to be a beacon of hope, and to show those in distress that they are loved and they count - they belong.

On a more general note, we need to reach out to the wider community. Next year, we have the St. Mary’s 850th celebrations. Part of that celebration will involve reaching out to every branch of our society – be it sport, justice, healthcare, education, commerce, tourism.

GK: Why did you decide to take the Limerick appointment? 

NS: I had no intention of leaving Killiney. We were very settled there. Evelyn had just arrived and we were very happy. The Limerick vacancy was put to me, and after a lot of prayer, thought and a very persuasive bishop, we decided to go for it. A great opportunity and a challenge, too, to work in a cathedral city – a new chapter for us.

GK: What did you expect Limerick to be like? Has reality met with expectation? Any surprises? 

NS: I wasn’t really sure. We knew Limerick was struggling with the recession and everything, and has had some negative press but we have found Limerick to be incredibly welcoming and friendly – the people are great. It has absolutely everything and is easy to get around. One thing that I found surprising and humbling is “the Dean” is a known figure in the city. Everyone understands who the Dean of St Mary’s is and so when I ring up anywhere, they automatically know – no explaining.

GK: What do you see as the strengths of Limerick City Parish and what are its greatest challenges? 

NS: The people, the buildings and the history are the big strengths. Next year, 2018, we have St Mary’s 850th, but in 2019 we have St Michael’s 175th and the year after that Abington is 150 years old. The strength and the joy of Limerick City Parish is that each of the three churches is totally different in character – St Mary’s is a cathedral with all that it entails; then St Michael’s is a typical city parish church with the school attached; and then you have Abington, a small rural church but very much part of the community out in Murroe. They all have something different to offer. The challenge is in the geography: Limerick City Parish is spread over a very wide area and serves four hospitals, a prison, the schools, many many charities, a prison, several nursing homes, and so on. But it’s all very exciting.

GK: What is your vision for your ministry in Limerick City Parish? How are you going to set about achieving it?

NS: I want the parish to represent the whole city of Limerick and beyond. We should have a welcome for everyone. Outreach will be fundamental to my ministry here. The parish is unique, has iconic buildings, wonderful spaces not just for worship but for other contexts. For example, we invited representatives of a broad spectrum of city life to participate in our Carols for the City service, including the Mayor; Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy; the headmistress of St Michael’s National School, Miriam Smith; Paul Foley, Chairman of Patrickswell GAA; a member of An Garda Síochana; and Noreen Spillane, the HSE’s Chief Director of Nursing, Midwifery & Clinical Operations; David O’Brien from the Civic Trust and Desmond Fitzgerald, the President of UL.

Limerick needs to regain its confidence after the hard knocks of the recession and to shake off the negative press.  It has so much to offer: it is the gateway to the west. It needs to showcase its beautiful Georgian architecture and its medieval quarter. It has 2030 to look forward to and the Opera Centre. We all have a role to play in making Limerick a place people want to live in or visit.

I plan to build on the great work of my predecessors. I want to make the buildings recognised and focal points for the city and county. We have to have something to say. People need to know they can turn to us for direction - vision. We need to open our doors and offer something back to the city and to be proud of our city.

I want to work with the other churches too. I want people to see our parish as caring and loving to all. If we don’t do that, we may as well close the door, throw away the key – it’s finished.

Working together, the parish should benefit the whole city.

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