Our Church in Vatersay is situated near the shore on one of the most beautiful bays imaginable. It is dedicated to Our Lady of the Waves and St John. The building is currently undergoing some long awaited renovation and has a fascinating history.
Mary Ceit MacKinnon writes…. The church of Our Lady of the Waves and St. John was opened in 1913. In that year Uilleam Boyd, one of the ten Vatersay Raiders, who had served time in prison for his part in the land raids, gave part of his croft at Uidh for the purpose of building a church . The corrugated iron building supplied by Spiers of Oban could accommodate 250 people and it was chiefly financed by the wealthy philanthropist, the Marquess of Bute. There was also accommodation for the priest should he be stranded due to bad weather. John MacKinnon (Iagan Dhomhnaill Neill), the renowned Mingulay craftsman who by then tenanted at croft at Eorisdale made the altar and the benches. He also donated the altar rail which he had originally made for St. Columba’s Chapel in Mingulay. The Confessional door was salvaged from the ship The Maple Branch which was wrecked off Sandray in 1897. The community helped to gather the stones from the shore to build an enclosure wall, thus utilising the natural materials that were to hand. In past times it is believed that there were two chapels on the island, Cille Bhrianain (St. Brendan’s) at Uinessan and Cille Mhoire (St. Mary’s) located where the present burial ground is. In 1906 sheer poverty and desperation forced cottars from Mingulay
and Barra to begin a series of raids on Vatersay which was a large farm. They landed at Uidh and continued to the farm buildings where they proceeded to mark off crofts for themselves. This was the very spot where their grandparents’ homes had been prior to their eviction fifty years before. For many years prior to this they had requested land there from the absentee landowner, Lady Gordon Cathcart, but she had consistently refused. During one of those raids, Mass was celebrated at the Beannachan by Father Hugh Cameron of Castlebay who was sympathetic to the views of the raiders. At the Mass rock there which dates back to the era of the 17 century post-Reformation Catholic persecution, the people pledged that when the island of Vatersay legally became theirs they would build a church there. In 1908 the Government bought the island from the landowner and the beginnings of a crofting township were established.
In 2008, a beautiful celebration marking 100 Years of the Vatersay Raiders began with prayers for the 10 Raiders said at the Beannachan. Parish priest Fr Michael Hutson was joined by former parish priests Canon MacQueen and Fr Calum MacLellan along with the regular Vatersay visitor Fr Peter Banyard SJ, for the blessing of crosses – one for each of the ten original “raiders”.
The celebrations continued with a Rosary Procession from the Beannachan to the present church led by Fr Calum for a Thanksgiving Mass. Fr Banyard preached at the Mass. There was a Vatersay-style Ceilidh thereafter. Prior to the church of Our Lady of the Waves and St. John being built in 1913 the people journeyed by boat on Sundays to attend Mass at Castlebay. But in the harsh weather of winter months this was not always possible. Once a month the priest visited the island and a house Mass was celebrated.
Therefore, the people were extremely grateful when the church building was finally completed. Since then many changes have occurred in island life. The people have survived through periods of struggle and hardship but have also enjoyed times of prosperity and happiness. Since 1991 Vatersay has been connected to Barra by a causeway and this has proved very beneficial to the island. Mass is presently celebrated on Friday mornings at Vatersay Church as well as when visiting priests celebrate Masses at Christmas and Easter.
Special mention must be made of Father Peter Banyard SJ, who has come from St Aloysius in Glasgow to holiday on Vatersay for over 40 years, providing Confession and Mass for the islanders when he can. Recent renovations to the church building have included a new roof, new windows and the the re-establishing of the original outer porch, with appropriate disabled-access ramp for the church.