For after gathering mid-month for a very special Mass to mark the re-opening of All Saints Church after its re-ordering and substantial refurbishment, they had reason to rejoice again in the occasion of the 90th birthday of their Pastor Emeritus, Archdeacon Kevin Donnelly.
Originally from Ballintoy, Archdeacon Donnelly entered the priesthood more than six decades ago aided by the prayerful support of his mother and the encouragement of one of his teachers, Rasharkin native, Canon John McMullan.
In the years since, Fr Donnelly has spent quite a number of them in the Ballymena parish, where he has resided for the past five years following his retirement as a parish priest.
Ordained in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on June 18, 1950, his first posting was to the Nazareth Lodge children’s home on the Ormeau Road, Belfast.
Three years later he became the first full-time Chaplain at the Royal Victoria Hospital before moving on to Glenarm as curate in 1957 and then to Ballymena in 1965 serving as curate under Dean Thomas McGrattan PP.
After seven years in the parish of Kirkinriola, he moved again, this time to St John’s and Corpus Christi, in Belfast’s Ballymurphy - a posting which Archdeacon Donnelly says could have been his last.
The very sprightly and lucid nonagenarian recalled: “I went to Ballymurphy from Ballymena in 1972 when things were at their worst.
“We got a call that a wee boy had been shot and could someone go and attend him.
“I should have been on but it was Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, my fellow curate in St John’s that answered the call and was shot dead in the crossfire between the Army and the Provisional IRA.
“It was a terrible thing, Fr Noel was a good, saintly priest...It seemed that God wanted me to hang on for another year or two”.
In 1978, Fr Donnelly moved the short distance to the Holy Trinity parish in Turf Lodge to become Parish Priest and stayed there until 1985.
He then became P.P. of Loughgiel where he remained until 1997 when he retired as a parish priest.
Ballymena beckoned, however, and Fr Donnelly volunteered to return as curate.
“I’d been telling Canon Sean Connolly of my retirement from Loughgiel and that I wasn’t sure where to go,” said Fr Donnelly.
“He told me there was a room for me in Ballymena and that was that. I was delighted because it’s a second home to me”.
Being made a Canon in 1994 and an Archdeacon in 2001 have been just two of many milestones on Archdeacon Donnelly’s road to 90.
However, as he looked back on those years amid his birthday celebrations last week, he admitted his fondest memories are of his time spent in Loughgiel and in his “second home” - Ballymena.
Citing his current role as “a born again curate”, Archdeacon Donnelly’s duties at All Saints include taking Mass and confessions.
“I still take my turn,” he smiled,” and I still visit the schools and the sick.
“I’ll keep going while the Lord allows me, He knows best what’s for us”.
While recognising that these are ever changing times for the Church, Archdeacon Donnelly says, however, one thing remains the same - “The loyalty and the love you get from the people”
The high esteem in which he is held in the parish was, indeed, reflected in the numbers attending his birthday celebration which followed All Saints’ re-opening Mass on February 12.
Also, highly popular with young parishioners, Archdeacon Donnelly was treated to ‘birthday tea’ last week at both St Brigid’s and St Colmcille’s Primary Schools to mark reaching his 90th year on Sunday, February 26.