Saturday, May 28

Scotland’s ‘cradle of Christianity’ on Iona is saved by little mercies | Inheritance

A Christian community on a small island in the Hebrides that for centuries has drawn pilgrims from around the world will reopen Monday after a mammoth campaign raised £ 3.75 million to save it from closure.

The Iona community, centered around a Benedictine abbey on whose grounds John Smith, the late Labor leader is buried, has spent the past three years making its buildings fit for the 21st century. The upgrade includes the installation of a renewable energy system and connection to ultra-fast broadband.

Princess Anne, patron of the appeal, will visit the island for a blessing ceremony, and thousands of people are expected to join the online celebrations of the successful call for work.

Princess Anne
Princess Anne, who will visit Iona for a ceremony to bless the reconstruction works. Photograph: Rex / Shutterstock

In 2016, the community warned that without significant action its facilities would not be fit for purpose within a few years, putting its presence in Iona “in grave danger”. The initial estimated cost of the job was £ 2.1 million, but the final costs were significantly higher.

Raising the money had been a “daunting prospect,” said Christine Jones, coordinator of the appeal. “We had some important donations, but the majority came from people and ecclesiastical communities.” Around 2,500 people from 22 countries contributed, raising money from bake sales and sponsored walks.

The new power system will pump hot water from underground to the island’s historic abbey, town hall, schools, homes and businesses. Residential accommodation has been made accessible to wheelchair users, the refectory has been renovated, a new kitchen and laundry room have been installed and new wiring has been carried out.

“We have tried to be as green as possible, which is really difficult in a Benedictine monastery,” said Ruth Harvey, community leader. The work was complicated by the inclusion of the abbey as a building of great historical interest and its location on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland.

Iona is known as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. In 563, the Irish monk Saint Columba established a monastic settlement on the island. This week the group will also celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Columba.

In the Middle Ages it became the site of a Benedictine abbey, and in 1938, the Iona community It was founded by George MacLeod. He brought skilled unemployed craftsmen and young priests-in-training from Glasgow to Iona to rebuild the monastic quarters of the ruined medieval abbey.

Visitors to the community participate in daily chores and participate in worship and other activities. “This is not a hotel or a conference center,” Harvey said. “People come for reflection and inspiration, and to explore issues of importance – the environment, poverty, migration, equality – in the context of a Christian community and in a beautiful, rugged landscape.”

John Smith's funeral in Iona - May 1994
The funeral of Labor leader John Smith in Iona in May 1994. Photograph: Murdo Macleod / The Guardian

The community is open to all: “We don’t just serve registered Christians,” Harvey said. Visitors pay to stay in the community, with subsidies available to low-income people. The trip from Glasgow can take up to six hours: “Train, boat, bus, boat, walk,” Harvey said.

A year after Smith’s burial in the abbey cemetery following his sudden death from a heart attack in 1994, thousands of people visited his grave. The locals said the site was being “desecrated” with trampled plots surrounding Smith’s grave and damaged headstones.

Iona, one and a half miles wide and three miles long, has a permanent population of approximately 120 and 130,000 visitors each year. The community is particularly looking forward to welcoming people who have been negatively affected by the Covid pandemic in the coming months, Harvey said.

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