Cornelius Denvir, Roman Catholic Prelate, mathematician, natural philosopher and Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, is born on August 13, 1791, at Ballyculter, County Down. He is noted for ministering in Belfast amidst growing sectarian tension, taking a moderate and non-confrontational stance, to the annoyance of his pro-Catholic followers. He is also a professor at Maynooth College as well as Down and Connor Diocesan College, and is active in the local scientific community.
Denvir is educated at Dr. Nelson’s Classical School in Downpatrick, being described by peers as an enthusiastic child with a love for sight-seeing. According to one biographer, young Denvir also shows interest in the catechism by attending local visits from the then Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr. Patrick MacMullan, who is resident in Downpatrick. In September 1808, he enrolls at Maynooth College, and is appointed chair of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics there in August 1813.
As chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Maynooth College, Denvir is noted for changing the style of education at the college from pure logic-based reasoning in Mathematics to a more holistic, topical approach. He is also noted for emphasising experimentation and the importance of the scientific method in teaching natural philosophy, with several sources noting his well-stocked labs.
While at Maynooth College Denvir teaches both Nicholas Callan, the inventor and physicist, and Dominic Corrigan, the noted Irish physician. According to several accounts, both speak fondly of their old professor, to the point of Callan gifting Denvir one of his induction coils in thanks.
Denvir is ordained first as deacon in June 1813, then a priest in May 1814, performing his liturgical duties in conjunction with his academic ones. In 1826, he leaves Maynooth College to become the parish priest of Downpatrick. In 1833 he becomes a professor at the newly founded St. Malachy’s College, teaching classes in Latin, Greek and Mathematics. He continues his duties as parish priest and professor until 1835, when he is appointed Bishop of Down and Connor in succession to Dr. William Crolly.
As 22nd Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, Denvir emphasises the teaching of the Catechism to youth as well as emphasising the importance of scripture to the diocese. In 1841 he helps fund the start of construction of St. Malachy’s Church in Belfast, which is completed in 1845. In his later years, he falls under criticism by other Belfast Catholics, who claim he is neglectful of his duties, especially those relating to expanding and defending Catholicism in the face of growing Protestant influence. Some accounts attribute his shortcomings to poor health and temperament, while others suggest that he backs away from expansion to avoid conflict with Protestant groups.
Denvir suffers from personal finance problems during his time as Bishop. The construction of St. Malachy’s Church puts him into deep personal debt, which he is apparently arrested for some time after 1844. He is also criticised for selling seats in the newly constructed church to offset costs. He is also described as reluctant in asking for funds from parishioners, severely limiting his resources with which to care for the church.
Denvir is appointed Commissioner of National Education in 1853. He is noted for being supportive of non-denominational education and investigating reports of proselytism in public primary education. He later resigns this position in 1857 on request of the Holy See to focus on expanding the local Catholic school system.
In 1860, after years of illness compounded by age, Denvir is assigned Dr. Patrick Dorrian as a coadjutor bishop to assist in his episcopal duties. While ill health is said to be the predominant reason for the appointment of a coadjutor, contemporary newspaper accounts suggest there also might be an ideological reason for the appointment. In The Spectator it is noted in December 1859 “it may be, because he is too liberal for the Cullen epoch.”
In May 1865, Denvir resigns as Bishop and is succeeded by Dorrian. He dies one year later on July 10, 1866, in his residence on Donegall St., after suffering from fainting fits a few days prior. He is buried in Ballycruttle Church.