The Church of Ireland Diocese of Derry and Raphoe is to get its first female Dean.

Rev Liz Fitzgerald, who is currently based in west Donegal, has been appointed as Rector of the Grouped Parishes of Raphoe, Raymochy and Clonleigh and Dean of St Eunan’s Cathedral.

News of the appointment, by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, was announced on Sunday at services in the Raphoe Group of churches and in Rev Fitzgerald’s current parishes of Gweedore, Carrickfinn and Templecrone.

The Omagh-native said she may have “squealed” when the proposition was initially put to her by Bishop Forster to succeed Rev Arthur Barrett as Dean. “I think I squealed, ‘Who me?’”

Mrs Fitzgerald says she is looking forward to the challenge immensely. “Being invited to be Rector of the Raphoe Group and Dean of St Eunan’s Cathedral is very exciting and I’m really looking forward to it. When I was ordained curate, I never thought that I would see a time when I would be in full-time ministry in a parish, so that is very exciting for me. My grandmother lived next door to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. As a child I’d be in and out of the Cathedral and I just loved the feeling and the atmosphere, and I would have worshipped there, so to be invited to be Rector of St Eunan’s Cathedral is wonderful. The ‘Dean bit’ I think is exciting, it’s a privilege. I’ve a lot of learning to do.”

St Eunan’s has a long and distinguished history. The church is 800 years old and people have prayed on the site for 1,400 years. While acknowledging the historic nature of her appointment, Rev Fitzgerald says she is undaunted by it, putting her trust in God.

“I was brought up in a family where we considered professions as genderless. If it was the right person in the right place to do the right job that was good. The fact that I’ve been appointed [St Eunan’s Cathedral’s] first lady Dean, I don’t feel weighed down by it at all. I think it’s very exciting. It’s certainly an historic event, but I feel the weight of the calling more than the weight of history. Am I daunted? I just feel spiritually guided. I feel spiritually very content in what I’ve been asked to do, and I feel God will be my guide and will see me through it – but I still have to do the graft.”

Rev Fitzgerald will miss her parishioners in west Donegal. “My part of Donegal – Bunbeg, Carrickfinn, Dungloe – is beautiful, and what makes it beautiful is the good, kind people, my parishioners and the people in the community. But, about a year ago, I had a restlessness deep inside me which I tried to ignore and tried to leave to one side. That restlessness continued all of last year. [Rev Fitzgerald’s husband] Sean had a huge role in Rotary Ireland, my son was on placement in Belfast, our life was upside down and then, all of a sudden, our life is now calm, Sean’s retired, Rotary has stopped. This offer has been presented to me and I’ve said ‘Yes’ because the time is right, I’m ready for another challenge – I’ve time for another challenge – and I thank the Lord that this is my challenge.”

“I’ve always loved the sense of peace in Raphoe Cathedral. It never, ever dawned on me that I would actually end up being Rector of a cathedral and whenever it was proposed to me, I just heard God say, ‘This is yours’. It was the strangest feeling. I didn’t stop and think about it. I just put it totally in God’s hands, and that’s why I’m so calm and excited all at once.”

Rev Fitzgerald says she is not totally sure what being Dean of St Eunan’s Cathedral “entails in its entirety” but says she is up for the challenge. “I feel energised, I feel awakened. Sean even said this morning that I look 10 years younger. This has reawakened my call, my duty. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and learn about the administrative roles and responsibilities of being Dean and Rector, as well as the pastoral needs and the worship needs involved. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and go.”

A date has yet to be finalised for Rev Fitzgerald’s institution as Rector and installation as Dean. “The only thing that I have in my head,” Rev Fitzgerald says, “is that St Eunan’s Day is the 23rd of September and it would be lovely if something could happen around St Eunan’s Day.

“It’s all a bit of a fantasy to me. George Otto Simms was the Archbishop in Armagh when I was a child. He inspired in me how central to the Church and yet how important to our faith a cathedral and cathedral worship can be. I just feel privileged. Thank you, God. Thank you for letting me serve this way.”

Bishop Forster has congratulated Rev Fitzgerald on her appointment and thanked her for her ministry in the Gweedore Group. “On behalf of the Diocese, I wish to express my gratitude to Liz for her generous and faith-filled witness in Gweedore, Carrickfinn and Templecrone. She is a gifted priest and pastor, and will share those gifts with her new parishioners in Raphoe, Raymochy and Clonleigh. I trust that parishioners in Raphoe, Manorcunningham and Lifford will welcome Liz warmly and offer her their prayers and support.”