For over 1,000 years, the tiny sacred isle of Iona – barely three miles long and one mile wide - has symbolised the beating heart of Christian faith.

As years past, the monastery founded in 563 by Irish monk St Columba and a dozen of his followers, would be reborn time and again, attracting pilgrims from far and wide to worship and find peace within its Christian community.

But when fundraising for an ambitious £3 million project to modernise the Abbey’s facilities encountered a hurdle that threatened plans and would have sent costs soaring, it wasn’t just faith that the community needed: it was a miracle.

Perhaps not surprisingly given Iona’s long history and deep devotion, they got one.

And against the odds the tiny community and its small band of fundraisers gathered support from around the world to protect the future of the precious retreat.

On Monday, the ‘miracle’ of Iona will be complete when its newly refurbished facilities – including a link to what will be a very modern renewable energy source – are officially opened by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, and Patron of The Iona Abbey Capital Appeal.

The unveiling will herald a fresh chapter in Iona’s 1400 years of history and coincide with Columba Day celebrations marking the 1500th anniversary of the Irish monk’s birth.

Modernisation of the Abbey facilities come just over 80 years after Govan Church of Scotland minister, the Rev George MacLeod founded the modern Iona Community, and after a survey seven years ago warned years of heavy use meant the facilities would be “unfit for purpose” without urgent repairs and long-term investment. Accommodation and other public areas were cleared in 2018 for an refurbishment project that spanned bedrooms and bathrooms, saw community and living spaces insulated, with new plumbing, electrics and a string of features to enhance accessibility.

But despite a major fundraising drive to get it all off the ground, the four woman strong committee charged with keeping the cash flowing for the £3.75 million project, found themselves seeking divine support to overcome one major hurdle.

“We had just completed phase one,” recalls Christine Jones, co-ordinator of the capital appeal which included two fundraisers based in Iona, one in Falkirk and the other in, of all places, Maine in the United States of America.

“We wanted to say to contractors that we could commence phase two, which meant they didn’t have to move equipment off the island and then bring it back up. But we were £300,000 short.”

As the women fretted in March 2018 over how to raise the necessary £300,000 by that May, a colleague offered sage advice.

“The guy supporting us in marketing the project said; ‘you need a miracle in May’,” she recalls.

“I said we’d never raise £300,000 in a month. He said ‘If you lot don’t believe that, then where does that leave the rest of us?

“So we started a campaign called Miracle in May and raised £312,000!

“We were blessed,” she adds.

Indeed, with what could well have been an element of divine intervention, the astonishing Iona refurbishment campaign spanned the globe with donations flooding in from people who had stayed there and been enchanted by its calm beauty, and just as many who hadn’t.

Most, she adds, were relatively small offerings – including the couple of pounds raised by one little boy so enchanted by the island and the Abbey that he sold his toy to raise money.

Donations ranged from £2 to £900,000, with a total of $1 million from American donors.

“They all added up,” adds Christine. “There were 2500 separate donations and some very generous benefactors and philanthropic giving.”

Despite Iona’s status as a sacred burial place for kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway and its influence on the establishment of Christianity in Scotland, England and throughout mainland Europe, the bulk of the funds were donated by private individuals or relatively small charities.

Even more impressive, the Abbey’s fundraising drive coincided with a successful £2.3 million campaign to rebuild the Iona Village Hall – a vital feature of island life for Iona’s 150 residents. The brand new hall features the old wooden floor retrieved from its predecessor, ensuring modern feet will follow in the footsteps of generations of previous islanders and visitors.

Meanwhile, at the same time the tiny island’s secular and Christian communities had also come together to devise a renewable energy project which will see the Abbey’s buildings and the island’s homes, businesses, school and village hall heated by water pumped from underground.

It all comes as an increasingly young population lays down roots on the island, helping to boost the closure threatened local primary school from just four pupils in 2000 to now having more than 20 children.

The new refurbishment of the Abbey facilities – which will feature in a special edition of Songs of Praise later this month - echoes efforts by previous generations down the centuries to protect the historic site.

Founded by St Columba in 563, the original monastery came under waves of attack from Viking invaders and was rebuilt several times.

Iona Abbey was constructed in 1200 and then expanded in the 15th century, however the Reformation led to it and other abbeys across Scotland being abandoned.

The Abbey was eventually restored after Govan-based Church of Scotland minister, The Reverend George MacLeod, established the Iona Community in 1938 and set about gathering groups of craftsmen and trainee clergymen reconstruct parts of the monastery and provide accommodation for guests.

In a normal year, around 3,000 guests stay at the Abbey, sharing communal facilities and taking part in events, exploring its library and joining in worship, while the island itself attracts around 110,000 day visitors.

Having been forced to delay the opening due to the impact of Covid-19, among the first groups to visit the newly refurbished Abbey will be frontline workers and those hardest affected by the pandemic.

Ruth Harvey, leader of the Iona Community, said the re-opening is a “landmark moment” in the Abbey’s history.

“You can't discount the very dedicated and visionary volunteers who spent remarkable amount of time, effort and shared wisdom to make this happen.

“The mystery of faith is evident in the sheer hard work and determination of individuals," she says.

“The whole thing has been miraculous. God works in mysterious ways.”