Thursday, 29 August 2013

Sale of Loreto Abbey must raise questions
about Rathfarnham’s unique Pugin chapel

Loreto Abbey ... back on the market once again (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The Commercial Property supplement of The Irish Times reported this week [29 August 2013] that Loreto Abbey, a collection of former college, school and church buildings in Rathfarnham, is up for sale at a “knockdown price” of €2.5 million after lying idle for the past 14 years.

In its report this week, The Irish Times noted: “Whatever enterprise ends up in Loreto Abbey, the promoters will obviously have to consider the provision of a car park under part of the front grounds.”

However, I think a more important consideration is the future of Rathfarnham House, which is an important work by Edward Lovett Pearce. But even more important, perhaps, is the future of the abbey church, which represents a significant stage in the work of the great Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

The estate agents Savills have been appointed by the receiver David Carson to handle the sale of the Georgian house, Pugin chapel and other buildings which stand on 1.82 hectares (4.49 acres) on Grange Road in Rathfarnham.

The property developer Liam Carroll bought Loreto Abbey and an adjoining 12 acres in 1999, supposedly for €14 million, and later built and sold 10 blocks of apartments with 271 units.

Carroll also had planning permission to convert some of the buildings into a 113-bedroom nursing home but the Irish financial crisis put an end to those plans. His company, Danninger, was one of the first to fall in the property crash.

Since NAMA took over Loreto Abbey, the buildings and grounds have fallen into disrepair, and the gates have been padlocked, barring entry to anyone with an interest in local or architectural history and heritage.

The buildings have an overall floor area of 8,627 square metres (92,860 sq ft) and it is reported they have been extensively weather-proofed over the last six months. The site’s residential zoning means the buildings could become apartments, a nursing home, or be used for medical facilities or education.

Pugin’s chapel in Rathfarnham ... behind rusting gates that are chained and padlocked (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Jill Horan of Savills told The Irish Times this week that the property provides developers, speculators and owner-occupiers with a “truly superb canvass to work from.” She said the buildings had huge development potential and offered developers an opportunity to create a unique residential or commercial scheme.

Most of the buildings on the site are linked by the central Georgian house once known as Rathfarnham House, which is flanked by the Irish granite wings of the church (1846) and Saint Anne’s to the south, with Block L and the concert hall added between 1863 and 1903.

The buildings are a treasure trove of architectural gems, from the beautiful church with its Gothic vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows to the abbey, with its splendid plasterwork and gracious living accommodation.

The buildings are set back from Grange Road and are approached by a double driveway. They overlook attractive pleasure grounds with mature trees.

Rathfarnham House was designed in 1725 for William Palliser (1695-1762) by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, who also designed Parliament Buildings in College Green, Drumcondra House (now part of All Hallows’ College), many of the houses in Henrietta Street, including Nos 9, 11 and 12.

William Palliser’s father, William Palliser (1646-1727), was once Professor of Divinity in Trinity College Dublin and later Archbishop of Cashel (1694-1727). It is said Palliser’s guests at Rathfarnham House included Dean Jonathan Swift, George Frideric Handel, who first visited Dublin in 1741, and Thomas Moore, who is believed to have written ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ here. The story is told that during a banquet one night, the gathering wanted Moore to compose a poem, and he was locked in one of the rooms until he came out with the masterpiece. However, Moore was born in 1779, and was only 16 when the last of Pallisers died, and ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ was probably written in 1815, when Rathfarnham House may have been vacat..

When William Palliser died in 1762, he had no children and Rathfarnham House was inherited by his cousin, the Revd John Palliser. When John died in 1795, the house was bought by George Grierson, the King’s Printer in Ireland. When Grierson moved to a new house in Woodtown, Rathfarnham House was left unoccupied for a few years until 1821, when the house and 40 acres were bought for £2,000 by Archbishop Daniel Murray for the newly-founded Loreto Order.

Rathfarnham House then became known as the Abbey, and between 1838 and 1840, a new chapel was built for the nuns according to designs by AWN Pugin (1812-1852). In parts of the chapel, Pugin’s designs were inspired by the lantern in Ely Cathedral.

Pugin’s chapel in Rathfarnham dates from March to May 1839, the same time as his plans for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Pugin’s drawings for the church were prepared at the same time as his plans for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. They all date from 1839, and together they mark the end of the first phase of his career.

His drawings were completed by 28 May 1839. However, the building was simplified in execution John Benjamin Keane working with Patrick Byrne. The angels on either side of altar by the sculptor John Hogan are believed to be based on Hogan’s two eldest daughters.

The chapel has been closed to the public for a decade and a half or more. This is the Pugin work nearest to where I live and work, but when I tried to visit it about two years ago I was allowed through the gates to see the exterior of the chapel, but unfortunately I was unable to see inside.

I called by again this evening on my way home from work, but the gates are rusty and remain padlocked.

A major concern at this stage must be about securing the preservation of this unique part of our architectural heritage.

The unique Octagon or Lantern Tower is the glory of Ely Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying for Syria and Egypt as we recall
the beheading of Saint John the Baptist

An icon of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in a church in Koutouloufari in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today [29 August] is observed liturgically by most Christian traditions, including most Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, as a day commemorating the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Saint John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas through the vengeful request of his daughter Salome.

The story of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist is a story that places personal integrity, morality and honour in stark contrast to self-centred arrogance, vengeance, and the tyrannical abuse of power.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod, who was Tetrarch of Judea, had imprisoned Saint John the Baptist after he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife and unlawfully marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip.

On Herod’s birthday, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced before him and his guests. The drunken Herod was so pleased that he promised her anything she desired, including half his kingdom. When her mother prompted Salome to ask for the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter, he was executed in prison. The disciples took his body and buried it, but the Gospel accounts say nothing about what happened to his head (Matthew 14: 1-12; Mark 6: 14-29; see Luke 9: 7-9).

Today’s liturgical commemoration is almost as old as the commemoration of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist on 24 June. In some Orthodox cultures, today is a day of strict fasting.

A traditional icon showing scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist

According to some Orthodox traditions, Saint John’s disciples buried his body at Sebaste, near present-day Nablus on the West Bank, but Herodias took his head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, Saint Joanna, the wife of one of Herod’s stewards, secretly recovered the head and buried it on the Mount of Olives, where it remained hidden for centuries. In the fourth century, a monk named Innocent is said to have found the buried head, but hid it again.

Over a century later, in the year 452, when Constantine the Great was Emperor, two monks in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage claimed to have found the head once again, but it fell into the hands of an Arian monk, Eustathius. Eventually, Archimandrite Marcellus brought the head to Emesa in Phoenicia.

Yet other traditions say Herodias had the head buried in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus or in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. It was found during the reign of Constantine and secretly taken to Emesa, where it was hidden until it was found once again in 453.

From Emesa, the head was brought to Constantinople. Although it was moved to Cappadocia in the early ninth century during the iconoclastic persecution, it was returned later to Constantinople.

According to another tradition, the body of Saint John the Baptist remained in Sebaste. However, his shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate ca 362. A portion of the rescued relics was brought first to Jerusalem and then to Alexandria in 395. Today, the former tomb in Nablus is at the Nabi Yahya Mosque or Saint John the Baptist Mosque.

Today, several places claim to have the severed head of Saint John the Baptist, including the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch in Turkey, the Romanian skete of Saint John Prodromos (Saint John the Baptist) on Mount Athos in Greece, and the former Basilica of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus. Because of the traditions relating the head to the Syrian capital, many Muslims believe that Christ’s second coming will take place in Damascus.

Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, shows me the relics in the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Egypt, when I visited the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great at Wadi el-Natrun, about 100 km north-west of Cairo, in the Desert of Sceits, Father Irenaeus, a monk in the monastery, showed me the relics of Saint John the Baptist in the crypt of the main church in the monastery.

The Church of Saint Macarius was restored in recent decades at the request of the late Pope Shenouda III. We were told that during the restoration of the church, the monks unearthed the crypt of Saint John the Baptist and the crypt of the Prophet Elisha below the northern wall . The relics were then gathered into a special reliquary and placed before the sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist in the Church of Saint Macarius.

The monastery has spiritual, academic and fraternal links with several monasteries outside Egypt, including Chevetogne in Belgium, Solesmes Abbey and the Monastery of the Transfiguration in France, Deir el-Harf in Lebanon and the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation at Fairacres in Oxford.

Each day, the monastery receives large numbers of Egyptian and foreign visitors, sometimes as many as 1,000 people a day. The monks give special priority to priests, full-time lay workers and Sunday school teachers as visitors, and during the summer holidays, the monastery offers many young people opportunities to spend a few days on retreat, with spiritual direction and guidance.

The monastery is playing a significant role in the spiritual awakening of the Coptic Church. “We receive all our visitors, no matter what their religious conviction, with joy, warmth and graciousness, not out of a mistaken optimism, but in genuine and sincere love for each person,” says the monastery website.

In his book, Church and State, one of the monks, Father Matta el-Meskeen, declares that politics should be entirely separated from religion. “Give therefore to emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21). In other writings, such as Sectarianism and Extremism, Father Matta warns against the common tendency of minorities to be wrapped up in themselves and to despise others.

The monks say they live out fully the unity of the Church in spirit and in truth, “in anticipation of its visible attainment ecclesiastically. Through our genuine openness of heart and spirit to all men, no matter what their confession, it has become possible for us to see ourselves, or rather Christ, in others. For us, Christian unity is to live together in Christ by love. Then divisions collapse and differences disappear, and there is only the One Christ who gathers us all into His holy Person.”

And they add: “It is our hope that the desert of Scetis will become once more the birth place of good will, reconciliation and unity between all the peoples on earth in Christ Jesus.”

These monks are an example to us all. Meanwhile, those places associated with Saint John the Baptist in the Middle East, including Syria, Turkey, the West Bank and Egypt must be in our prayers this morning as we pray that integrity, morality and honour should triumph over arrogance, vengeance and the tyrannical abuse of power.

With Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert in Egypt


Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 11; Hebrews 11: 32 to 12: 2; Matthew 14: 1-12.


Almighty God,
who called your servant John the Baptist
to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death:
strengthen us by your grace
that, as he suffered for the truth,
so we may boldly resist corruption and vice
and receive with him the unfading crown of glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament have known
your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The door into the chapel at the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)