08 June 2017

A church with a discreet entrance
and interesting roots and history

Behind the discreet sign and canopy, Christ Church is a church with an interesting history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church on O’Connell Street looks like an ordinary office block in the heart of commercial block. But behind the 1950s façade is a church used by the united Presbyterian and Methodist congregation, bringing together two separate congregations since the early 1970s.

All that indicates that there is more inside is the name above the door. But until the 1950s there was a garden in front of what was a fine Gothic revival Methodist church.

The Methodist story goes back to 1739 and John Wesley’s preaching. Methodism was introduced to Limerick City by Robert Swindells, who preached his first sermon in the Parade in 1748 or 1749. The first conference of the Irish Methodists was held in Limerick in 1752, and it was chaired by John Wesley.

Wesley could be critical of Limerick’s Methodist during his visits, but in 1771, in the week immediately after Pentecost, he recorded in his Journal: ‘I spoke severally to the members of the society in Limerick. I have found no society in Ireland, number for number, so rooted and grounded in love.’

The Methodists in Limerick first rented the old church of Saint Francis’s Abbey near the Sandmall. They then built a new chapel ‘a handsome edifice near the city courthouse’ on Quay Lane (now Bridge Street). This was sold when Christ Church on George’s Street (now O’Connell Street) was built in 1812-1813.

The Communion Table in Christ Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

However, a schism divided Methodism with a rising demand for sacramental life in Methodist chapels. A vocal minority protested that such a move would separate the Methodist societies from the Church of Ireland. In 1816, the Methodist Conference approved the consolidation of the Methodists into a more formal Church and the decision caused division, with one-third seceding and forming the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Society to preserve their links with the Anglicans.

The newly built-chapel on George’s Street was retained by the majority group, who were known as the Wesleyan Methodists. It was remodelled by Robert Fogerty in 1879 and reopened on 7 September 1879.

Meanwhile, the smaller minority Primitive Methodists built their own chapel, first known as the Independent Chapel and later as Central Hall, in Bedford Row in 1821. The new church was built of cut stone, in the Gothic style, with an iron balustrade and handsome entrance. David Lee and Debbie Jacobs, in James Pain, architect (2005) suggest that the church was designed by the Limerick-based architect brothers James and George Richard Pain, although there is no compelling stylistic evidence to support this. Beside it was the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row which later later moved to Hartstonge Street, where Ove Arup now has its offices.

Limerick had two Methodist churches until the Central Hall in Bedford Row closed in 1920 and the Methodist community there united with the church in O’Connell Street. The former chapel was re-opened by Paul Barnard as the Grand Central Cinema in November 1922 and was later known as Savoy 2. A three-bay three-storey cinema, façade was built in the Art Deco style in early 1930s to the front the former Methodist chapel.

A shop front was inserted on the ground floor in 1973, and access to the cinema was from one side of the building and up two flights of stairs. Savoy 2 closed in 2004 and the old Art Deco façade was demolished in 2007. I understand part of the original church frontage is encased in a new modern shop on Bedford Row.

Meanwhile, the Methodist Church on O’Connell Street was substantially rebuilt in 1938. The congregation had dwindled in numbers, and an office block was built in the garden in front of the church to create a rental space and to maximise the commercial use of the street frontage.

The building erected in 1938 is a terraced, six-bay three-storey rendered building in the Art Deco style, distinguished by two shopfronts at ground floor level, flanking a centrally-placed door opening, with vertically emphasised window bays to first and second floor and narrow window piers giving a staccato rhythm to the façade. This is a fine, yet restrained example of Art Deco architecture that is relatively rare in Limerick.

Inside Christ Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A door opening to the side with a canopy gives access to Christ Church. This door opening has splayed bronze handrails and terrazzo steps, and the name above the door is all that identified this as a church for the passesr-by on O’Connell Street. The church is reached through a long corridor lined with memorials brought here from the former Presbyterian Church on Henry Street when the two congregations united in 1978.

As part of the 200th anniversary celebrations at Christ Church, a genealogy and family History day took place in the church in 2013. Limerick Methodist registers date from 1842, and the Presbyterian registers date from 1829. They include the records of the Methodist mission in Kilrush, Co Clare (1847-1901), and the Presbyterian congregation in Killarney, Co Kerry (1879-1907). The Methodist churches in Kilkee and Kilrush, Co Clare, and in Tarbert, Co Kerry, once formed the West Clare Mission.

Two years ago, Christ Church received a facelift with funding from Limerick City of Culture 2014. But it is still possible to walk by this building without noticing that behind the discreet façade there is a church with such an interesting story.

Corrected 8 June 2017, with acknowledgments to Liam Irwin.


Bruce Baker said...

By any chance, do you know if the church has a portrait from 1840 of Rev. C. G. Townley, who was the minister at the Independent Chapel on Bedford Row in the 1830s. Here is an engraving of the painting: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.ah6ls8&view=1up&seq=552. I'm studying the painter and trying to track down the paintings that this and other engravings were based on. -- Bruce Baker

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you Bruce Baker,

The four places I think you should put this question to are: the Representative Church Body (RCB) Library, Dublin; the National Portrait Gallery, London, which has a good collection of Irish clergy; the National Library of Ireland, which also has a portrait collection; and the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Best wishes in your search,