Saturday, 13 January 2018

Saint Joseph’s, a Limerick church
that features in ‘Angela’s Ashes’

Saint Joseph’s Church in Limerick features throughout Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Joseph’s Church on Quinlan Street and O’Connell Avenue in Limerick, features throughout Angela’s Ashes. Here the author Frank McCourt made his first Confession, here he stands clutching his father’s hand as he is refused his request to become an altar boy and the door is closed on him, and here he is shocked to see his mother begging in front of the church, which is, in his own words, ‘the worst kind of shame.’

Saint Joseph’s Church stands beside the former Baptist Church, which is now Saint Joseph’s Parish Centre. Together, these two buildings mark the end of the larger-scale Georgian streetscape of Limerick, developed in Newtown Pery at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.

Saint Joseph’s was built in 1904 on a site donated by a Mr Byrnes. The site was originally a quarry with a natural spring. It was first used as a chapel of ease for Saint Michael’s Parish Church.

William Edward Corbett (1824-1904) was the architect of the church and John Ryan and Sons were the builders. Corbett was born in Limerick on 19 April 1824, the son of Patrick Corbett. He was the architect and borough surveyor of Limerick City from 1854 until 1899, and lived at Patrick Street (1856), Glentworth Street (1863-1898) and Lansdowne Road, until he died on 1 February 1904 at the age of 79.

Corbett’s other works in Limerick city and county include the former Franciscan Church on Henry Street, the former Jesuit church on the Crescent, Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Castleconnell, and the Tait Memorial Clock in Baker Place. Earlier, Corbett had worked with Hardwick on Adare Manor and at Mount Saint Alphonsus.

The church has acquired the nickname ‘the church of the spite’ because it is situated across the street from the Jesuit Church of the Sacred Heart in the Crescent.

At the time Saint Joseph’s was being built, Bishop Edward O’Dwyer of Limerick objected to the Jesuits’ two-tier system for worshippers in their church, so that the wealthy sat at the front while the less affluent sat at the back. Despite Bishop O’Dwyer’s protests, the Jesuits refused to change this system, so he decided a new church was needed in the area so that churchgoers were not segregate worshippers in this manner.

Saint Joseph’s Church was consecrated in April 1904 as a chapel of ease for Saint Michael’s Parish Church, and opened on 24 April 1904. William Corbett had died a few weeks earlier on 1 February 1904.

The mosaic on the tympanum depicts Saint Joseph carrying the Christ Child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Joseph’s is a very late example of a classical church and it has an exaggerated pediment. The church is designed in the Italian neo-classical style and is cruciform in shape. It was built using Limerick limestone with three-bay pediments façade within its own walled grounds.

The front mosaic, along with the architecture, reinforces the Italianate style and impression of the church. This elaborate mosaic on the tympanum, dating from 1926, shows Saint Joseph carrying the Christ Child.

There is three-bay pedimented façade, a square plan three-stage tower to the south-west, a five-sided apse to the rear and a three-bay single-storey vestry to the south.

There is a central Venetian window opening at the front with architrave surrounds. The square tower between the south transepts and the nave has an additional door opening at the front elevation and a louvered oculus opening at the third stage.

The church still has all its main internal features (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church still has all its internal and external features, including some fine stained-glass windows, in particular a late Harry Clarke Studio window on the south elevation of the nave.

The high altar is the work of Edmund Sharp in 1903. The story is told that before Saint Joseph’s opened in 1904, the architect William Corbett arrived to view the high altar. Until then, the altar was concealed by scaffolding, and this would be his first opportunity to view the finished product.

As he sat in the front pew, he is said to have been moved to tears as he saw for the first time, the beauty of his design, so brilliantly carried out by Edmund Sharp. He died a short time later.

The Romanesque-style windows inside the church include windows depicting Christ washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, and a stained-glass window of Saint Patrick by the Harry Clarke studio.

A stained-glass window of Saint Patrick by the Harry Clarke studio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the right transept, five stained glass windows depict Christ comforting the dying, Saint Joseph training Christ in carpentry, Christ ascending into Heaven, Christ and Roman soldiers and the Crucifixion.

Over the main door of the church, a stained-glass window depicts the Virgin Mary being taken up into Heaven (the Assumption).

There are statues of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus and Saint Joseph. A statue of Christ the King was erected outside the church in 1930.

The interior decoration of the church was designed by Edward Francis Ryan in 1938.

A panoramic view of the interior decoration of Saint Joseph’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This church also holds the chalice used in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in 1646 by the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Rinuccini, to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Benburb.

Saint Joseph’s remained a chapel of ease for Saint Michael’s until 1973, when the new autonomous parish of Saint Joseph was created. For generations, the church has been the venue each year for the Dockers’ Mass in the last week in November.

The spiral staircase leading to the choir gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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