14 June 2011

Three churches on ‘the Green’

Sculpted representations of the Four Evangelists at the porch of University Church: Saint Mark (the winged lion) and Saint Matthew (the angel), above, and Saint John (the eagle) and Saint Luke (the ox), below (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

At one time, there were three churches on Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin: the Methodist Centenary Church and Cardinal Newman’s University Church on the south side, and the Unitarian Church on the west side. Today these churches are two in number; the former Methodist Centenary Church now houses the offices of the Department of Justice, and there the flag has been flying at half mast for the past few days out of respect for the late Brian Lenihan, who was once minister for Justice and whose funeral takes place this morning [Tuesday].

I spent some time in the area last week, rehearsing for and then taking part in a service remembering deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times, and using the opportunity to photographing a house on Saint Stephen’s Green where the journalist and political activist Máire Comerford once lived.

That house where Máire Comerford once lived is in a short terrace of houses between two of those three church buildings on the Green: the University Church and the former Methodist Centenary Church.

Methodist Centenary Church

The former Methodist Centenary Church, now the Department of Justice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The former Methodist Centenary Church was the oldest church on the Green and over a century fronted a campus that once included Wesley College, which moved to suburban Ballinteer in the 1970s.

The neoclassical building was designed in 1843 by Isaac Farrell and was built to mark the centenary if the first Methodist society founded by John Wesley in 1739.

The church was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, so that only the granite facade and portico survive. The congregation moved to Leeson Park and the school to Balinteer when both buildings were sold in 1972.

The former church was completely rebuilt to provide a banking hall and offices for the Smurfit Paribas Bank, but the impressive Victorian facade was retained, giving the new building an appearance of stability and grandeur.

Newman’s University Church

The entrance porch of University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A few doors down is the almost-hidden entrance to Newman’s University Church.

Newman regarded the Gothic style – then being revived throughout Britain and Ireland through the influences of AWN Pugin – as being not quite Christian enough, with its echoes of pagan forests in northern Europe; on the other hand, he was dismissive of the classical style of church building which was still popular among Anglicans. And so his church on the Green was designed by John Hungerford Pollen in 1855-1856 in the Byzantine style, echoing the influences of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, which had been published in 1852.

But the church stands behind the elegant Georgian houses on the south side of the Green, in the former garden of No 87, and the church is entered through a narrow decorated porch and bleak atrium or passageway.

The interior of the church is so impressive, and the passageway is so bleak, I wonder how many people pass through this porch without noticing the Romanesque exterior of the porch, which was erected a few years after the church itself.

This Romanesque porch is built of polychromatic brick with short, stumpy columns and cushion-capitals bearing over-scaled symbols of the four Evangelists and six angelic figures.

The four Evangelists are portrayed in their traditional images, derived from the vision of the four living creatures that surround the throne of God (see Revelation 4: 7, but see also Ezekiel 1: 1-14 and 10: 1-22): Matthew as a man or angel; Mark a lion; Luke an ox; and John an eagle.

The porch was built as an after-thought to the church, and was a gift from Father William Anderdon (1816-1890), who was appointed chaplain in 1856 by Cardinal Newman. Like Newman, Anderdon had been an Anglican priest who he became a Roman Catholic.

Above the porch is a small belfry. The original bell is now in the administration block of the Belfield Campus of University College Dublin, and instead the belfry houses a set of electronic chimes.

Dublin Unitarian Church

Gothic decoration on the facade of the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The third church on the Green is the Unitarian Church, which first opened its doors 148 years ago this day, on Sunday 14 June 1863. The church was designed in the Decorative Gothic style – the style rejected by Newman for the nearby University Church – by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast between 1861 and 1863.

The church traces its story to earlier Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, Dissenting and Unitarian congregations in Strand Street and Eustace Street, dating back to the 17th century Puritans. Joseph Priestley, the scientist and “discoverer” of oxygen, was the organiser of modern Unitarianism although not before the Revd Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, Yorkshire, left the Church of England to found the first avowed Unitarian congregation in Essex Street, near the Strand in London in 1774.

Joseph Priestley’s House on the Green in Calne, where he lived while working for Lord Shelburne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The present Dublin church in Saint Stephen’s Green owes its existence to Thomas Wilson, a wealthy ship-owner and member of the Strand Street congregation, who left £2,330 in 1857 to build a new church. His father, Joseph Wilson, was George Washington’s aide-de-camp and later the first US consul in Dublin.

The site was bought in 1857 and an architectural competition in 1861 to find a design for the new church was won by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon, whose other works in Dublin include Sanford Parish Church in Ranelagh (1860) and Saint Andrew’s Church (Church of Ireland), “an ambitious Gothic church” also built on a cramped site (1861).

The Unitarian Church is a delightful building in the Decorated Gothic style, and one of the best examples of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.

The site for the church was 60 feet wide, and none of the internal corners of the building is at right angles to the other as the existing houses on either side were at an angle to the street. The top of the spire is 97 ft from the street, while the main body of the church is 58 ft long and 46 ft wide. The external walls are of squared granite rubble, and the decorative portions, both external and internal, are of Bath stone from the Box quarries in England.

Initially, this looks almost like an Anglo-Catholic church of the period, and – surprisingly, for a non-conformist church – the emphasis in the interior is not on the pulpit, which is to one side of the reredos and table. On entering, the eye immediately focuses on the reredos, which is on the geographical north side rather than the east side of the church. But there are no images on the reredos – instead it is inscribed with the Beatitudes as a memorial to Sir Andrew Marshall Porter. There is no altar or holy table beneath it, merely a simple, low, long table that might have come from a large and drafty reception room.

The pulpit bears in raised, gilt letters the Johannine text: “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

The reredos and the Wilson Memorial Window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Above the table reredos, the Wilson Memorial Window is the most impressive part of the interior decoration of the church. This window is one of the first pieces attributed to the revival of the Irish stained glass industry in the early 20th century. The window, dating from 1918, features the themes of Discovery, Truth, Inspiration, Love and Work. Christ is the main figure in the window, and the lower parts include images of Christopher Columbus (Discovery), Martin Luther (Truth), the young Christ in the Temple (Inspiration), Florence Nightingale (Love) and William Caxton (Work). The window was designed by AE Child and is the work of Sarah Purser’s An Túr Gloine or The Tower of Glass studio.

William Caxton in the Wilson Memorial Window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church has a wealth of French, Flemish and English stained glass. The earliest windows were designed by the Lobin studio of Tours and date from 1865-1868. Biblical themes in the windows include Palm Sunday, “Suffer the Little Children to come unto me,” “Blessed are the Pure in Heart for they shall see God,” and the “Good Samaritan.” More recent stained glass windows are by Michael Healy and Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine.

Gospel scenes in the stained glass windows in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The decorative work on the capitals of the main pillars supporting the four internal arches represents different types of leaves. The decorative, carved angels below the corbelled bases of the main roof trusses and at the top of each pillar represent the “whole armour of God”:

“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6: 14-17).

An angel holding the “sword of the Spirit” in one hand, and “the word of God,” represented by the Bible in the other (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The angel on the south-east corner is putting on a girdle, the girdle of truth”; the angel on the south-west corner is putting on a helmet representing the “helmet of salvation”; the angel on the north-west corner is holding the “shield of faith” on which “all the flaming arrows of the evil one” can be seen breaking up in pieces; and the angel on the north-east corner holds the “sword of the Spirit” in one hand, and “the word of God,” represented by the Bible in the other.

On the east wall of the church, beneath the gallery that once housed the original organ, is a sculpture by the sculptor, Paddy McElroy, a member of the congregation. It is a work in forged steel, cast bronze, copper and hot-fused glass, illustrating many aspects of Unitarian thinking, and with symbols representing the major world religions. A centre-piece by the glass artist Killian Schurman represents the embryo of life or all beginnings.

Paddy McElroy’s sculpture in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Paddy McElroy’s other commissions in churches throughout Ireland included work for the basilicas in Knock and on Lough Derg. He died in 2007.

In 2003, the church launched a multi-phase restoration project at an estimated total cost of €1.5 million to clean and restore the external stonework, re-slate the roof, clean and weather-proof the stained glass windows and rewire the building.

This project has since been extended to provide disabled access and renovate the pipe organ, built against the south wall by J.W. Walker and Sons in 1911.

The Unitarian Church on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was described in Lynn’s obituary as “the best example extant of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.”

“Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” .. the pulpit in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But leaving this delightful Decorated Gothic building, and reflecting on the Christian and Biblical imagery in the windows, carvings, pulpit, pews, memorials and organ, it was hard to grasp how this congregation has moved so far from the Christian roots of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and the Puritans before them to whom they owe their origins.

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