26 May 2017

Saint John’s Cathedral:
the tallest building in
Limerick has the tallest
spire in Ireland

The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist … the tallest building in Limerick and the tallest spire in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Since coming to this diocese, I have made myself familiar with and comfortable in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. But this week for the first time I visited Saint John’s Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Limerick.

The cathedral was designed by the architect Philip Charles Hardwick, it has been in continuous use since it was built in 1861. It replaced a chapel founded in 1753, and stands across the street from Saint John’s Church, once the Church of Ireland parish church in this part of Limerick.

Saint John’s Cathedral is the tallest building in Limerick and is reputed to have tallest spire in Ireland, at 94 metres.

The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist was built in 1856-1861, replacing an earlier chapel dating back to 1753. William Hill, a Quaker, bought the site of the present cathedral in 1796 and the land was kept in trust. The. The originally plan was to build a plain church for parish to replace the old chapel built in 1753, but because of the generous response to an appeal for funds, Bishop John Ryan (1828-1864) decided to designate the new church as the cathedral of his diocese.

Bishop Ryan had already visited cathedrals in England and continental Europe in search of ideas for a new cathedral in Limerick. He commissioned the London-based architect Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1892), who was then working on Adare Manor, to design a new cathedral in Limerick in the Gothic Revival style.

Hardwick was a member of an important English architectural dynasty that included his father Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) and grandfather (1752-1825). His mother was born into another eminent architectural family, the Shaws.

Philip Charles Hardwick became the leading architect of banking offices in London, including Drummond’s in Trafalgar Square (1879-1881), and was the architect to the Bank of England (1855-1883). His best-known work, the Great Hall of Euston Station, London (1849), was demolished in 1962. His other works included the restoration of Saint Mary’s Church, Lambeth (1851-1852), now the Museum of Garden History and in the news last month with the discovery of the long-lost coffins of three bishops. http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2017/04/missing-coffin-of-former-bishop-of.html

At the time Bishop Ryan was thinking of building a new cathedral in Limerick, Harwick was working on Adare Manor for the Earl of Dunraven and on the restoration of an old abbey church as the Roman Catholic parish church in Adare.

Inside Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Hardwick’s new cathedral was built in the Gothic Revival style in the Early English phase. His designed was influenced by Salisbury Cathedral, although the tower and spire are central in Salisbury and the size, detail and ornamentations of Salisbury are on a different scale, and Hardwicke’s cathedral in Limerick resembles Pugin’s designs for Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney.

The foundation stone was laid on 1 May 1856, and the first Mass in the cathedral was celebrated by Father William Bourke, parish priest during the building project, on 7 March 1859. He died a few weeks later and was buried in the new cathedral.

The cathedral was opened for public worship on 25 July 1861, although it was not completed at the time. Work stopped on the tower in 1862, and it was left incomplete and the interior still had to be decorated as well as the three side chapels.

The builders were Wallace & Sons, and the cathedral was built with blue Limerick limestone of Limerick marble. Limerick marble is very different from the Italian marble found in many churches. Limerick marble was stone quarried in Co Clare, and it was used for the buildings in the Englishtown part of Limerick city in the 17th century.

The cathedral measures 51 metres by 36 at the transepts. The internal height of the nave is 24 metres and it has five bays and a clerestory.

Saint John’s Cathedral has the highest spire in Ireland at 94 metres from the base of the tower to the top of the cross. The tower, which was completed in 1878-1882 by Maurice Hennessy, is taller than Hardwicke had intended, and tapers into a spire at 163 feet high.

An iron cross was placed on the top of the spire on 27 September 1882. However, three days later the cross fell in a storm three days later. Little damage was caused, however, and a new cross was placed on the spire in August 1883, and a lighting conductor was also placed on top of the spire in 1883. The cathedral bell, weighing 1½ tons, was cast in Dublin in 1883 and was transported by canal barge to Limerick.

The cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Edward O’Dwyer on 21 June 1894 and it officially became a cathedral on 7 January 1912 in a decree in which Pope Pius X also restored the cathedral chapter.

A new copper roof was put on the cathedral during renovations in the early 1950s. Further renovations were carried out on the sanctuary in the cathedral during the late 1970s and again in 2003.

A statue of Saint John the Baptist stands above the main door. Inside, the stained-glass window behind the high altar dates from 1867 and illustrates the newly-promulgated dogma of the Immaculate Conception, surrounded by images of Christ, Pope Pius IX and Bishop John Ryan who built the cathedral.

The north transept window in Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The windows in the north and south transepts and some of the side chapels have glass by Meyer of Munich.

The large stained-glass window in the north transept depicts scenes from the life of Christ. The centrepiece of the window shows the Transfiguration, with Christ surrounded by Moses and Elijah, and the Apostles Peter, James and John. Above this are Christ and Mary Magdalene, while at the bottom of the panel is Christ teaching the Disciples. To the left, the window shows Christ and Saint Peter above, and the wedding at Cana beneath. Further left, it depicts Christ with the Centurion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the temptation in the desert. To the right, the window depicts Christ with the little Children above and the raising of Jairus’ daughter below. To the right of this is the calming of the seas, the Sermon on the Mount and the raising of Lazarus.

The aumbry with the former canopy and back of the cathedra, carved from Riga oak in Munich in 1894 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

To the left of the high altar, the former Blessed Sacrament Chapel has a stained-glass window of the Last Supper. This chapel used to contain the back and the canopy of the former bishop’s throne. Bishop Jeremiah Newman (1974-1995) and Bishop David Keane (1924-1945) are buried in front of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In all, six bishops of Limerick are buried in the cathedral.

The cathedral has been restored in the 1950s, the late 1970s and in 2003-2005. In the 1970s work, the bishop’s throne or cathedra was moved to the centre of the apse, with the original reredos of the High Altar as its backdrop.

During the latest restoration work, the baptismal font was moved to its original location in the north transept. A new aumbry, where the holy oils are kept, is now found in the former Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and contains the back and the canopy of the former cathedra, carved from Riga oak in Munich in 1894, with scenes of the Baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Lamb of God.

Under the thirteenth Station of the Cross in the left transept is the tomb of Father James Fitzgibbon, who died during the cholera epidemic in 1837 at the age of 29.

To the right of the high altar, a white marble statue of the Virgin Mary was sculpted by Giovanni Benzoni and was donated by William Monsell, who later became Lord Emly.

One of the new features in Saint John’s Cathedral is the new surface around the High Altar which is laid out in the form of a 12-pointed labyrinth. It is based on a design by Michelangelo, and recalls the floor designs of many mediaeval cathedrals.

As I walked around Saint John’s Cathedral in its soothing lights, people were calling in and out constantly, finding quiet corners to pray and to contemplate, finding personal space in a building that towers over the city but is warm and welcoming.

The High Altar and the labyrinth in Saint John’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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