Tuesday, 9 February 2021
What is the future facing
the former Methodist Church
on Rowe Street, Wexford?
When I was living on High Street, Wexford, in the early 1970s, the street was ‘bookended’ by two churches at one end and church ruins at the other end: Rowe Street Church, or the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and the Methodist Church on the corners Rowe Street and Mallin Street at the north or west end, and the ruins of the mediaeval Saint Patrick’s Church fronting onto Saint Patrick’s Square at the south or east end of the street.
In between these three churches was the former Quaker meeting house on High Street, which by then had been closed for almost half a century and was being used as a band room.
For centuries, a Viking trail leading to the Quays ran along this route. Rowe Street is first documented on maps around 1840, when part of the old town wall was removed and the street was extended in the 19th century.
The street’s name comes from the Rowe family, who lived at Ballycross, near Bridgetown. The name of Ebenezer Rowe continued for generations in leases on the street. John Rowe, a descendant of Ebenezer Rowe, is later listed in Griffith’s Valuation as owner of a significant portion of the street.
The top of the street is dominated by the Church of the Immaculate Conception, one of Wexford’s ‘Twin Churches,’ along with the Church of the Assumption on Bride Street.
But lower down Rowe Street, closer to North Main Street, on the corner of Rowe Street and Mallin Street, opposite the corner with High Street, is Wexford’s former Methodist Church.
The story of the Methodist presence in Wexford goes back more than 250 years. The founder of the Methodists, John Wesley, is said to have preached in the newly-built Cornmarket in Wexford, and he noted in his journal that it was one of the best public rooms he had ever spoken in. The Hadden family are said to have originally come to Wexford with John Wesley, and for generations the family ran a drapery shop on North Main Street.
There were regular Methodist gatherings in Wexford by 1788, and it seems the Methodists held meetings in the former Friends’ Meeting House on High Street for a time around 1795 without the consent of Quakers.
There was a Methodist chapel around the corner in Allen Street, by 1802, but this must have been in a private house rather than a purpose-built chapel.
The first steps in breaking the sacramental link with the Church of Ireland was taken at the Methodist Conference of 1816 but not finally authorised until 1818 when for the first time Methodist societies and preachers were permitted to conduct Baptism and Holy Communion in their own preaching houses.
There were two different Methodist congregations in Wexford by 1830: a congregation in connection with the Irish Evangelical Society, and the ‘separatists’ who met in a private house.
Four branches of Methodism emerged in Ireland. The Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, the largest, broke from the main body and remained loyal to the Church of Ireland and its parishes, until reuniting with the main Methodist Connexion in 1878. The three other smaller branches of Methodism in Ireland were the Methodist New Connexion (1789-1905), the Primitive Methodist Connexion (1823-1910), and the Wesleyan Methodist Association (1832-1872).
The Methodist Church on Rowe Street was built as the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in 1835 to support a growing Methodist population in the town. The church has been attributed, perhaps mistakenly, to the architect Thomas Willis (1782-1864), who designed the Presbyterian Church in Anne Street (1843).
The new Wesleyan Methodist Chapel opened on 8 March 1836, when the first sermon was preached by the Revd Robert Newton of Manchester.
The church is a five-bay double-height single-cell church, built on a rectangular plan with a single-bay single-storey gabled projecting porch. It is ‘a solid and plain structure, similar to the contemporary former Methodist Church in Enniscorthy, also built in 1835.
A cut-limestone date stone is dated MDCCCXXXV (1835). The church has rendered, ruled and lined walls on a moulded rendered cushion course on a rendered, ruled and lined plinth with rusticated rendered quoins at the corners.
The tall, slender windows, with their pretty ‘switch track’ glazing patterns, provide a neo-Gothic theme. These lancet windows have cut-granite sills, there are concealed dressings with chamfered reveals and hood mouldings on label stops, framing 20 4-over-24 timber sash windows without horns. They have overlights with interlocking Y-tracery glazing bars.
The interior was extended in 1880 to cater for a growing congregation. At the time, a timber panelled gallery was added, with a pair of timber staircases. The interior plasterwork included a cornice on the ceiling centred on a decorative plasterwork ceiling rose.
Outside, the cast-iron railings include a finial-topped rosette-detailed cast-iron ‘bird cage’ and cast-iron double gate supported on piers.
By the 1970s, the Methodist Church in Wexford was served by a circuit minister stationed in Gorey, and the Sunday services were held only once or twice a month, usually on a Sunday evening in the gallery. There was a small congregation, and I remember that many of those who attended were Church of Ireland parishioners.
The funeral of the late Dr George Hadden (1882-1973), which I attended, was one of the last services in the church. The church closed in 1973. He was a medical doctor, missionary and historian, and was one of the trustees appointed and named in the Methodist Church in Ireland Act (1915), designed to put of the church on a legal footing in Ireland.
George Hadden and his wife Helena went to China in 1912 as missionary doctors. He was said to have travelled the five continents. In Africa, he followed the course of the Niger. In Russia, he volunteered with a White Army medical corps to qualify as a surgeon.
The Haddens returned to Wexford with their family in 1938. He was the founder of the Old Wexford Society (later the Wexford Historical Society) in 1944, gave monthly historical lectures, and researched and wrote extensively about the origins and development of Wexford town.
Long before the Wexford Opera Festival, he established the Wexford Male Voice Choir, and he was responsible for starting the Wexford tour guides and the festival historical tours.
He was a member of Wexford Corporation for many years, and he received the freedom of the borough in 1972. He died 21 July 1973 and was buried at Crosstown Cemetery.
By then, general permission had been given to sell the church and hall in 1963. The Methodist congregation merged with the congregation of the Presbyterian Church on Anne Street. The church on Rowe Street was first used by Jenkins department store on Main Street, and it was sold in 1995 for £65,000.
The church remains an important component of Wexford’s Victorian church heritage and its composition is of architectural value, and it remains a protected historical building. However, the Wexford People last week [February 2021] reported concerns at plans for a new concert venue in the former church.
Brian Byrne of Lantern Events plans to create a new performance centre, with a bar, an audience standing capacity for 400 people, seating for 200 people and an entrance from the former church in Rowe Street into what was Byrne’s World of Wonder toy store on Mallin Street. He is the founder of the Spiegeltent Festival on Wexford Quays, and his plans for Rowe Street include stand-up comedy, acoustic singer-songwriters and bands, alongside children’s shows and occasional day-time conferences.
The planners are expected to make a decision on the application next month (March 2021).