Thursday, 24 June 2021

A Pugin and Ashlin church
in Skibbereen is in
danger of being lost

The burned-out remains of the Mercy Covent and Chapel stand on a site above Skibbereen, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

In recent months, one of the important buildings in Ireland’s architectural heritage has been lost, when fire destroyed the former Chapel and Mercy Convent in Skibbereen in West Cork.

The buildings were designed in the 1860s by the architectural partnership of Pugin and Ashlin, and – as part of my continuing ‘Pugin trail’ – I wanted to see them during last week’s ‘staycation’ or road trip in West Cork.

These prominent and imposing buildings stand on a height beside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, overlooking the town. They are part of an architecturally significant ecclesiastical complex on the north edge of Skibbereen, forming an architectural and historically significant grouping.

The convent chapel was designed by Edward Welby Pugin and George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

An eight-acre site for the convent was donated in 1850 by Sir William Wrixon-Becher (1780-1850) of Fermoy Castle and former MP for Mallow. He also donated the neighbouring site for Skibbereen Cathedral.

The land was acquired by Revd John Fitzpatrick and a 200-year lease was obtained by Dr William Keane, who became Bishop of Ross in February 1851. Father Fitzpatrick was also involved in forming the first relief committee in Ireland, the Skibbereen Committee of Gratuitous Relief.

A stone wall was built to enclose the site, but it was some years before building work began. The first stone of a new convent was laid on 5 March 1857, in a ceremony led by Bishop Keane. The convent building was designed by the architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875), son of AWN Pugin, the colossal figure in the Gothic Revival in Irish architecture.

The building was almost complete by the end of September 1859, and the first four Sisters of Mercy who arrived from Kinsale at the new convent in Skibbereen in May 1860 were Mother Philomena Maher, Sister Raphael Sexton, Sister Evangelist Fallon and Sister Martha Walsh.

A small temporary chapel was built for the nuns. But soon it was inadequate for their needs, and the foundation stone for a new chapel was laid by Bishop Michael O’Hea of Ross on 8 May 1867.

The charred remains of the stained glass in the East Window can be seen through the chapel ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The architects of the new chapel were EW Pugin and his brother-in-law, the Cork-born architect George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), who would design the neighbouring Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1880s.

William Murphy of Bantry was the builder, and the entire building cost £1,500. The chapel was consecrated on 30 April 1868.

The chapel was a highly accomplished French Gothic style church. The balanced coherent design was complemented by the high-quality craftsmanship in the masonry throughout the building. The use of polychromatic stone gave the building an added textured appearance.

The Lamb of God … part of the remaining stencil work at the east end of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This was a gable-fronted single-cell church, with a five-bay nave and an octagonal-plan north corner tower, a pitched slate roof with render coping, carved limestone cross finials and cast-iron rainwater goods.

There were rendered walls at the gable front, with blind oculi and sandstone quatrefoil decoration, five trefoil lancet arch windows with stained glass, and a rose window with stained glass.

The nave had trefoil pointed arch windows filled with stained glass, with trefoil overlights, polychromatic voussoirs, sandstone block-and-start surrounds and chamfered sills. The east end had trefoil lancet windows with leaded stained glass, rendered sill and shouldered hood moulding.

The chapel had double-leaf timber battened doors with cast-iron strap hinges, and the interior features included carved oak furnishings and stencilled decorations on the walls.

By then, there were 17 nuns in Skibbereen, and their schools had 500 children on the rolls.

The nuns introduced linen weaving by hand looms to West Cork in 1889. Sir William Ewart (1817-1889) of Belfast and Sir Thomas Brady presented them with two looms and a wrapping mill. Four years later they had 23 working looms and were employing a number of poor girls. Their products won first prize at the Working Men’s and Women’s Exhibition in London in 1893, and exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago that year.

When the Countess of Aberdeen, President of the Irish Industrial Association, visited the Convent Weaving Industry in 1893, she was lavish in her praise for the work of the nuns and the girls. Her husband was twice Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1886 and 1905-1915.

The nuns opened a secondary school in the 1930s, and a new Mercy Heights School at the top of the Convent Hill was opened in 1971 by the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch.

The connection of the Sisters of Mercy with Skibbereen came to an end in 2004, and Mercy Heights closed in 2016 when the three post-primary schools in Skibbereen were amalgamated in Skibbereen Community School.

An extensive fire swept through the chapel and former convent last September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The once beautiful convent chapel and buildings fell into a state of dilapidation and became an eyesore at the northern entrance to Skibbereen. An extensive fire last September destroyed the chapel and former convent. At the time, gardai believed the fire was started by people on the site, either accidentally or intentionally.

The developer Paul Collins of Remcoll Capital, told the local newspaper, The Southern Star, that he was sending a team to Skibbereen to ensure that parts of the building left structurally vulnerable would be made safe and secure. The company was planning a €10 million redevelopment of the convent and chapel and to buy the complex from the owner, Bernard Hennessy.

In recent weeks, Cork County Council has granted planning permission for the former chapel to be redeveloped as a commercial hub, including hot desks for use by the community and the convent to be converted into apartments. Permission was also granted for building 52 new apartments as part of a four-storey apartment block on the site.

Despite its architectural significance, the chapel remains exposed to the elements, and the temporary coverings have blown away in the wind and rain. From the street below it is possible to see inside the chapel, where some of the stencilling and plaster work is being eroded, and parts of the stained-glass windows are being held in place precariously.

The chapel is one of the last works by Pugin and Ashlin. Their partnership was dissolved at the end of 1868, soon after Ashlin’s marriage to Pugin’s sister Mary in 1867. The whole complex is now an eyesore that can be seen from most parts of Skibbereen. But it would be a public shame if the surviving parts of this Gothic Revival treasure are lost wilfully or through neglect.

The chapel ws one of the last works by Pugin and Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Opening the doors to
priestly ministry and
a journey of 50 years

Saint John the Baptist as a child with his mother Saint Elizabeth … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Dingle, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 24 June 2021

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist

11 a.m.: The Festal Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

The Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 7-13; Luke 1: 57-66, 80.

Saint John the Baptist (right) with the Virgin Mary and Christ in a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … the births of these three alone are celebrated in the Church Calendar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Saint John the Baptist, in many ways, is the bridge between the old and the new, between the stories of the Prophets and the Gospel stories.

Most saints are commemorated in the Church Calendar on days that are supposed to be the anniversaries of their death.

Three feasts alone commemorate the birth of Biblical figures: the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June), the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September), and the Incarnation of Christ, or Christmas Day (25 December).

Saint Luke’s Gospel takes a full chapter before the evangelist gets to the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Saint Matthew’s Gospel introduces its account of Christ’s ministry by telling us first the story of Saint John the Baptist. Saint Mark begins his Gospel with the appearance of Saint John the Baptist. And the first person we meet in Saint John’s Gospel is Saint the Baptist.

But Saint Luke is alone in telling the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I was ordained priest 20 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 21 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

Bishops, in their charge to priests at their ordination, call us to ‘preach the Word and to minister his (God’s) holy sacraments.’ But the bishop also reminds us to be ‘faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed,’ to ‘promote unity, peace, and love,’ to share ‘in a common witness in the world’ and ‘in Christ’s work of reconciliation,’ and to ‘search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.’

As I reflect on these anniversaries this morning, I recall too how my path to ordination began 50 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

It was the summer of 1971, and although I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton and the College of Estate Management at Reading University, I was also trying to become a freelance journalist, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days in the countryside in Shropshire, I had returned to Lichfield.

I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield, and I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled into that chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of an old church or chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late afternoon, so there was no light streaming through the East Window. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.

This is not a normal experience for a young 19-year-old … certainly not for one who is focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.

But it was – and still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my ‘self-defining moment in life.’ It still remains as a lived, living moment.

My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into Lichfield Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.

It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-2008), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop at Lambeth. He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.

All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.

However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), who was then then Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and facing trial after he opened his cathedral doors to black protesters who being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the cathedral steps.

My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism from freelance contributions to the Lichfield Mercury, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on this day, 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I return to Lichfield regularly, usually two, three or more times a year, and slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. That chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But the traditions of that chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; and the liturgical traditions of Lichfield Cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.

That bright summer evening left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. But the Covid-19 pandemic brought unexpected restrictions on this meaningful day last year, and I never got back to Lichfield last year either.

It is good to celebrate the beginnings of priestly ministry 20 years ago on this day, and it is good to promptings to priestly ministry heard 50 years ago on a summer afternoon in 1971. And it is good to be reminded this morning that all ministry and all our service to God, like the ministry and message of Saint John the Baptist, begins at an early stage, far earlier than we recognise, that God calls us from birth and even before that.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Letters of ordination as priest by Archbishop Walton Empey

Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (NRSVA):

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Archbishop Walton Empey’s inscription on the Bible he gave to me on my ordination to the priesthood in 2001

Liturgical colour: White

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow-citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who are near: (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

Preface:

In the saints
you have given us an example of godly living,
that, rejoicing in their fellowship,
we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
and with them receive the unfading crown of glory.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament have known
your forgiveness and your life-giving love,
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

God give you the grace
to share the inheritance of Saint John the Baptist and of his saints in glory:

With Archbishop Walton Empey at my ordination as priest in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 June 2001, and (from left) the Revd Tim Close and the Revd Avril Bennett (Photograph: Valerie Jones, 2001)

Hymns:

6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (CD 1)
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (CD 8)

The entrance to the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs, Lichfield … opening the doors to a journey that has continued for 50 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
26, San Geremia, Venice

San Geremia and its great dome seen from the Grand Canal in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Today (24 June) is the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, and this day is also the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood on 24 June 2001, by Archbishop Walton Empey in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, along with the Revd Tim Close and the Revd Avril Bennett. I plan to celebrate this feast and anniversary later this morning, presiding at the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

My photographs this week are from churches in Venice. This morning (24 June 2021), my photographs are from the Church of San Geremia.

Inside San Geremia, founded in 1000 and rebuilt in 1753 by Carlo Corbellini (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The beautiful Church of San Geremia is just a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Lucia train station and faces onto the Grand Canal, between the Palazzo Labia and the Palazzo Flangini. The church is a popular place of pilgrimage because the body of Saint Lucy of Syracuse is housed there.

The first church was built on this site in the 11th century, and was later rebuilt on several occasions.

The Chiesa di S Geremia e Lucia, or San Geremia as it is known, was founded in the year 1000 by a father and son who built it to house the arm of Saint Bartholomew.

By 1206, the church was housing the body of Saint Magnus of Oderzo, who took refuge in this area from the Lombards and died in 670. The church was rebuilt by the Doge Sebastiano Ziani, and this new church was consecrated in 1292.

The church became the centre of a scandal in 1562 when the priest was accused of heresy and was drowned.

The present church was rebuilt in 1753 to designs by Carlo Corbellini, with an imposing dome. San Geremia is unique in having two similar façades, dating from 1861-1871, one facing the Grand Canal and the other, which is also the entrance, facing San Geremia square.

The brickwork bell tower, best seen from the Grand Canal, probably dates from the 12th century and has two thin Romanesque mullioned windows at the base.

Inside, the altar and the presbytery are notable, with two statues of Saint Peter and Saint Geremia (1798) by Giovanni Ferrari. Behind the altar, a fresco by Agostino Mengozzi Colonna depicts ‘Two Angels upholding the Globe.’ A work by Palma the Younger (‘The Virgin at the Coronation of Venice by Saint Magnus’) decorates another altar. The church also has statues by Giovanni Maria Morlaiter (‘The Madonna of the Rosary’) and Giovanni Marchiori (‘The Immaculate Conception’).

The church is a centre for pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Lucia di Siracusa or Saint Lucy, a third century martyr from Syracuse in Sicily whose feastday is celebrated on 13 December. She is known to pilgrims as the protector of eyes.

Giorgio Maniace, a Byzantine general who captured Syracuse from the Arabs in 1039, brought her body to Constantinople. But it was stolen by Venetians who sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

At first, her body was kept in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name opposite Saint Mark’s Square. Boats carrying pilgrims from Syracuse in 1279 capsized in rough seas, and some pilgrims were drowned. It was decided then to transfer her relics to a church in Cannaregio. This church was named Santa Lucia and was rebuilt in the Palladian style by Andrea Palladio in 1580.

Her body was moved to San Geremia in 1861 when Palladio’s church was demolished to make way for the new railway station. The train station is still named Santa Lucia.

The façade of San Geremia facing the Grand Canal has a large inscription: ‘Saint Lucia, Virgin of Siracusa, rests in peace in this church. You inspire a bright future and peace for Italy and the entire World.’

The Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, had a silver mask placed on the saint’s face in 1955 to protect it from dust.

The saint’s body, once stolen in Syracuse in 1039 and again in Constantinople in 1204, was stolen a third time in 1981, this time when two armed criminals forced the main doors, entered the church and smashed the glass of the shrine holding her body.

In their confusion, the thieves left behind her head and the silver mask. They demanded a ransom, but local police retrieved her body in the lagoon area of Montiron and she was returned to the church on her feastday, 13 December. Although she has been in Venice for many centuries, the city of Syracuse where she was born still claims her body.

The façade and the entrance facing San Geremia square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (NRSVA):

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61 They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

The shrine of Santa Lucia di Siracusa or Saint Lucy … her body was stolen and held to ransom in 1981 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (24 June 2021, Birth of Saint John the Baptist) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus to enter into our lives.

The Collect of the Day (the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour,
by the preaching of repentance:
Lead us to repent according to his preaching,
and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Inside the Church of San Geremia in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org