07 October 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (132) 7 October 2023

For almost a century Saint Michael’s was the Roman Catholic parish church in New Ross, Co Wexford … today it is a theatre, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVIII, 8 October 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrated Saint Michael and All Angels last week (29 September). So my reflections each morning during Michaelmas this week and last week have taken this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A plaque at the gates recalls the theatre’s previous life as a parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church, now, Saint Michael’s Theatre, New Ross, Co Wexford:

Saint Michael’s Theatre is the venue of the New Ross Theatre Festival each year, but it was the parish church of the Co Wexford town for almost a century, from 1806 until 1902.

The site for a new church was donated by Nicholas Loftus Tottenham (1745-1823), MP successively for Bannow and Clonmines, Co Wexford, and a grandson of Charles Tottenham (1685-1758), known as ‘Tottenham in his Boots.’ This prominent town centre site is often offered as evidence of religious tolerance in Co Wexford in the years immediately after the 1798 Rising and before Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

However, the Tottenham papers show the lease of the site created family discord, and Charles Tottenham (1743-1823), former MP for New Ross, who lived in Delare House across the street, expressed his opposition to his brother’s decision.

The church was built by Dean William Chapman, who was parish priest of New Ross from 1786 to 1818, and the Roman Catholic Dean of Ferns from 1801.

The church was built in 1806 with a compact rectilinear or engaged half-octagonal plan, and it was aligned along an inverted liturgically-correct axis, from east to west rather than west to east, to provide immediate access from South Street.

The neo-Classical frontage has a central pillared portico showing good quality workmanship in a honey-coloured granite, and a pedimented roofline. These details show the continued development or improvements of the chapel in the later 19th century.

The building is an eight-bay, double-height former chapel, with a seven-bay, double-height nave opening into a single-bay double-height chancel at the west (liturgical east) end. The five-bay two-storey entrance front at the east (liturgical west) is centred on a three-bay, two-storey pedimented breakfront with a single-storey, prostyle tetrastyle portico at the ground floor.

The former chapel has a replacement flat corrugated-iron roof behind the parapet. The granite ashlar walls at the front have been repointed. There is a cut-granite plinth with cut-granite ‘Cyma Recta’ or ‘Cyma Reversa’ detailed cornice on a blind frieze that is centred on pediment topped with a ball finial.

There is a roughcast surface finish on the remainder of the front, with a rendered base that has roughcast stepped piers with rendered coping.

On the first floor there are grouped round-headed central windows with cut-granite sills, and granite ashlar voussoirs framing the replacement fixed-pane windows replacing 12-over-12 timber sash windows without horns having fanlights. The two square-headed flanking windows have inscribed cut-limestone panels with cut-granite sills, and cut-granite lintels framing the replacement 6-over-9 timber sash windows. There are round-headed blind openings in square-headed recesses with cut-granite sills, and concealed dressings framing a cement-rendered infill.

Samuel Lewis described the church in 1837 as ‘a spacious and elegant structure with large pointed windows and faced with granite.’

Meanwhile, the Tottenham family gave Delare House on a long lease and at a moderate rent to the Sisters of Mercy in 1854. Delare House was adapted for use as a convent by 1856, and the Sisters of Mercy opened their school.

Saint Michael’s Chapel was ‘improved’ in 1884-1888, producing the present composition. These works were paid for with money diverted by the parish priest, Canon John Kirwan, from an ad hoc fundraising campaign for building a new parish church. These later developments or improvements are attributed to the Cavan-born architect William Hague (1836-1899).

Hague was trained by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), who is best known for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster. Hague spent four years in Barry’s office in London, and he returned to Ireland to develop a flourishing practice based at 175 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, where he opened an office in 1861.

He became a prolific designer of Catholic churches, designing or altering 40 to 50 churches throughout Ireland. His works include Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, Saint Martin’s Church, Culmullen, Co Meath, Saint Brigid’s Church, Ardagh, Co Longford, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, and the completion of both Ashlin and Coleman’s church at John’s Lane, Dublin, and the chapel at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. He also designed town halls in Carlow, Monaghan and Sligo.

With the opening of the Gothic Revival Church of Saint Mary and Saint Michael as the new parish church in New Ross in 1902, Saint Michael’s closed as a chapel and was handed over to the people of New Ross to use as a theatre. Over the next half century, the building had many uses, including a town hall and from the 1930s a cinema.

An exhibition on the stairs in the theatre displays correspondence in March and April 1945 between Bridget Mary Lalor of New Ross and the playwright Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), by then living in Totnes in Devon. Bridget Lalor sought permission to produce one of O’Casey’s lesser-known plays, A Pound on Demand, in a drama competition in association with a local feis.

She initially contacted O’Casey through the offices of the Daily Worker in London. In this correspondence, he asks Brigid Lalor to convey his regards to Alderman Richard Corish, and recalls speaking at a rally with Corish at a rally in Dublin ‘when we were organising the agricultural labourers, and the Alderman was in the van of the fight. This was the memorable year of 1913.’

In the course of this conversation, Brigid Lalor told O’Casey: ‘I would pass on your greetings to Alderman Corish but relations are strained. He suspects me of being one of those awful Reds who are the curse of the country, and if I mentioned your name he might suspect you also. Wouldn’t that be terrible?’

Richard Corish (1886-1945), who was Labour TD for Wexford (1921-1945) and Mayor of Wexford (1920-1945), died three months later on 19 July 1945.

Brigid Lalor stood for election to New Ross Urban District Councillor in 1942 and topped the poll. She chaired the council in 1948-1949 and again in 1949-1950. Her granddaughter, Niamh FitzGibbon of the Green Party, was Mayor of New Ross in 2013.

Meanwhile, by 1957, the Savoy Cinema was in a sad state of neglect and there was a debate in New Ross about whether to bulldoze it or spend money on refurbishing it. With public support for a major refurbishment of the theatre, Monsignor ‘Doc’ Brown travelled to London in the late 1950s to look at the lighting in West End theatres.

The theatre reopened on 28 February 1960 with a performance by the Abbey Players of The Country Boy. The old Pantomime Society was revived, a Musical and Choral Society was formed, and two drama groups were active in the town. The New Ross Drama Festival and the John Player Tops of the Town played to enthusiastic audiences down the years, and the AIMS Choral Festival moved to New Ross in the 1980s.

After 35 years of constant use, the theatre started showing signs of wear and tear in the mid-1990s, and, yet again, there was talk of the bulldozers. The people of New Ross rallied once more, public meetings were called, and a capital grant from the Department of the Arts was secured.

The theatre closed in May 1997 and rebuilding work began. Two major finds during the renovation work included the original altar steps and a grave believed to be that of a priest. The theatre reopened on 3 May 1999 with the Abbey Theatre’s production of Love in the Title by Hugh Leonard.

A significant expansion of the theatre took place in 2002 with the opening of the Visual Art Gallery Saint Michael’s, and a cinema was added in 2003.

Today, Saint Michael’s is a theatre, a cultural centre and a community based arts centre serving New Ross and the surrounding district. It boasts a 300-seat theatre, a 50-seat studio venue, an art gallery, a cinema, two visual arts spaces, a coffee shop and a bar, and it is now a fully-fledged arts centre with a staff of 12.

There are about 300 events a year, from drama and film to ballet and rock concerts, and there is successful youth arts programme. It is home to three amateur community based theatre companies – New Ross Musical Society, New Ross Drama Workshop and New Ross Pantomime Society – and has its own in-house musical society, Saint Michael’s Theatre Musical Society, which hosts productions each November.

The is set back from street, and the granite ashlar piers outside have ‘Cavetto’ stringcourses below truncated pyramidal capping, and there the wrought-iron double gates have arrow head-detailing.

The composition of this former chapel retains its architectural value and continues as an important component of the early 19th-century church heritage and architecture of Co Wexford.

An exhibition on the theatre stairs reveals a correspondence with Sean O’Casey in the 1940s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 10: 17-24 (NRSVA):

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ 18 He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

21 At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

Delare House seen from Saint Michael’s Theatre … it was built in 1790 as the townhouse of the Tottenham family, who donated the site for Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Supporting Justice for Women in Zambia.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for women throughout the world. May they be free from oppression and know dignity, equality and the fullness of life.

The Collect:

Lord, give to your people grace to hear and keep your word
that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale,
we may not only profess your gospel
but also be ready to suffer and die for it,
to the honour of your name;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr William Tyndale:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Tottenham family and the Sisters of Mercy remembered at Delare House in New Ross, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

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

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