Monday, 4 February 2013

Mary Immaculate, Refuge for Sinners

by Louise Buckley

Beginnings of the parish

The parish of Rathmines first came into existence on December 12, 1823. It was officially constituted by Daniel Murray, the Archbishop of Dublin at the time. Archbishop Murray appointed Fr. William Stafford as the first parish priest.

In 1824, two acres of land were purchased from the Earl of Meath. Lord Brabazon, who was heir to the Earldom of Meath, laid the foundation stone for the new church that same year.

The Gothic style church took five years to complete and cost almost £5,000. Archbishop Murray solemnly consecrated the church under the protection of St. Mary and St. Peter on August 15, 1830.

By the middle of the 19th Century the Catholic population of Dublin had greatly increased, and this growth necessitated the enlargement of the church in Rathmines.

Fr. Gentili, who was a visiting missionary priest of the Order of Charity, proposed building a new church in a similar style to churches he had observed on his travels in Italy.
At a meeting in December 1848, it was decided that a new church was to be built to the Byzantine model in the form of a Greek cross. This would be the first such construction in the Archdiocese of Dublin since Catholic Emancipation.

On August 18, 1850, the foundation stone of the new church was laid by Archbishop Murray. Construction of the new church was completed in 1856. By this time Dublin had a new archbishop: Fr. Paul Cullen.
It was Archbishop Cullen who blessed the refurbished church during a lavish ceremony attended by 16 bishops and almost two hundred priests. It was also at this time that the word ‘Immaculate’ was inserted into the title of the church.

In 1854, Archbishop Cullen had been in Rome for the solemn declaration of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Catholic faith. This inspired him to write to the parish priest, Fr Meagher, and instruct him to insert the word ‘Immaculate’ into the title.

By 1881 a magnificent portico had been built at the entrance to the church. It was supported by the four massive pillars still standing today.
To crown the beautiful new entrance, Fr Meagher had the statue of ‘Our Lady of Refuge’ removed from the inside of the church and mounted on top of the portico. The impressive statue is flanked on either side by the statues of Saint Laurence O’Toole and Saint Patrick.

The letters D O M were then placed at the top of the portico just below the statue of Mary. They stand for Deo Optimo Maximo. Underneath this are the words ‘Sub Innov. Mariae - Immaculatae Refugi Peccatorum’ – ‘Dedicated to God the Most High under the invocation of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners’.

The tragic fire of 1920

On January 26, 1920, the sacristan arrived to open the church for the 7am Mass to discover that the switch panel was on fire. He raised the alarm but the whole front of the altar was already engulfed in flames. The fire spread quickly along the electricity wires and Canon Fricker was forced to stand and watch helplessly as the church was devoured by flames.

As the raging fire consumed the church, the large dome came crashing down, making a deafening sound that was heard for miles around. The only parts to escape damage were the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and the sacristy.

Two beautiful stain glass windows, valued at £1,000, survived the fire, but they were heavily damaged by gusts of wind blowing through the shell of the church the next day.

A week later a public meeting was held in the Mansion House to discuss the rebuilding of the church. The Lord Mayor presided and those present included the Archbishop, the Lord Chief Justice and members of Dublin Corporation.

 The architect, R.H. Byrne, was subsequently commissioned with the task of rebuilding the Church. In a short time the debris was removed and a temporary roof was erected. The walls, although badly damaged, were found to be structurally sound but the interior required considerable refurbishment.

The fa├žade was relatively intact. The cost of repairs was estimated at £35,000 but ultimately came to £55,000. The outstanding feature of the reconstructed church was the large copper dome. It replaced the previous one, which was completely destroyed in the fire.

This new dome was built in Glasgow and had been destined for a Russian orthodox church in St. Petersburg. However, the political and social due to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 saw it diverted to Dublin.
The church has changed very little since its reconstruction in the 1920’s, while its beautiful copper dome can be seen from afar. 

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