Restoring faith in St Catherine's


Described by Maurice Craig as possessing "the finest facade of any church in Dublin", St Catherine's, on Thomas Street, has until recently, presented one of the saddest spectacles in the capital.

The facade in question is, in Craig's words, "a superbly virile composition in Roman Doric" constructed of mountain granite and facing due north across the Liffey before aligning with Queen Street on the other side of the river. This dramatic piece of design has recently been cleaned and now looks very similar to how it must have appeared when first built more than two centuries ago.

After decades of neglect, its interior has also undergone complete refurbishment and is once more being used for religious services.

St Catherine's was originally built between 1760 and 1769 to the designs of John Smyth, an architect whose other two major additions to Dublin - St Thomas's Church, on Marlborough Street, and the spire of St Werburgh's, on Castle Street - have both long since been lost. Smyth's intention was that the Thomas Street church should also be given a spire but shortage of available funds seems to have been the reason why this part of the building was never completed. The interior was typical of the period, with an oak panelled gallery carried by encased cast-iron columns and boxed pews on the ground floor. The shallow vaulted ceiling has some fine plasterwork, particularly at the centre from which a chandelier would have been suspended, but more elaborate stucco decoration was provided around the chancel.

The church was restored by architects Curdy and Mitchell in 1877 and in the following decade an internal reordering was undertaken during which the old box pews were replaced with open ones.

However, as Peter Costello noted in his 1989 book on Dublin churches, "what could not be repaired was the slow decline of the parishioners". In 1943, for example, the Rector of St Catherine's recorded the loss of a third of his congregation in a single year. The adjacent churchyard was closed for burials in 1894 and the church itself closed for services in September 1966, being deconsecrated the following year. Various efforts were subsequently made to find an alternative use for the building, with a voluntary group called the Bell Tower Trust undertaking considerable work to arrest decay. But during the 1970s and 1980s, the area around Thomas Street was in seemingly irreversible decline, a large number of other restoration and salvage projects around the city demanded almost all the attention and resources of conservation groups and the redemption of St Catherine's appeared to be a lost cause. By 1990, when Dublin Corporation offered the church for sale as part of an inner city development plan, the building was in poor condition, its interior ravaged by vandals, its facade showing signs of water damage and staining through iron oxide being carried by damp to the surface.

It took another seven years before work began on returning St Catherine's to its former glory. The group responsible for this job is City Outreach for Renewal and Evangelism (CORE), an evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland established by the Rev. Willi Stewart in the summer of 1993. CORE's original base was St Werburgh's church, where it was allowed to operate as a tenant congregation. However, as St Catherine's assistant pastor, Andrew McNeile explains, the nature of CORE's youth-based services and growing attendance at its services meant "it would make better sense to have a building for ourselves".

Three years ago, a commitment was made to take on the restoration of St Catherine's, a massive task as Mr McNeile notes, for a congregation which, at the time, numbered no more than 80 members, the majority of them earning relatively little money. Both he and Willi Stewart pay tribute not just to the power of religious faith but also the trust put in them by Dublin Corporation, particularly the principal officer of its planning and development office, Vincent Norton, who agreed to permit CORE undertake the project. CORE's architect on the job was Paul Arnold, who specialises in such work and who drew up a document indicating the daunting scale of what needed to be done. While the walls of the building were still sound, the stone of the facade was in poor condition as was the roof covering; dry rot, while localised, was severe; ceiling timbers were in need of replacement; and the entire interior had to be gutted. A number of windows had been boarded up, the galleries, organ and funerary monuments badly damaged and one of the two internal staircases had entirely collapsed, as had the adjoining vestry.

The total cost of restoration has been about £1.75 million and it is to the credit of CORE - and an excellent example to other similar undertakings - that the group has managed to finish the job without having to support any debt. While some of the funds came through the local authority and private donations, the congregation provided about £600,000 of the money needed. In addition, work on the building's refurbishment, undertaken by contractors John G Burns Ltd, proceeded at a rapid pace; the interior was largely restored between February and November 1998 and last autumn, the exterior was cleaned and its clock returned to working order. In early November, 1998, in a dramatic reversal of trends elsewhere, St Catherine's was reconsecrated, having moved from destitution to restitution over the course of the previous year. The site of the former single-storey vestry has been reconstructed as a three-floor office building.

Today the church is the centre of a growing congregation, CORE's membership having increased to some 250 people. Because St Catherine's is in constant use by the organisation, its restoration has been highly practical in character.

For example, in place of one of the pair of staircases rising to the gallery off the octagonal entrance hall (which still retains its old stone flagging) at the back of the church, a kitchen and office space has now been installed. At the centre of the nave is a new baptismal font for total immersion. To allow for musical performance during services, the chancel area has been extended out into the nave with a low stage and seating is now in the form of individual chairs.

At the back of the church, beneath the gallery, a glass-fronted partition has been installed to create a foyer. Some of the finer details of decoration remain incomplete; where the wooden Corinthian capitals of the gallery's columns had disintegrated, for instance, they have not been replaced because of the expense involved. The site occupied by the organ remains vacant and the chancel plasterwork, in need of some attention, must wait until the building has finally dried out completely. "CORE has to use its money for our ministry," explains Andrew McNeile, although he and Willi Stewart would be delighted were some well-intentioned benefactor to offer funds for the completion of the interior restoration. Overall St Catherine's today represents a miracle of conservation - a building which seemed almost certainly lost, has been triumphantly brought back to life.