Heavens above! Cork church is 65 years old

As St Francis Church marks its anniversary, PAT POLAND reveals its intriguing link to Rome — and to an old city fire station
Heavens above! Cork church is 65 years old

LEFT: The beautiful apse at St Francis Church, depicting Christ seated at the centre of a Byzantine cross. The mosaic work involved the installation, by hand, of five million individual pieces.

WHEN a great fire ravaged Rome in 64AD, Emperor Nero is said to have nonchalantly played his fiddle.

Although there is no evidence that he did, we do know that the unhinged Nero blamed the burgeoning Christian community in the city for the blaze, and launched a pogrom against the early followers of Jesus.

One of his victims was Paul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen who was beheaded by sword before his body was dumped. Later, his remains were removed to the estate of a pious lady named Lucina, and reverently laid to rest.

Over time, a magisterial basilica was erected on that spot. St Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) is now one of the four basilicas of Rome, with its crowning glory the beautiful apse mosaic of Christ flanked by the Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke.

Remarkably, here is where a connection to Cork comes in... because it is said that this mosaic — made up of small pieces of marble and glass — provided the inspiration for Professor Umberto Noni, an eminent Italian artist, in the late 1940s, when he was engaged by the Cork Franciscan community to create the mosaic templates for their proposed new church in Liberty Street.

Noni’s Cork apse closely mirrors that of its Roman counterpart, with more than five and a half million individual pieces of mosaic precisely inserted by a team of highly-skilled craftsmen under their leader, Commendatore Marco Tullio Monticelli.

The mosaic takes pride of place in St Francis Church which was opened on July 14, 1953 — 65 years ago on Saturday — by Bishop of Cork Cornelius Lucey. The Cork Examiner described the building as “a magnificent work of art and architecture”.

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The Franciscans — the ‘Order of Friars Minor’, or ‘OFM’ for short — came to Cork city around 1229, soon after the death of their founder, St Francis. Their benefactor was Dermot MacCarthy Mór, king of Desmond, whose wife, the Norman Petronella Bloet, facilitated their installation.

They built a substantial church, the ‘Grey Friary’ — from the grey habits then worn — on what is now North Mall, with its epicentre the location of the present Franciscan Well Brewery.

The well in the courtyard was said to have medicinal qualities, particularly for those with defective eyesight, and many came to it in search of a cure.

The dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII, however, severely impacted on the foundation, with the friary, its fishery and weir being leased to a local businessman and the community being scattered.

After the Cromwell wars, a period of grudging religious toleration followed and the friars returned to North Mall, where they erected a modest thatched chapel.

Given the volatile nature of Irish politics, however, this, too, was not destined to last. During the Siege of Cork in 1690, it got caught up in the burnings when Irish commander, Colonel McElligott, instituted a ‘scorched earth’ policy to deny any buildings outside the city walls to the Williamite enemy.

Later, when the Penal Laws suppressed the Order, some friars went ‘underground’ and continued to live in Cork, in mufti, where they ministered to the people as best they could.

After Catholic Emancipation, the friars opened a new church, not outside the city walls as in times past, but at the very centre of town, at Liberty Street (the friary stood on nearby Broad Lane).

Dedicated on January 2, 1831, it cost £4,500 to build and was proclaimed one of the finest churches in Cork. Daniel ‘The Liberator’ O’Connell sent an ‘IOU’ for £50 towards the costs, to be redeemed at an unspecified time: such was the parlous state of his finances at the time.

By the late 1800s, the passage of time had taken its toll on church and friary. But although it was declared dilapidated and unsafe by no less than three civil engineers, financial considerations forced the friars to carry out ‘stop gap’ repairs only.

Almost 60 years would pass before a consortium of loyal benefactors decided that executive action was needed: the old church, beloved by generations, would simply have to be replaced.

The people of Cork responded magnificently to the appeal for funds but then, as so often happened in the history of the Franciscans in Cork, external affairs intervened. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to a scarcity of building materials and the project was put on hold.

DRIVING FORCE: Fr Fridolin Fehily of Ballineen
DRIVING FORCE: Fr Fridolin Fehily of Ballineen

As the war ended, Fr Fridolin Fehily, a native of Ballineen, Co. Cork, was made Guardian of the Cork Franciscans and his appointment was an inspired choice. A natural motivator, with experience in building and renovating, he also had form as a canny fund-raiser. Never was the phrase ‘cometh the hour; cometh the man’ more apt.

The collection scheme was reintroduced and expanded, planning permission was acquired, tenants were re-housed, plans were drawn up and contracts awarded.

The mosaic panels, for which the church would become renowned, would be designed by Professor Noni, while their execution would rest with Commendatore Monticelli.

Now all Fr Fridolin had to do was to find somewhere big enough to house his community of friars, and space for the Italian artists, while the work of demolishing the buildings on Liberty Street commenced. But where?

One day in 1946, while chatting at the gates of the old church on Grattan Street, Fr Fridolin’s gaze came to rest on a building practically across the street. The fire brigade sub-station had been vacated a year earlier, in 1945, and lain empty and disused ever since.

Fr Fridolin contacted the City Manager, Philip Monahan, whose recommendation to the city council that the friars be granted the use of the premises rent-free was adopted.

The Order was willing to cover the cost of any alterations to it during their stay, and expected to require the premises “for three or four years”, to the end of the 1940s.

The staff of CIÉ generously gave up their free time to help the friars move their furniture and chattels into their new lodgings.

In the event, the old fire station would be their home until October, 1958, when the new friary on Liberty Street was finally completed.

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ORNATE:The shrine to St Anthony of Padua (above), at St Francis Church, which was finally completed in 1960
ORNATE:The shrine to St Anthony of Padua (above), at St Francis Church, which was finally completed in 1960

By the end of the 1940s, the main architects to the church project, Alfred E. Jones and Stephen S. Kelly — with whom Fr Fridolin had earlier collaborated when Guardian of the Franciscan church in Limerick, which he extensively extended and renovated — were busy finalising their plans.

Demolition work was progressing well. The old friary, many old houses, sheds and walls had to be removed by general contractors P. J. Hegarty and Sons, of Upper John Street, under the expert supervision of James P. McCarthy, General Foreman.

The piling operations, “new to the south of Ireland”, according to the Cork Examiner, and necessary to secure the foundations of the new church, began in earnest under Campbell and Co. of Dublin.

Four hundred piles were installed, some needing to be sunk to a depth of 13 metres.

Meanwhile, at the old fire station, in the ample space provided by the former Appliance Room, Professor Noni and Commendatore Monticelli collaborated on the designs of the mosaics.

Then, on July 31, 1949, Bishop Daniel Cohalan laid the foundation stone of the new church on the site of the demolished friary.

The 300-year-old chalice used on the occasion once belonged to the North Abbey friary, one of several historic pieces of altar plate still in the possession of the community. Sadly, Bishop Cohalan would not live to see the opening of the new church; he died in 1952.

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On July 14, 1953, the church, the third to stand on the site and a superb monument to national, and Cork, craftsmanship, was formally blessed and opened by Bishop Cohalan’s successor, Bishop Cornelius Lucey.

Earlier that morning, Mass had been celebrated for the last time in the old, tottering edifice next door. In a simple but moving ceremony, Fr Jerome O’Callaghan, OFM, who had once been an altar boy in the church, extinguished the sanctuary lamp. If it signalled the end of an important chapter in Cork Franciscan history, a new era was about to begin.

As the congregation processed into the new church after the bishop, one commentator described hearing subdued gasps of admiration from all sides. The Byzantine crucifix located high over the main doors proclaimed the dominant style. It was considered that the church “measured fully up to the requirements of God’s Home – devotional, inspiring and artistic”.

The tabernacle was a replica of the church itself, its interior cast in solid gold from the countless gifts donated by the faithful, including this writer’s maternal grandmother. It was secured by the golden key which had been used to formally open the Cork International Exhibition in 1903 — a donation from the late Lord Mayor of Cork Edward Fitzgerald’s family.

“The eye”, the commentator continued, “is irresistibly drawn to the enormous main apse with its blazing background of gold enshrining the marble altar.”

One distinctive feature, however, for which all Franciscan churches are noted, was missing: a shrine to St Anthony of Padua.

Once again, the old problem of finance decreed that the installation of this little side altar be deferred.

Fund-raising continued apace, however, Messrs Noni and Monticelli were re-engaged, and finally, in April 1960, the shrine, with its sublime mosaic panels depicting events in the lives of the two great Church fathers, Francis and Anthony, was completed.

Of all the important assignments all over the world in which Professor Noni had been engaged, none was dearer to his heart than his work at Cork’s Liberty Street. “It was,” he considered, “the very crowning of my life’s work”.

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So, how had the fire brigade come to vacate the premises at Grattan Street in 1945?

In 1901, Cork fire chief, Capt Alfred Hutson, had exhorted the authorities to open a fire station in the Marsh area of the city. “There are,” he stated, “several streets in the immediate vicinity with 362 tenement houses with a population of about 1,800 families. If a fire were to break out in any of these houses, many lives might be lost before the attendance of the brigade from Head Station could be secured.”

At that time, the fire brigade operated out of two stations — the main station at Sullivan’s Quay and a sub-station at 120, Shandon Street. While the Sullivan’s Quay unit had at least the advantage of horse-drawn transport, the sub-station crew knew no such luxury: their appliances had to be trundled through the streets in front of them. Several sites for the proposed fire station were examined, including one adjacent to the old Skiddy’s Castle on North Main Street, a building on Adelaide Street (once the location of Pike’s Bank), and 22, Henry Street. All were deemed unsuitable for one reason or another; the last because it stood directly opposite the Mercy Hospital.

Public representatives for the West Ward took up the cudgels, requesting the council to proceed without delay with the opening of a station. They pointed out that “a great proportion of the population had no fire insurance” and many — perhaps hundreds — of people would be rendered homeless and destitute in the event of a catastrophic fire.

The offer by Thomas Stack of 3, Great George’s Street to let 40, Grattan Street at “a rent of £45 per annum on lease for 500 years” was accepted. The conversion of the building cost around £200, with accommodation for a party of firefighters and their families.

In April, 1905, Grattan Street Fire Station went operational with Senior Fireman Philip Lecane the member-in-charge. The appliances comprised one horse-drawn manual engine, one horsed hose-reel (known as a ‘jumper’), and a wheeled fire escape. Later, an ambulance would be added and a motor fire engine would supplant the horse-drawn equipment. The site where the station stood is now occupied by the imposing S.H.A.R.E. complex, Dún Rís.

For more than 40 years the station served the people of the Middle Parish. People knew they could rely on the dutyman to call a doctor or clergyman for them in the middle of the night at a time when private telephones were few and far between, or, utilizing the station’s well-stocked first-aid kit, treat little boys and girls with grazed knees acquired ‘waxing up’ the many ‘gazas’ dotting the area.

When Grattan Street Fire Station was made non-operational in September 1945, all fire staff were centralized at Sullivan’s Quay, Shandon sub-station having already closed in 1925.

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