St. Mary's Cathedral is 145 years old

St. Mary's Cathedral stands out as a landmark on the highest point of Kilkenny City. It is in Gothic style and built of local limestone.

After 8am Mass on Sunday, August 18, 1843, almost 160 years ago, the foundation stone was laid by Most Rev Dr Kinchella. In the foundation stone was placed a sealed bottle containing a copy of the Rules of the Christian Doctrine Society plus a copy of the Kilkenny Journal, some silver coins and a metal plate with an inscription commemorating the event.

The church is on the site of the old mansion, “Burrells Hall” which was the earliest foundation of St Kieran’s College.

This week, 145 years ago, on Sunday, October 4, 1857 at 6.15am, the Cathedral was consecrated by Most Rev Dr Edmond Walsh, Bishop of Ossory. The relic of St Clement, which was brought from the Catacombs of Rome, was placed under Our Blessed Lady’s Altar and the relics of Saints Cosmos and Damien were placed under the High Altar. After the Consecration, the Bishop celebrated Mass in Our Lady’s Chapel. He was assisted by two priests from St Kiernan’s College, Fr Brennan and Fr Hennessy.

On the night before the Consecration, Saturday, October 3, the Sacred Relics were placed in tents in the Cathedral yard. All through the night and early dawn, with lights burning around the relics, faithful guards kept strict vigil until the time came for the removal into the Cathedral. At the time the Kilkenny Journal reported on the vigil and stated that “throughout the night, Psalm and Prayer broke like the song of angels up on the stillness of the scene.”

The Cathedral has three names - St Mary’s, the church of St Kieran and the Cathedral of the Assumption.

Later, a small organ was installed and a stained glass window was presented by Mrs Bryan from Jenkinstown. Another one was presented by Mr Dan Cullen, a wealthy merchant who had shops where the Post Office now stands. The sacristy was then beneath the high Altar but in the latter part of the nineteenth century many improvements were made. Dr Abraham Brownrigg, Bishop of Ossory who died 74 years ago in 1928, undertook the very considerable task of completing the work which had originally begun on 1843.

After it’s renovation, the solemn opening of the Cathedral took place 103 years ago on April 9, 1899, before a huge congregation from all parts. Many distinguished bishops attended,including His Eminence Cardinal Logue and Dr Walsh, then Archbishop of Dublin . Mass was celebrated by Dr Donnelly, Bishop of Canea and Rev Dr Healy gave a homily on the very appropriate text:
“And I say unto you, that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.

Under the St Margaret Mary Altar is the wax figure of St Victoria and the chalice which contains the preserved blood of the saint. Both were sent by the Pope during the construction of the Cathedral in 1845.

A brief history of St Victoria, a third century Martyr, states that she was promised in marriage to a rich heathen nobleman but she refused either to marry him or to sacrifice to idols. Her lover was so angry at her for refusing him that he gave her up to the authorities as a Christian and a dagger was plunged into her heart at his request.

The Sacred Heart altar, statue and altar rails are credited to James Pearse Marble Works, Dublin. James Pearse was an Englishman and was father of Padraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the1916 Rebellion.

The beautiful marble statue of the Madonna by the famous sculptor, Benezoni, was presented by the ladies of Kilkenny. The late Monsignor Murphy, Vicar Apostolic, who was administrator in the St Mary’s Parish and later Parish Priest in Gowran, stated that he met with an expert from London who informed him that there were only two of Benzoni’s statues in the world - one in Italy and one in St Mary’s Cathedral. Both were priceless works of art.

Another work of art is the statue of the Little Flower. It replaced a Calvary which is now in St Kieran’s College. On the right hand wall can be seen two white marble plaques which contain the names of all the Bishops from St Kieran down to the last bishop, the late Dr Birch.

The mosaic work over the High Altar at the west wall gives very interesting information. On the right is St Canice holding a church and round tower in his hands. The late Canon Carrigan states in his History of the Diocese of Ossory that some of the round towers can be traced back to the sixth century. The next work is St Kieran gazing at a bell ringing of its own accord. After that there is the Pope and St Patrick. The altar works are mainly Biblical.

At the Cathedral of the Assumption is also the Church of St Kieran, one can also see a stained glass window of St Kieran in the sanctuary. The bell, now under electrical control, is and was known as St Kieran’s Bell. The statue over the doorway leading into the Chapter Room is the statue of St Kieran. Up to 1910 the leading soprano in the Catholic Choir sang the sacred music from the tower (where the purple windows can be seen) at the early Mass on Christmas morning. That practice was discontinued as it was thought to be too dangerous.

The Monstrance now used for Perpetual Adoration is a rare gem of the past. It was handed down in the Bryan family from Jenkinstown and was the most prized and valuable object in the Diocesan Museum. In 1644 it was presented to the Church by Dr David Rothe who was then Bishop of Ossory.

The construction of St Mary’s Cathedral began after 1843 and continued through the famine years, the years of immigration, coffin ships, starvation and even despair because of the many thousands of our people who died from hunger and disease. But during that turmoil and adversity, the splendid Cathedral continued to grow, thanks to the pennies and other coins from our great grandmothers and grandfathers who, perhaps, denied themselves many a frugal meal and who made saintly sacrifices because they were a spirited people and the backbone of the nation. Today we can bask in plenty of sunshine and a thought should be given to the great men and women of the past who received so little but worked so hard for the glory of Faith and Fatherland.

In 1977, the Cathedral underwent many changes. Complete new lighting and heating systems were installed. The floor under the dome is beautifully elevated and richly carpeted and floral decorations in brass containers are in excellent harmony with the magnificent furniture. The new altar with its bronze figures depict the following:

The Flight into Egypt, the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, the Miraculous Draft of Fishes, the Healing of the Sick, the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Meeting of Martha and Mary, the Resurrection, Crucifixion and Ascension.

It was only fitting that on October 4, 1977, 25 years ago and 120 years after the Cathedral was first opened that the late Dr Peter Birch, Bishop of Ossory, should officially open the Cathedral after its renovation by blessing and consecrating the new altar.

Courtesy of Ray Cleere
and the Kilkenny People