One of the capital’s finest Georgian churches celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street was constructed between 1765 and 1769, to a design by the architect John Smyth. The church replaced a much earlier building that was erected on the same site in the 13th century, and which itself had connections to the medieval St Thomas’s Abbey which stood close by. The rebuilt church was funded by a parliamentary grant of £7,000, with an additional sum assessed on the parish.
Maurice Curtis, the noted architectural historian who produced the seminal work on Georgian Dublin noted that St Catherine’s
“…is the finest facade of any church in Dublin, a superbly virile composition in Roman Doric built of mountain granite”.
The monumental pediment and beautifully proportioned circular headed windows created a striking classical front. Less successful was the tower, topped with a much less ambitious belfry after funds ran out to complete the originally-intended spire. The tower was damaged by fire in 1876 (which spread from Nos 22 and 23 Thomas Street) and it was restored to its present state in 1880s, including the addition of the clock.
Nevertheless the church became one of the most distinctive landmarks on Thomas Street. It featured in the celebrated Malton Views of Dublin published in 1792. 10 years later it was the backdrop to the public execution of Robert Emmet following the failed 1803 Rebellion. It lofty position at the top of Bloody Lane (now Bridgefoot Street) added to the drama of the spectacle.
St Catherine’s went into steep decline in the late 20thC as its local congregation dwindled. In 1966 the church closed for worship, part of the large-scale closure of Church of Ireland buildings in the city at the time. The church was de-consecrated and handed over to Dublin Corporation. It soon fell into disrepair and was even mooted for demolition as part of the devastating road widening plans being undertaken in the city in the 1970s and 1980s. However, a body of conservationists banded together to form The St Catherine’s Trust and undertook some restoration of its interior.
For a decade or so the building served as a cultural centre and venue – The Chieftains were among the groups who performed here. However by the late 1980s it was again in peril. In 1997, funds from the Department of the Environment, Dublin Corporation and the Heritage Council assisted a community group under the Church of Ireland called CORE (City Outreach for Renewal & Evangelism) to take charge of St Catherine’s and begin its restoration.
The huge undertaking cost £1.7m, including a large contribution from CORE’s own congregation. The damage obvious by 1997 was extensive: the collapse of two internal staircases, the collapse of the vestry, water damage, dry rot, damage to the facade. Restoration work began in 1998 (when the church was reconsecrated) and continued into 2000. The interior as modernised and made fit for the needs of present congregation. The chancel was extended into the nave to allow a stage for performance, while a baptismal font was set into the centre of the floor for total immersion.
Today, 20 years after the previous restoration, the need to invest in the church remains. The building faces significant conservation challenges including attention to the roof and walls and the need to complete decorative work include to columns, funeral monuments ad the main altarpiece. This year conservation work is underway to the belfry to repair louvres and the landmark clock.
CORE (which has since adopted its original name of St Catherine’s Church) and the congregation of St Catherine’s are proud of their 250 year old building and its place in community life in The Liberties over the centuries. In addition to its ministry, the Church support many community development and social enterprise initiatives in the area and has strong links to the lauded Solas Project. The church is a centre for the wider community, regularly hosting community meetings, conferences and events. And 250 years on, it remains one of the most distinctive landmarks on Thomas Street.
More on St Catherine’s Church at www.saintcatherines.ie. Information on the history of St Catherine’s Church sourced from Thomas Street A study of the past, a vision for the future by Dublin Civic Trust (2001).