Saint Mels Cathedral

St Mels Cathedral 15The historic Saint Mels Cathedral spire dominates the Longford town skyline. This building plays a vital role in the hearts of Longford people and has been the venue for many important events in County Longford since its foundation. The building of the Cathedral first took place between 1840 and 1856. The campanile was then added in the 1860s and the portico in the 1890s. The foundation stone for the Cathedral was taken from the original Cathedral of Saint Mels in the village of Ardagh County Longford, beneath which the revered Saint is reputed to be buried. The first Cathedral in Ardagh existed up until the protestant reformation of the mid 1500s. From 1788 the church in Ballymahon served as the Pro Cathedral with the bishop residing in the town until 1853. The Catholic diocese was without a cathedral for three centuries, up until the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In this year William O Higgins became the new Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise and it was his vision for a Cathedral that set the building of Saint Mels in motion.

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As the largest town in the centre of the diocese, and being close to the ancient cathedral site in Ardagh,  Longford was the obvious choice for the building. The population of Longford at that time (1841) was 4966 and increasing. The town had two military barracks and the arrival of the Royal Canal in 1830 had contributed to the prosperity of the area. The parish was however in need of a new church in order to cater for the growing congregation. A resolution to build a new church was passed at a public meeting held on 27th January 1833. By 1838 a sum of almost two thousand pounds had been gathered by Longford parishioners and so on 6th May that year Bishop O Higgins announced that Longford would be the location of a diocesan Cathedral and the new residence of the Bishop.

The design envisaged by Bishop O Higgins was based partly on the Madeleine Church in Paris, the Pantheon and the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. The building commenced on 19th May 1840 with the laying of the foundation stone at a ceremony attended by as many as 40,000 people. Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam was the preacher. The architect employed in the first phase was John Benjamin Keane and the contractor was John Mullins. A massive fundraising campaign was taken on by all the parishes in the diocese as well as churches throughout Ireland and even in some parts of the UK. In 1842 cities in the United States and Canada also became involved in the fundraising.  A particularly interesting fundraiser which took place in the partly built cathedral was a charity sermon delivered by the Catholic convert and Passionist priest the Hon. Rev. Charles Spencer (1799 – 1864), an ancestor of Princess Diana and a relative of Winston Churchill.

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By 1846 the side walls and pillars were complete but work was interrupted by the onset of the Great Hunger which had a disastrous  effect on the local community. The situation had improved somewhat by 1850 but Bishop O’Higgins died in 1853 before realising his vision for the cathedral. The responsibility was taken on by his successor, Dr John Kilduff (1853 – 1867) with John Bourke as architect. Within three years of fundraising and work the cathedral was roofed and ready to open.  The first consecration of Saint Mels took place on 24th September 1856 in the presence of approximately 18’000 people. The principle celebrant on that occasion was Archbishop Dixon of Armagh.  The completion of Saint Mels took from 1856 to 1893. Another appeal for funding was made by Bishop Kilduff in 1860 and this raised enough money to complete the vestibules and the bell tower or campanile, as well as the installation of two bells from the James Sheridans Eagle Foundry, Dublin all of which were done by 1863. The original Keane design for the campanile was modified and altered considerably by John Bourke. Under Bishop Bartholomew Woodlock (1879 – 95) the building of the portico, with its entablature, commenced in 1889, according to the design of George Coppinger Ashlin, R.H.A., with builders Joseph Meade and Company, Dublin. The scene depicted in the entablature, in Portland stone, is the enthronement of Saint Mel as Bishop of Ardagh and is the work of eminent Dublin sculptor George Smyth, who also executed the huge statue of the Sacred Heart over the Pediment. St Mels was finally consecrated on 19th May 1893 with Cardinal Logue, Archbishop of Armagh presiding.

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St Mels Cathedral has played a central role in the hearts and lives of Longford people over the many years since its first building. It was the venue for several historic occasions in the history of our county including the marriage of General Sean Mc Eoin to Alice Cooney on 21st June 1922. There have been continuous improvements made and developments to the interior over that time including the installation of the organ in 1857, the stations of the cross purchased in Paris in 1858, the high altar in Carrara marble in 1869, sixteen statues from Froc-Robert in Paris, An 18th century altar originally from a Dominican convent in Rome, a new sanctuary, bishops chair and oak choir stalls, altar rails and a mosaic floor. It took 53 years to achieve the dream of Bishop O Higgins. At the time of its completion ot was one of the largest and most impressive public buildings in Ireland. Between 1893 and 2009 12 new bells were installed, cast in Byrnes Bell foundry in Dublin, a new organ made by the firm of Stahlhuth of Aachen, Germany, was commissioned, and two stained glass windows from the Harry Clarke Studio as well as a new marble puplpit was erected. The Diocesan Museum containing priceless treasures was opened at the rear of the Cathedral in 1974. These items included the 10th century Crozier of Saint Mel, the shrine of the Book of Fenagh (1536) and many other irreplaceable relics and artifacts.

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On Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford were shocked and bereft to discover that a devastating fire, due to a malfunction in the heating system, had ripped through our beloved Cathedral leaving only the exterior walls, portico and campanile standing. The roof had burned through and collapsed right down to the crypt. The interior of Saint Mels as well as the Diocesan museum had been completely destroyed. The 28 limestone columns that distinguished Saint Mels Cathedral as a Basilica were also damaged beyond repair. On that Christmas Day, Bishop Colm O Reilly committed to working together with the people of Longford to rebuild Saint Mels, and make it once more the centre of Catholic life in the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, as it had been for 170 years. A swift response to the disaster saw the Saint Mels Project Committee formed, to take on the task of rebuilding the Cathedral, an enormous and daunting restoration project given the economic crisis the country was experiencing.

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This multi million project has been the biggest restoration project in Europe over the past five years, the finished building being an awe inspiring display of craftsmanship, dedication and love. The official re opening of St Mels Cathedral took place at Christmas 2014, when the newly restored Cathedral was finally unveiled to the public. It has been dubbed ‘The Longford Phoenix’ following its spectacular rise from the ashes of Christmas 2009. The crypt of St Mels is currently being redesigned so as to house a museum so the people of Longford are now looking forward to seeing the completion  of this section of their beloved St Mels. The cathedral is open for services and to visit all year round. Large groups can contact the presbytery directly to arrange a guide if they wish or they can also contact The Tourism Office for assistance in organising their visit.

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If you wish to keep up to date with restoration project, as well as view images, articles etc on the entire project then please visit the website of the Longford parish : www.longfordparish.com  or visit Facebook at www.facebook.com/StMelsRestoration  www.facebook.com/StMelsCathedral

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The information for this piece was adapted from ST MEL’S restoration booklet published in 2013 by St Mels Cathedral Project Committee. All images are taken by Tiernan Dolan.

Further information on County Longford can be found on the ‘Explore Longford’ App available to download for both Android and Apple Devices:
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County Longford Tourism Office Market Square, Longford, Ireland    Phone: +353 (0)43 33 42577 +353 (0)85 8888876    Email: info@longfordtourism.ie