On a bitterly cold afternoon just two days into the new year of 2012, firemen prised back the doors of St Catherine’s Church on Meath Street, Dublin, to investigate reports of a blaze inside.
The cold air rushed inside and met gases released by the burning of the crib beside the altar, causing an explosion that blew out the stained glass windows, taking with it 150 years of history.
“It took just 20 minutes for the inside of the church to be in ruins,” parish priest Fr Niall Coghlan said. “Every single inch was affected by the explosion. It took out the windows, blew the top off the organ, melted the light fittings which dripped down on to the seats and the floor. It even melted the paint off the walls.”
The fire was the result of an arson attack. A 49-year-old homeless man admitted setting the straw in the crib alight. Earlier this year he was found not guilty by reason of insanity after a trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. He was committed to the Central Mental Hospital.
Following a closure of almost two years and restoration and reconstruction costing €4.1 million, the church will reopen to the public at 10am today. Parishioners will find a very different interior.
“We had always thought the altar was just plaster, but when the layers of paint melted away it turned out it was this beautiful French limestone. All the pillars were made of the same stone,” Fr Coghlan said.
The butter-coloured stone from Caen in Normandy is inlaid with gold mosaic tiles.
The wooden pews have been cleaned, varnished and reupholstered.
And the stained glass windows have been restored and bounce patches of coloured light around the golden stone.
“When people come back in they will be seeing what the parishioners saw when they first walked though the doors in 1858,” Fr Coghlan said.
There is still work to be done.
The stained glass window behind the altar is still undergoing restoration and will not be replaced until next summer.
The organ will be replaced after Christmas.
The church retains its quirks, including the bust of Kevin Barry masquerading as a saint, which was installed in the early 1920s by a priest with strong political views.
Most of the cost was covered by insurance, with €230,000 provided through fundraising.
“The work had to be done anyway, because Dublin City Council insisted that at least 70 per cent of the building be restored.”
The first mass will be celebrated on Sunday by Bishop Eamonn Walsh at 12.15pm following a procession from the Augustinian Church on John’s Lane at noon.