When we discuss Cardinal Newman, we quite often make reference to Oxford and Birmingham, but as one of our readers kindly reminded us, we should not neglect to mention the University Church in Dublin, Ireland, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, which was founded and designed by none other than John Henry Newman himself, in his capacity as rector of the then newly founded Catholic University of Ireland.
The following historical details are provided by University Church:
Presided over by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Paul Cullen (1803-1878), a national synod of the Catholic bishops of Ireland sitting at Thurles, Co Tipperary in 1850, decided to establish a Catholic University of Ireland. Archbishop Cullen, then occupying the See of Armagh and formerly Rector of the Irish College in Rome, had made the acquaintance of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) when the latter was studying for the priesthood in the Eternal City. Following his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, Newman, who had enjoyed a significant career at Oxford University, was ordained priest in 1847. Archbishop Cullen invited him to come to Dublin to lecture on mixed or non-denominational education and also made Newman a tentative offer of the rectorship of the proposed university.
On accepting Cullen’s dual invitation, Newman came to Ireland in October 1851 and following a meeting with the committee charged with the setting up of the university he was appointed its rector on November 12 1851…
The university was officially opened at 86 St Stephen’s Green on November 3 1854, and one of Newman’s first expedients was the provision of a university church. In fact, he had this in mind, he said, as early as any other work. For him the church would “recognise the great principle of the university, the indissoluble union of philosophy and religion”…
In June 1855 he was able to commence the building of the church. To assist him in the building and decoration Newman sought the help of his friend John Hungerford Pollen (1820-1902). They met in Oxford and Pollen, who had shown considerable artistic talent, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1845. He had designed and painted the ceiling of St Peter-le-Bailey church in Oxford and that of the chapel of Merton College. He became a Catholic in 1852 and was later editor of the Department of Art and Industry of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum in London…
However, while Pollen was the architect, painter and decorator of the new church, the plan was Newman’s with the basic ideas stemming from his enthusiasm for the ancient basilicas of Italy but particularly the reconstruction of S Paulo fuori le Mura in Rome and the round arch style of the Basilica of St Boniface and St Ludwig’s Church in Munich, the latter serving as both parish church and the church of the Ludwig-Maximilian University…
As well as continuing to act as superior of the Birmingham Oratory Newman remained as rector of the Catholic University until August 1859, although he had submitted his resignation as early as November 1858.
Here are some views of the church itself with descriptions provided by the website of the University Church.
“The alabaster altar frontal has 12 discs of Derbyshire fluorspar crystals set in two groups of six. In the centre of the frontal is the outline of a Byzantine cross. Christ in Glory appears in the centre with the Evangelists John and Mark on his right and left and Matthew and Luke above and below him. In the corners are the doctors Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome. Three tall wooden candlesticks, but gilded to make them look like metal, stand on either side of the brass Crucifix with its ivory figure above the tabernacle. A ‘clever Dublin tinker’ executed the Crucifix from Pollen’s design and carpenters, employed by the contractors JP Beardwood & Son of Dublin’s Westland Row, carved his candlesticks.”
“The Church of San Clemente in Rome inspired the semi-dome above the sanctuary. In the centre is the Virgin, enthroned as Seat of Wisdom (Sedes Sapientiae), as patroness of the church. Above her is a dove with outstretched wings representing the Holy Spirit and a jewelled cross represents Christ. At the top are brilliant colours emerging from the hand of God the Father.”
“Above the altar is a deal baldachino framed into the wall behind. Its five small domes and decorative carving further extend the Byzantine idea of the sanctuary. On either side of the baldachino are formal patterns of circles filled with flower motifs and linked with latticework. The circles and lattices are of glazed ceramic tiles. This band separates the semi-dome above the baldachino from the marble inlay on the lower walls of the apse and it also serves as a kind of reredos where circular studs of glass are set into the alabaster and marble framework to give a jewelled effect as they reflect the candlelight from the altar.”
“A bust of John Henry Newman, by Sir Thomas Farrell (1827-1902), has occupied a niche half way up the nave on the right hand side since 1892.”
Article syndicated from the New Liturgical Movement.
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