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Saturday 25 November 2017

Iconic St Mel's 'will rise from ashes'

Cathedral bells' return gives hope to faithful

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

ON Christmas Eve last year, Bishop Colm O'Reilly celebrated Midnight Mass to a packed congregation at St Mel's. Tragically five hours after the bells tolled the dawn of Christmas Day, the cathedral was ablaze.

It was a devastating loss for the people of Longford and for the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois.

Bishop O'Reilly had spent more than four decades in the building, first as a young cleric and finally as spiritual leader of the diocese.

As the flames still smouldered behind him, Bishop O'Reilly gave an emotional interview to RTE News on Christmas Day. Though his flock was still in shock, his words struck a chord of hope.

"It will be restored," he said emphatically.

Shortly afterwards, the bishop and the restoration committee set a date. Five years on from the blaze, Mass would once again be celebrated in the cathedral.

Today, the feast of St Stephen, that target is still very much on track -- though what is left of the cathedral is in a shocking state. A temporary roof has been erected to maintain the fabric of the fire-scorched interior and protect it from further damage.

"The sound of the cathedral bells in Longford has been like punctuation marks marking the passing of time every day for longer than anyone here can remember. The bells have been silenced since last Christmas and have been missed much more than we could have anticipated. But they rang out again this Christmas. They were electronically operated but, for all that, they will be like angels' voices," Bishop O'Reilly says.

The Bishop believes that for the people of Longford, this Christmas has brought emotional turmoil.

"We need to experience the joy that comes at this time. However, as we arrived at the first anniversary of the fire that destroyed our Cathedral, we experience some nostalgia. The word nostalgia means 'a return of pain'. The feelings of Longford people have been nostalgia in that original sense."

But Bishop O'Reilly says both he and his flock are determined not to be paralysed by painful memories.

"Ever since the fire happened last Christmas, we have moved from lamenting our loss to thoughts of restoration and new beginnings," he says.

The building has been the focal point of the town of Longford ever since it was completed in the 1850s.

"As long as the cathedral remains in its present state local people will continue to feel the pain of loss. They might find some comfort in the knowledge that a short time after its foundation stone was laid amid great euphoria, building had to be stopped due to the Great Famine. It was then in a similar or indeed a worse state than it is now.

"The Freeman's Journal in 1868 recalled what it was like between 1847 and 1853 when building work had to be halted: 'The famine of '47 stopped the progress of the work, and the rains of heaven trickled down its unroofed walls. The wild nettle and luxuriant weed twined around the half-raised columns, or covered the prostrate pillars lying scattered all around. The weather-beaten walls, prostrate columns and roofless waste, all overrun with weeds spoke rather of a ruin than of a work progressing to completion,'" quoted Bishop O'Reilly.

He acknowledges that he won't be bishop by the time the cathedral is reinstated. He has reached 75 and under church rules, has sent his letter of resignation to Rome.

He has been heartened by the diversity of suggestions that have been put forward about the restoration. How the new cathedral will look has already initiated an energetic debate which gives him hope.

"As people began to learn of the true extent of the damage caused to the building, many people came forward with suggestions about what the restored cathedral might look like. Some wrote letters, some of which strongly stated that nothing short of full and exact restoration of the interior of the cathedral should be contemplated.

"There were others who took quite the opposite view. Broadly speaking, people divided into those who are for restoring everything as it was on Christmas Eve 2009 before the fire, while others suggested a new style of interior."

Bishop O'Reilly accepts that there is tension between liturgy and heritage but he says this need not be a negative debate.

"Holding the two in balance will undoubtedly be a challenge for the future. Our hope is that this will be successfully addressed in dialogue between architects and artists on the one hand and clergy and people on the other."

"It will be possible to let people actually see for themselves what might be made work to combine the best of the old and the needs of a living liturgy in our time."

"Let me add that in reaching agreement between different sides to the argument about the style of the interior of the cathedral, beauty should never be sacrificed," he says.

While St Mel's rises from the ashes, St Mary's Church in Athlone has officially become the interim cathedral for the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois.

On the first Sunday of Advent, Bishop O'Reilly celebrated Mass at St Mary's.

As part of that move, the bishop's chair which had been used at St Mel's from the 1890s to the 1970s is now in place on the altar of St Mary's.

Its inauguration as interim cathedral means that occasions such as the blessing of oils during Holy Week in Easter will now take place at St Mary's.

Sunday Independent

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