'Remarkable achievement' as St Mel's bounces back
The first Mass in the new St Mel's Cathedral was celebrated last night - the culmination of five years of restoration work.
Longford parishioners were welcomed back by Bishop Francis Duffy who told them: "I have to admit I am not used to cathedrals."
But the recently ordained Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois will have to get used to it, as St Mel's has been painstakingly rebuilt following the inferno which destroyed the church on Christmas Day, 2009.
Dr Duffy said there was delight that they were gathered to celebrate Mass "in our beautifully restored cathedral."
He said there was a sense of homecoming and goodwill among the thousands who had flocked to visit the cathedral.
He was flanked by Fr Tom Healy, the administrator of St Mel's, who oversaw the restoration project and Deacon Seamus O'Rourke, who will be ordained a priest for the diocese next year.
Later, in a reflection on the journey of restoration, a member of the parish council reminded the packed church that the church, which was built 174 years ago, had known "the tears of famine, the sacrifice of the poor, the generosity of friends and the prayers of generations".
He said the Mass marked a new chapter in the life of the parish.
Among the symbols brought to the altar for the special Mass was the trowel which Bishop O'Higgins used to begin the building of St Mel's in 1840.
The trowel, along with many other artefacts, was badly damaged in the fire.
Maps and plans, symbolising the dedication and vision of the architects and the complexity of the work involved in the restoration work, were also presented to Bishop Duffy.
The reconstruction of St Mel's created up to 100 jobs and contributed an estimated €7.5 million to the State's tax revenues.
In total, €30m was spent on the project, with the majority of that money coming from the church's insurers, Alliance.
Another €1m was donated in voluntary funds.
"We would estimate that the Irish tax payer gained handsomely from the restoration of the cathedral," said Seamus Butler, chairman of St Mel's Cathedral Project Committee.
It is estimated that for every on-site job, an off-site job was also created.
The restoration project also created two training courses for 60 people, one of which upskilled local tradespeople in heritage restoration.
Colm Redmond, the lead architect on the cathedral project, said that to "take the building from the condition of a shell to the completed work we see today is a remarkable achievement".
He explained how every one of the cathedral's massive limestone columns, each weighing 28 stone, had to be replaced.
The original columns were severely damaged during the 2009 blaze.
"It is my hope that the people of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois will embrace their cathedral as the return of an old friend, as they recognise in the building features they have known for many years, while welcoming the new intervention as part of a new phase of life of the cathedral," he said.
Masses from St Mel's are being televised by RTE over Christmas to celebrate the restoration work. Midnight Mass was broadcast last night while a 10am Mass this morning will also be televised.
Fintan Farrelly, St Mel's organist since 1985:
"I am from Longford and as a kid I came to Mass here.
"When I came in first I was absolutely overcome with emotion. The beauty of it, the light and brightness and yet it retains its character.
"I think the baptismal font is wonderful as well as the windows and the altar.
" Naturally, I was drawn to the organ and its beautiful pipes and sound. It's a privilege to play it.
"For the televised Mass, we are singing everything that we sang on Christmas Eve in 2009.
"All our music was burnt in the fire. I saw some of the choir today with tears in their eyes at the end of the Mass - it feels like we are back."
Toni Cassin Vaughan, from Longford:
"I was born and reared six doors from the Cathedral. After five years, it is overwhelming to be able to come in again.
"The Cathedral has been restored beautifully. It is different but not very different. There is less seating because of the new baptismal font. The organ reminds me of the organ in Wells Cathedral... very beautiful."
Derek Mulrennan (36) from Longford, with daughters Nicole and Madison:
"The last time we were here, on Christmas day 2009, Nicole was three years of age and Madison wasn't even born. There was absolute shock in the town.
"The five years flew and it's been something everyone has been looking forward to. I didn't look at any coverage during the week so today was my first day seeing it and my reaction was total awe.
"The altar and the organ really struck me.
Brian Hannan (usher):
"I've just helped two people into their seats who were baptised and made their first communion here but haven't been back since. They came back today especially to be here for the re-opening.
"The things most people are talking about is the columns.
"I came down on Christmas morning 2009 and I saw the smoke as I passed the Bank of Ireland. I hadn't heard about the fire.
"I was with some of my family who were over from England for Christmas. I was shocked."
Claire Macko - living in Longford for the past 17 years:
"We used to come here every Sunday for the one o'clock Mass.
"It is absolutely fabulous - so bright, so warm - a complete transformation. Before it was dark and very closed.
"The thing I like best is the light and stained glass windows. I know they are a bit controversial but I think they are fabulous.
"This is the best Christmas present for Longford."