The St Stephens Green Church
In the 1850s, before the retirement of Dr Drummond, a wealthy shipowner and member of the Strand Street congregation, Thomas Wilson, bequeathed £2,330 towards building a new church. His father had been George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the American War of Independence, and later the USA’s first consul in Dublin.
In 1857 a site was purchased on the west side of St Stephen’s Green, which a hundred years earlier had been known as the “French walk”, because many French Huguenots owned property there. The site had once been occupied by the Synges, a remarkable ecclesiastical family which over three generations gave five bishops to the Church of Ireland (and, in the 20th century, was to give Ireland and the world one of the most celebrated playwrights of rural life, J.M.Synge.
In 1861 an architectural competition was held to find a design for the new church. It was won by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast. Sir Charles Lanyon, an English-born civil engineer, who had been county surveyor for Kildare before moving north, supervised the construction of the great coast road from Larne to Portrush in County Antrim and erected the Queen’s and Ormeau bridges over the Lagan in Belfast. He later became Lord Mayor of that city.
William Henry Lynn, the architect of the partnership, designed the Church of Ireland church in Andrew Street which is now Dublin’s main tourist information centre. In Belfast, one of his major works was Queen’s University. He was described by one architectural journal as “one of the best architects of the Gothic Revival” in Ireland.
His obituary in the Irish Builder and Engineer in 1915 said:”Mr Lynn’s works are numerous but they are amongst the best of our modern structures. The Unitarian Church in St Stephen’s Green, a delightful building of Gothic style, has been justly described as the best example extant of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage, the treatment being quite original and altogether admirable”.
The new church was built at a cost of £5,000, and opened for public worship on Sunday 14 June 1863. Four years later Dublin’s other Unitarian congregation at Eustace Street merged with St Stephen’s Green to form one church. (The old Eustace Street church is now the home of The Ark Children’s Centre.)
It is interesting to note that in 1856, John Henry Newman’s Catholic University Church was completed just around the corner on the south side of St Stephen’s Green in a very different style, that of an ancient Italian basilica. Both Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles were popular among architects in this period, when there was a spiritual revival in both Catholicism and Protestantism and a reaction to 300 years of obeying a set book of classicial rules. George McCaw, an architect and member of the Dublin Unitarian congregation, has written that Darwinism played a large part in the swing to this Gothic style. Churches had to meet the challenge of science and this led to a desire to return to a style that was seen as uncorrupted by modern civilisation. Gothic art and architecture were seen as the expression of the Church, not as it had been secularised, “but having the true faith with its emotional appeal and air of mystery.”
The site for the church was 60 feet wide. None of the internal corners of the building are at right angles to each other as the existing houses on either side were at an angle to the street.
The top of the spire is 97 feet from the street, with the main body of the church being 58 feet long by 46 feet wide. The design brilliantly fulfils the requirement that in a non-conformist church the emphasis should be on the pulpit, unlike in established denominations where the focus is on the communion table or altar. Everyone in the St Stephen’s Green church can hear and see the preacher, emphasising the importance of the spoken word to the Unitarian congregation.
The church has a wealth of French, Flemish and English stained glass. It also has a notable example of one of the first pieces executed following the revival of the Irish stained glass industry in the early 20th century. This window, which features the themes of Discovery, Truth, Inspiration, Love and Work, was constructed in 1918. The work was carried out by Sarah Purser’s celebrated Tower of Glass studio in Dublin to a design by A.E.Child. The window is a particularly fine example of the Irish school of stained glass. Other, more recent stained glass windows are by Michael Healy and Catherine O’Brien.
Other points of note are the decorative work to the capitals of the main pillars supporting the four internal arches. These represent different types of leaves on some of which there are birds. There are also decorative angels below the corbelled bases of the main roof trusses which are thought to represent the “whole armour of God” as described in chapter six of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The organ by J.W. Walker and Sons was constructed in 1911.
On the east wall of the church there is a sculpture by the distinguished artist, the late Paddy McElroy, a longtime member of the congregation. It is executed in forged steel, cast bronze, copper and hot fused glass, illustrating many aspects of Unitarian thought. The major religions of the world are represented by their distinctive symbols. A centre-piece by the glass artist Killian Schurman represents the embryo of life and all beginnings.
Over 150 years, the interior and exterior fabric of a church will take a battering from weather and pollution and in 2003, the church launched a multi-phase restoration project at an estimated total cost of 1.5 million euros to clean and restore the external stonework, re-slate the roof , clean and weatherproof the stained glass windows and re-wire the church. In recent years, this project has been extended to provide disabled access and renovate the pipe organ.
The main parts of the work done so far involved cleaning of the stonework on the front of the church and electrical rewiring but there are also many smaller jobs which were undertaken at the same time. The project continues in 2012 with provision of access for the disabled and renovation of areas affected by this work and a major renovation of the pipe organ by Irish organ-builder Trevor Crowe (work to be started in mid to late 2013).