The Carmelite Church in Dublin, official title the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel but usually referred to as Whitefriar Street Church, is a place I discovered more or less by accident while roaming the city’s streets a few weeks ago in search of street art, and with my liking for stained glass windows I decided to go in and take a look – and I have to say that I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The first Carmelites arrived in Ireland in 1271 and settled in Dublin in 1280 ; they stayed until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century then later returned and established themselves in the oldest part of the city in the early 17th century. Although there’s been a church in the location of Whitefriar Street since then the current church wasn’t founded and consecrated until 1826/1827.
By 1840 the building had become too small for the congregation so a new nave and north aisle were added, with the existing church becoming the south aisle of the new church ; these additions effectively tripled the size of the existing church and established the building as one of the largest churches in the city. By 1951 the entrances on the narrow Whitefriar Street to the west of the church had become inadequate and indirect as traffic gradually increased, most of it coming from the east end of the building, so a plan was put in place which involved only minor structural alterations. The interior of the church was completely reversed, placing the high altar at the west end, adding on a sacristy and making a direct entrance off the main thoroughfare of Aungier Street.
With its relatively small entrance in the centre of something resembling a large apartment building the church didn’t look much from the outside, but this was very much a case of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ as the fairly unassuming façade really belied what’s inside. Through the outer wrought iron gates and double doors I found myself in a pleasant atrium with patterned mosaic tiling on the floor and walls painted in contrasting colours. In the centre was a shrine with an almost-life-size depiction of Calvary, and set back in an alcove on the right was the shrine of St. Albert of Sicily and two brightly coloured stained glass windows.
St. Albert of Sicily was born during the 13th century in Trapani and entered the Carmelite Order as a young man, then after his ordination he was sent to the priory at Messina. He was a man of prayer and penance and a lover of solitude but he was also very active within the church and spent much time studying, being regarded as the patron of Carmelite studies. He spent the last years of his life living in a hermitage near Messina ; he died in 1306 and though he was recognised as a wonder worker during his lifetime miracles and cures continued to be attributed to him after his death.
At the end of the atrium another set of double doors led into the church itself ; everywhere I looked were beautiful stained glass windows and as well as the two shrines out in the atrium there were several shrines within the church, including one to Our Lady of Dublin and the one most popular with couples, the shrine and relics of St.Valentine.
The church’s early pipe organ had been replaced in the 1960s by an electronic instrument but in the early 1980s the then Prior of Whitefriar Street, in consultation with the Carmelite Community, decided to install a new tracker action pipe organ. It was built by the renowned firm of Kenneth Jones & Associates of Bray, Co. Wicklow, and though much of the material was new some historical pipework by noted 19th century Irish organ builders John White and William Telford was sourced.
A tracker action organ is an instrument where all the parts are mechanical rather than electrical. Although electricity is used to power the wind blowing apparatus and the lights at the keyboard all the connections between the pipes and the keys are achieved mechanically. In total the organ contains more than 2,200 pipes ranging from the size of a small pencil to 16ft in height, and it’s one of the finest tracker action organs in Ireland.
St. Therese was born in France in 1873 and at the age of 15 entered the Lisieux Convent with three of her sisters, where she was appointed assistant mistress of novices five years later. While in the convent she wrote a brief autobiography and account of her spiritual teaching and asked one of her sisters to edit her writing wherever was necessary – this was done and in 1898 the convent had 2,000 copies printed. Although some Carmelite convents didn’t like the new book it sold 47,000 copies in twelve years with demand continuing to rise. Unfortunately Therese never got to see what a success the book became as she died of tuberculosis the year before it was published.
With the success of her book the previously unknown Therese was acclaimed as a saint and a great spiritual teacher. She had said that she wanted to spend her time in heaven doing good on earth and it seemed that those who prayed to her for help were finding their prayers were granted – she was beatified in 1923 and canonised in 1924. The Shrine of St. Therese was blessed in 1955 ; the marble statue of the saint is a replica of the statue which stands over the high altar in the crypt of the Basilica in Lisieux and the mosaic background depicts Our Lady of the Smile which was originally designed in 1750 for a church in Paris.
The sculpture in the centre of the shrine to Our Lady of Dublin is a life-size figure in oak and probably dates from the early 16th century. Originally it would have been brightly painted but sometime over the centuries it was whitewashed over ; the removal of the whitewash in 1914 unfortunately also removed the ancient surface underneath but after it was cleaned and restored the shrine of Our Lady of Dublin was formally erected in 1915.