A model church

There we were; Fr Eddie Moore, my mother and I, standing in an enormous if peculiar space. We were in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Allenwood, Co. Kildare but a part of it few of the congregation would ever see. Behind us was the gable end wall of this massive church while in front was an internal wall constructed to seal off the original sanctuary. We were studying a circular stained glass window built high up in this new wall, which from the other side looked down upon Mass-goers.


Fr Moore was explaining the details in the window, though from our perspective it was difficult to make it out. “You’ll have to go up for a better view,” he said, and pointed me towards a narrow ladder bracketed to the wall climbing up to the window. “Ah no, I’m grand, thanks Father,” concealing my alarm at the prospect of a climb. “Now I know you’re interested – go on there,” urged the energetic priest, who didn’t look to me like he was past the age of retirement as he claimed. Sure what could I do only head for the ladder, making a mental note to remind my mother not to let this slip to my husband who wouldn’t approve of such reckless behaviour.  

Fr Moore was right of course, and the view from a tiny platform 30 feet up was much better. The Rose Window, featuring an important icon by a Benedictine nun, Sr Paula Kiersy is a work of art and a feat of engineering.  It was worth the climb, as was our trip to Allenwood to see this extraordinary work of renovation. It tells a story of the history of Catholicism in Ireland and how radical changes in the liturgy have manifested in physical changes in the actual churches.

 When we arrived in the empty car park, my mother and I had exchanged uncomfortable glances. On greeting Fr Moore, who had invited us over, I think I ventured that it was “imposing”. “Oh it’s a gothic monstrosity!” he cheerfully agreed. Later I read that Bishop Jim Moriarty, then Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin had “commented” that the outside of the church was an “eyesore”. What was such a massive church doing in this rural area? Fr Moore explained it had opened in 1954 at the peak of both the “old” Catholic Church in Ireland and the industry of Bord na Mona. There were thousands of workers to cater for and this was one of three built at the time in the traditional pre-Vatican II style. Almost as soon as it was built, the decline of both institutions began.

 In 1989 a major renovation was done. The liturgical imperative of the time was to bring the altar closer to the people, so that “the whole assembly is clearly seen to be a single priestly community”. The sanctuary was sealed off, the interior realigned horizontally and new stained glass windows installed on that western wall. It was a big improvement on the old gothic style, and yet you can see how it felt wrong. You can’t make a vertically designed church into a horizontal one. And there was no aisle, so the church had no weddings. Wasn’t it sad to have all the joy of weddings taken away from a church?

 In 2006 Fr Moore realised he’d have to try again and slowly over two years discussions began. But there was no agreement until architect and parishioner Chiarraí Gallagher offered her services. Her design and its execution by consulting engineer Colm Hassett can only be described as a triumph.

 The vertical alignment was restored and a fabulous aisle re-created. The altar, rather than being shoved up against the back wall was gracefully pulled forward towards the nave with seating either side. From the Rose Window to a magnificent altar cross by Brid Ní Rinn a ‘wow’ factor was achieved that does justice to the huge building. There’s an octagonal motif inspired by the celtic cross finial stone that flows through everything from decorative features to the shape of the limestone furniture, and all for the bargain basement price of €600,000. As I remarked to Fr Moore, people bought three bedroom houses in Dublin for more during the boom.  

One of the nicest features is that the baptismal font is not crammed near the altar. Also made from limestone, and in the themed octagonal shape, it forms the entrance to the church itself. It’s in front of the doors in the centre of a great space. The idea is that we cannot start our pilgrimage of faith unless we pass through the entrance door of Baptism.

 For churches facing a similar predicament, Allenwood provides a great model of renovation and design. It’s a place of peace, light and inspiration – everything a church should be.