What does it mean for St Mary’s to become a cathedral?

What does it mean for St Mary’s to become a cathedral? St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, as viewed from Marlborough Street
Matt Letourneau


My mom always told me that when you want to experience a city’s culture, you should always start by visiting its cathedrals. When picturing a cathedral, you may imagine the skyscraping towers of Notre-Dame or the grandiose dome of St Paul’s. Although these buildings are synonymous with resplendent architecture, jaw-dropping scale and profound histories, somewhat unassuming Churches, such as the Catholic St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in the heart of Dublin, can still hold deep-seated influences in their respective communities. After St Mary’s announced earlier this month that they were petitioning the Holy See to be raised to the dignity of a Cathedral, a position that no Catholic Church has held in Dublin for about 500 years, I knew I had to take my mom’s advice and visit this nondescript church to determine why it’s obtaining such a high distinction. Embarking on this adventure, I hoped to discover what makes a cathedral a cathedral and see if St Mary’s is ‘worthy’ of becoming one. Even though you may not picture Churches like St Mary’s when you think of a cathedral, it turns out that a storied past and bright future lies beyond its white, columned entrance.

Arriving in Dublin this summer after my first year of classes at Yale University (go bulldogs), I was confident to take this daunting task head on. However, after spending only a few weeks here, I soon realised that I am another clueless American tourist, stumbling through an unfamiliar city. Therefore, in order to learn more about Dublin’s culture, what defines a cathedral and why St Mary’s redesignation is significant, I decided to hop on the Luas, explore the two current Church of Ireland cathedrals in Dublin, St Patrick’s and Christ Church, and see how they compare to St Mary’s, attempting to not get lost along the way.

Dual cathedrals

At the 1000-year-old Christ Church Cathedral, the first thing I noticed was the stunning facade, composed of Romanesque arches and towers mixed with gothic and Victorian elements. However, I soon learned that its history is equally as rich as its architecture, with famous kings, such as King Richard II and the Norse king of Dublin Sitriuc, being associated with it. Moreover, the 16th century reformation led this previously Catholic cathedral to become a part of the Church of Ireland, and many separate rebuilding and restoration projects occurred over the centuries. Nonetheless, the interior stood out to me the most, particularly the crypt. The c

rypt houses a menagerie of beautiful artefacts and manuscripts, such as a copy of the Magna Carta and a 17th century, elaborate gold plate the size of a fridge. In a sea of like-minded tourists flanking me on all sides, I felt like I was walking through a museum. There was even a giftshop, selling any Ireland-themed nicknack you can think of. But is there more to a cathedral than some historic antiques, a little history and an ancient, pretty building? As I would soon find out, it’s much more complicated than that.

The first iteration of the church was a small wooden building built around 890, but in 1190, today’s structure replaced it”

Surprisingly, the 800-year-old St Patrick’s Cathedral offered completely different insights into what a cathedral should be. As I approached, I felt like I had just arrived at Hogwarts. The gothic church’s limestone tower and spires seemed to glow a yellow hue in the sun, and it was impossible to miss its enormous scale, dwarfing the trees growing next to it. Even more so than Christ Church, a storied history is at the forefront of this cathedral’s identity. The cathedral was built on an ancient well that, according to legend, was used by St Patrick himself to baptise the first Irish Christians in the 5th century. The first iteration of the church was a small wooden building built around 890, but in 1190, today’s structure replaced it. Many historic events have occurred there, and it has been used as both a courthouse and a university. The inside was much grander than Christ Church, with colossal ceilings and colourful, ancient flags draped from the walls. But like Christ Church, there were artefacts and historical documents in cases and on pedestals, such as the ‘Door of Reconciliation,’ a 15th century door that tells a story of warfare. St Patrick’s also has a crypt, beautiful stained-glass windows and, of course, another gift shop.

One of the first things that struck me inside the cathedral was how many interactive attractions there were. Visitors could wear headphones to listen to recordings of tolling church bells and choruses, feel samples of ancient fabric and draw depictions of religious icons using frottage techniques. It was now evident that there was another aspect of cathedrals than just history: attracting and keeping the attention of visitors.

From ‘pro’ to permanent

Finally, it was time to traverse the place that inspired my adventure — St Mary’s Pro Cathedral — and investigate how it compares to Dublin’s current cathedrals to see why it is becoming one. Walking through Talbot Street to Marlborough Street, I immediately understood the peculiarity of the cathedral’s location. Except for it being around the corner from two of Dublin’s famous tourist attractions, the Spire of Dublin and the Dublin Portal, St Mary’s is surrounded by run-down streets that tourists would usually avoid. The Pro Cathedral’s white, Greek-Revival pediment and pillars stand out like a sore thumb amongst the bland red brick townhouses and apartment buildings surrounding it. For the area, you can’t miss it, but unlike Christ Church or St Patrick’s, it is tucked in an out-of-the-way area, so a tourist will probably not stumble upon it on a sightseeing stroll.

This strange location may seem like an oversight, but it was very intentional. I met with Fr Kieren McDermott, the pro cathedral’s administrator. As we stood on the organ loft, overlooking the nave, lined by white doric columns and under a grand dome, he explained, “The great strength of the Pro cathedral is prayer, spirituality and connecting, particularly, with the poor, the area and those who are on the margins or feel that they’re on the margins. I see my role as having a particular, strong social outreach as well.” Even though St Andrew’s on Westland Row was also considered for redesignation as a cathedral, it seems as if the opportunity for outreach in St Mary’s location made it a better choice. Moreover, in a homily on June 3, 2024, Dublin Archbishop Dermot Farrell called for a revitalisation of the city centre through the pro cathedral, saying, “The centre of a city—its heart—needs people, and people need worthy spaces to live and to be—to be with each other, and to be with ‘the Other’—our God who constantly creates us and re-creates us, who brings us to life.” In other words, leadership in the Archdiocese of Dublin hopes that St Mary’s recategorisation will revitalise the surrounding community with greater outreach and a higher influx of visitors.

Although St Andrew’s was not chosen to be raised to the distinction of a cathedral, it is still part of a larger plan by the archbishop: the ‘Twin Pillar Approach.’ This means that throughout a long period of “consultation, reflection, discernment and prayer,” according to Fr McDermott, the archbishop decided to have a point of pastoral outreach on either side of the River Liffey. Therefore, the archdiocese decided to make St Mary’s a cathedral while also turning St Andrew’s into a minor basilica. This will, in theory, allow the communities on either side of the river to receive the benefits and resources that a basilica and cathedral will bring to the area.

As I discovered with St Patrick’s and Christ Church, a cathedral needs a deep history. It seems that after two centuries, St Mary’s finally has enough ‘experience’ under its belt to step into the ring”

However, location isn’t the only reason for St Mary’s new cathedral status. In fact, it seems as if this has been the plan since it was first built about 200 years ago. “The word pro cathedral comes from the Latin pro tem (meaning provisional). So, it was always envisaged that a Catholic cathedral would be established or reestablished,” said Fr McDermott. With its bicentenary coming up next year, it was shocking to me that St Mary’s wasn’t made a cathedral earlier. However, as I discovered with St Patrick’s and Christ Church, a cathedral needs a deep history. It seems that after two centuries, St Mary’s finally has enough ‘experience’ under its belt to step into the ring.


One may be surprised at how much history St Mary’s has, considering it has been around for far less time than St Patrick’s and Christ Church. Although the pro cathedral was finished in 1825, its legacy goes back much further. Roughly 1000 years ago, a Benedictine monastery named St Mary’s stood proud by the river. In the 12th Century, this monastery grew to a Cistercian abbey, encompassing a large part of Dublin, stretching “right along the north side of the Liffey, from the present Four Courts, the justice space, right down to Constitution Hill and east of the Tolka river,” according to Fr McDermott. This was one of the wealthiest monasteries in Ireland until the English Reformation, where the English suppressed monasteries and stole artefacts. In 1539, Catholicism was penalised and underground in Ireland, the land was rented out to farmers and the monastery was dismantled. The destroyed monastery’s stones now compose the Capel Street Bridge. In 1697, a St Mary’s Parish was built for Protestants, but ten years later, the fugitive Archbishop of Dublin Edward Joseph Bryne secretly made the parish Catholic. Later, Pastor John Linegar began collecting for the Catholic St Mary’s, and after 27 years of donations, he built a small chapel in 1729. By 1786 when Dr John Thomas Troy was appointed the Archbishop of Dublin. Thus, he decided to create a “dignified, spacious church”, and he found a mansion on the corner of Marlborough Street that was a perfect location at the time. The house was torn down, and the cathedral began construction in 1814. During construction, Pope Pius VII shipped a custom gold chalice “for the new Cathedral being built in Dublin”. The architect who designed the pro cathedral is a complete mystery, and only a signed ‘P’ found on the building refers to the pro cathedral’s designer. Some believe this may refer to John Sweetman, a Dublin exile who lived in Paris, as the ‘P’ may have referred to his new city.  Today, presidents, politicians, celebrities and foreign ambassadors alike visit the cathedral on national occasions. The Pro Cathedral has seen visitors every day since it was built who honour its beauty, pray and find peace within its white walls.

What is a cathedral?

As it turns out, the official definition of a cathedral is simple. “The term cathedral comes from the Latin word Cathedra,” Fr McDermott told me, “It’s the seat of the bishop, the place the bishop is at work, so a cathedral is the principal church in a diocese.” However, a cathedral is so much more than just a powerful parish. “A cathedral really should be the focal point in a diocese. It should be busy with people coming and going throughout the day visiting clergy,” Fr McDermott said, “Cathedrals, for the ages, have never failed to attract the attention and consume the energies of painters, poets, novelists and artistry of every medium. This continues in our own day.”

As I stumbled around the city, my adventure showed me that a cathedral is more than its location, its size or its architecture. A cathedral’s identity is formed from the community surrounding it, the visitors who are inspired everyday by it and the history it contains. Although St Mary’s had less artefacts than the other two cathedrals and (perhaps more importantly) no gift shop for Irish trinkets, you can still feel the history seeping through its walls, flowing into the nave and cascading to the altar. St Mary’s may be old and in need of renovation, it may be in an unexpected location and it may not be as elaborate as Christ Church or St Patrick’s. But, in my opinion, St Mary’s is truly ‘worthy’ of becoming a cathedral.