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The Church of the Sacred Heart and St. Catherine of Siena or ‘The Dominican’, as it is popularly known, was designed by Cork born architect, George. C. Ashlin (1837-1921). Although the foundation stone was laid and blessed on the 23rd May 1873, the Church was not completed until Autumn 1875. Years earlier, Ashlin had also contributed to the design of SS. Patrick and Colman’s Cathedral, Newry. Originally built between 1824-29 to designs by Newry native, Thomas Duff, Ashlin was also joint architect on the building. By adding new additions to the exterior and a refurbishment to the interior in the 1880s, Ashlin made St. Patrick’s Cathedral very much his own work.

George Ashlin’s original design for the chancel of the Dominican Church in Newry. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
George Ashlin’s original design for the chancel of the Dominican Church in Newry. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The first three Fathers and a Lay Brother of the Sons of Saint Dominic -The Order of Preachers - arrived in Newry on 7th March 1871 to set up a foundation.  The first evening the founding fathers slept in a spacious house in McAllister’s terrace, Hyde Park, Newry which is now known as St. Colman’s Park. They stayed here for three months until ‘The Hermitage’ in Upper Chapel Street was ready. The Fathers took over St. Mary’s Chapel within two weeks of their arrival and it was to be their church until a new Dominican Church could be built. The Fathers by this time had friends all over Newry and each district felt its claim to have the new Church in its midst more justified than the others. Ballybot or Low Town, on the Armagh side of the Clanrye River was mentioned a lot but the more aristocratic Newry folk frowned on this suggestion protesting that ‘only the poor lived over there’. The generosity of Mr. John Quinn, hardware merchant of Margaret Square, swayed the issue however, in Ballybot’s favour, when he offered the Friars a quarry field he owned there. A lease of 999 years at an annual rent of £20 was drawn up between Mr. P. John Quinn, Mrs. Quinn and the Misses Quinn and the Leasees, Very Rev. J. T. Willard, Very Rev. E. L. Murphy and Rev. T. R. Hyland

The nave of the Dominican Church looking towards the chancel. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The nave of the Dominican Church looking towards the chancel. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The official opening of the new Chapel would mark the end of the Fathers association with St. Mary’s and the new Dominican Church of the Sacred Heart and Saint Catherine of Siena – the only Gothic Church of the Order in Ireland architecturally complete with spire – was solemnly dedicated on the 17th. October 1875 at a Mass concelebrated by Dr. Leahy and twenty priests. The sermon on the occasion was preached by the famous Dr. Croke of Cashel and the Holy Family band supplied much of the music. In Autumn 1875, the Church was completed, and the Holy Name Society organised the town into districts and carried out a weekly collection and by 1889 St. Catherine’s was declared ‘free of debt’. Then, on Saturday, 4th. August 1906, the Church was consecrated by Most Rev. Dr. Henry O'Neill when the Misses Quinn gave the rights of freehold forever to the Dominicans. The Quinn family also donated the Altar of the Queen of the Rosary and the first organ as well as having the apse adorned in mosaic and the entire building decorated. The new altar, which cost £1,240 was consecrated by Most Rev. Dr. P.V. Flood O.P., Archbishop of Port of Spain.

The Church of the Sacred Heart and St. Catherine of Siena as it appears today. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Church of the Sacred Heart and St. Catherine of Siena as it appears today. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Today St. Catherine’s congregation continues to go from strength to strength. They are unique in having white-garbed clergy and its choir is renowned for its excellence. The annual Novena St. Martin de Porres always draws large crowds and the Christmas Crib, engineered by Fr. Murphy, is renowned for its special effects and attracts visitors from far and wide. The choir has had such a high reputation over the years, that crowds have flocked to the Masses and other church services, including non- Catholics. The fine organists have included Tom Kelly, who was musical director of Newry Musical and Orchestral Society and Gertie Durnin, Mrs. Alma Brown and Mrs. M. Larkin.

Newry and Mourne Museum is open to the public seven days a week with admission free of charge. For opening hours, information on events and exhibitions, other services and bookings please phone 0330 137 4422 or visit WWW.BAGENALSCASTLE.COM

By Anna Savage

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