Leinster Leader 22/1/1983
History of Naas church from the pen of late P.P
A detailed and painstaking history of the Church of Our Lady and St. David in Naas is contained in a “yearbook” which was written by the late parish priest, the Rev. P.J. Doyle in 1953. Not only does it record the entire history of the church in all its stages, but it also sheds valuable light on other aspects of the history of the parish.
We publish a synopsis of the history below. Many of the present parishioners in the town are not natives, and it may be of interest to them to learn of the history of the local Catholic Church.
The information should also serve to remind locals of the heritage they possess – a heritage which was handed down to them through the endeavours of various pastors in the parish who had to minister to the local flock in times that were very different from today’s.
The booklet states that the pre-Reformation church was on the site of the present Protestant church (St. David’s). It is unlikely that there was any Catholic Church open for worship after the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It is noted in a registry in 1704 that a John Hyland was parish priest of Naas.
By 1731, the existence of the first post Reformation Church is noted. A House of Lords report on “Property in this Kingdom” states: “In Naas, Mass is said within the ruins of an old abbey”.
The ruins were at Abbeyfield to the south of the present parish church. Nothing remains today of them. The then parish priest, Fr. Denis Dempsey, acquired a site for a church beside the North Moat. It was built in 1750. Incidentally, Fr. Dempsey was described in the lease as “Denis Dempsey, Gent”. This building served as the parish church until 1827 when it was converted into a school.
Sometime before 1801 the de Burgh family of Oldtown donated a site for a new church at Abbeyfield. The approach to the new church was by Mill Lane, the former rear entrance to the convent grounds. However, the parish priest, Fr. Gerald Doyle, acquired additional land to give a frontage into the Sallins road. Fr. Doyle wished to preserve the name of St. David, in the title of the new church. The pre-Reformation church was already called after St. David, a name chosen by the Welsh Normans who had settled in Naas. Fr. Doyle decided on the combined title “Our Lady and St. David” which was also the title of the Augustinian Priory at Great Connell, near Newbridge.
The church was opened for public worship on the Feast of the Assumption, 1827. It is not known who the architect was; nor has the cost been recorded. But it is known that Fr. Doyle carried out a Herculean task in getting funds in those poverty stricken times. He went around the streets literally begging for money for his new church. The church tower was not begun until 1851, and was completed in 1858. The tower in transitional Gothic style is modelled on that of a 14th century English church. The architect of the tower was J.J. McCarthy, who was one of the Young Irelanders. The church bell was cast in 1855.
Fr. Doyle’s predecessor, Fr. James Hughes, revamped the interior of the church. The rough wooden supports of the roof were beautified, and the confessionals and a pulpit added. The pulpit was later sold to the administrator in Tullow where it was re-erected. Over the plain wooden altar an elaborate Gothic canopy in wood was constructed. The woodwork was executed by three Naas craftsmen, the brothers Michael and Paul Meade and Michael Hearn. The Meades lived in Sallins road, and Michael Hearn in 19 North Main Street.
Two statues – of the Blessed Virgin and St. David – were placed in the church. Fr. Hughes also built a tribune for the nuns near the sanctuary. This was later used as a meeting place for church societies and a practice room for the choir. A baptistery was built in another annexe. He also erected a monument to his predecessor, Fr. Doyle, depicting a priest in marble. The features are supposedly modelled on those of Fr. Doyle, with a photograph or portrait being used for that purpose.
Fr. Hughes erected the iron railings and gates in front of the church. They were removed in the early 1970’s. New recessed railings were put up by former P.P., Fr. P. Harris, and car-parking spaces in front of the church were created. Fr. Hughes died in May, 1876, and was buried in the south aisle of the church. His grave tablet can be seen in the floor.
He was succeeded by Fr. Thomas Morrin, who in 1887 erected the first stained glass window, that of the Sacred Heart, in the church. It was made by a Frenchman and changed position at least once in the church. Fr. Morrin at the turn of the century erected two side altars dedicated to the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. In 1901 he erected the stained glass windows over them- one representing Our Lord, and the other the Holy Family. They are made in Birmingham. The side altars were made in Dublin. Incidentally, the cut stone for the windows was supplied by Pearse of Dublin, the father of Padraig Pearse, the 1916 leader.
It is recorded that £150 was given towards the windows by James O’Hanlon, Poplar Square; Mrs. J. Burke, Main St., gave £100. Other large donations given to Fr. Morrin for additions to the church were from Edward Doyle, Tipper (£700) and the bishop, Dr. Comerford (£350).
The next work undertaken by Fr. Morrin was the addition of a chancel, including two sacristies, mosaic flooring, communion rails, a high altar, three stained glass windows, a heating system, and a statue of Our Lady in the chancel. The building contractor was James Hyland, Naas. The architects were Ashlin and Coleman of Dublin. Various firms, mainly from Dublin, carried out the work of installing the altar etc. The total cost of the work was £3,085 which was paid for by Fr. Morrin out of his personal means. (It is recorded that altogether Fr. Morrin gave £6000 out of personal funds to the parish for parochial works and this was an enormous sum in those days).
Fr. Morrin died in October, 1907, and was buried in the new cemetery, as it was known then (now St. Corban’s). Fr. Morrin had acquired the cemetery with his own money for the parish. He is commemorated by a tablet in the porch of the church. He died before the major works he had undertaken and paid for were completed. In addition to his many other works, Fr. Morrin provided the church’s first organ in 1890. He also had the mortuary chapel in the new cemetery built in 1907 at a cost of under £700.
The next P.P. was Fr. Michael Norris, who was aged 72 when appointed to Naas. Yet he ministered in the parish for many years. Fr. Norris in 1908 transferred the organ from the oratory of the Children of Mary to the west gallery. In 1910 he erected the stained glass window of the Assumption beside Our Lady’s altar. The Stations of the Cross were in very poor condition and they were replaced in 1914 with new oak frames being provided by Mrs. Mary Anne Doyle, Tipper. Handsome carpets, made at Naas carpet factory, were laid at the three altars. The church grounds were concreted. The Children of Mary’s oratory was extended; roof repairs carried out, and six stained glass windows, costing £200 each, and made in Germany, were erected.
The parishioners erected a statue of St. Michael in the church grounds to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Fr. Norris. Fr. Norris was succeeded by Fr. Patrick J. Doyle who had previously served in Knockbeg College. In November 1920, Fr. Doyle, was appointed curate in Naas.He served in that capacity until May 1938, when he was appointed parish priest.He said in his history of the parish: “On his appointment he found himself faced with grave financial difficulties, with war clouds already darkening the horizon. The World War with all its stresses began the following year. He found that there was not one penny in the parochial funds…” He went on to say how he rectified the situation “raised by means of two Carnivals and extraordinary offerings of the faithful”. By 1953 the parish was clear of debt.
What is probably little known about the church in Naas is that at one time it was without an organ. The original one became infected with woodworm and was disposed of. Fr. Doyle obtained one from an English organ-maker at a cost of £1,500. But that was not the end of the difficulty. It was hard to find place for the instrument. The organ was placed in the arch connecting the main gallery with the tower on a new level which extended over the existing floor. This meant that a choral gallery had to be formed. The construction work on that was in the charge of J.J. Noonan, Newbridge. The workers employed in the project were Matthew Corcoran, and his cousin, Joseph Ward, of the firm of Corcoran’s of Naas. The cost of the gallery was over £373, and the cost of ancillary electrical work was a little over £71. Because the gallery was above the level of the windows a roof-ventilator had to be installed at a cost of over £26.
The following are other works which were carried out to the church between 1936 and1953. In 1940 the roof of the south sacristy was replaced. This was comprised of a compaction of concrete and steel. The floor of the sacristy was also replaced. The pillars in the inner angles of the chancel which were originally to be composed of marble were replaced. But they were constructed of reinforced concrete faced with terrazzo. Additional chancel windows were added by Fr. Doyle. In 1941, the chancel walls and ceiling were decorated in marble and ceramic mosaic. In the same year the new Gothic pulpit was erected at a cost of £215. It was presented to the church by the men’s branch of the Sacred Heart solidarity. The pulpit is in the Gothic style and is mainly constructed of Austrian oak. It was created by Frank O’Cleary, from Co. Tipperary, who was a student in the Benedictine school of artistic crafts in Glenstal priory in Co. Limerick.
In use during Fr. Doyle’s ministration in the parish was a miniature silver chalice, which was believed to be a survival from the days of the Penal Laws as it could be easily concealed on one’s person. It measured only six inches in height. According to tradition, it was dug up in a garden in Sallins. It is dated 1685, and was used during Holy Week. Another chalice was found in the ruins of the priory and hospital of St. John held by the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. The ruins occupied part of the garden of the parochial house. It was discovered around 1839. It is dated 1729, and like the earlier dated chalice bears an inscription in Latin. Mass used to be said within the ruins of the old abbey during the Penal times. Another chalice is inscribed to Fr. Dempsey who built the first post-Reformation church in the town. There were, of course, other chalices in the possession of the church, but they were presented to the parish at later dates. In May, 1949, the confessionals in the church were rebuilt and the cost was paid for by a parishioner, Miss Annie Dowling, of Main Street.
On October 4th 1949, the church was solemnly consecrated by the then bishop of the dioceses, Dr. Keogh. As well as local clergy, a number of clerics who were natives of the parish also assisted at the ceremonies. Two relics – of St. Clementianus and St. Modestina were sealed in the sepulchre of the high altar. The mural consecration crosses were designed by Christopher F. Jordan, art student, Naas. The transept altars were consecrated by Msgr. L. Brophy, delegate of then bishop, Dr. Cullen, in December, 1932. By 1953 it was already planned to build a mortuary chapel off the main porch. The chapel was completed some years later.