The Opening of St Peter’s Cathedral in Belfast

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St Peter's Spires
St Peter’s Spires

St Peter’s Church

On 29th June 1986, St Peter’s Church in the lower Falls district of west Belfast, was officially designated the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Down and Connor. The church had opened on 14th October 1866, with its iconic twin spires being added 20 years later. Over the years these spires have become a well-known feature of the Belfast sky-line and a symbol of homecoming for many.

19th Century Belfast & the Pound Loney

As Belfast developed as an industrial town in the nineteenth century, its population expanded rapidly. Cottage industry was dying out and folk came to the streets of the town in search of employment. The mills that sprang up along the Farset River, made it an area of great opportunity for those seeking work.

Rows of small terraced houses were constructed in narrow streets to provide accommodation for the workforce. Most of these ‘2 up 2 downs’ housed two families, one upstairs and one on the ground floor. They had no cooking facilities apart from an open fire and a shared ‘privy’ for the street.

The area was known locally as the Pound or Pound Loney as the pound for stray animals was situated here

“Pound Road was the approach to the Pound through Cripple Row from the Falls, and was an early populated district. The Pound and Dog Kennel were situated on the north side of Barrack Street, and its junction with our Pound Street and Durham Street. It is now occupied by houses…

The Pound was lower than the road, and was enclosed by a stone wall, on which all the idlers of the neighbourhood used to rest. A clear stream of water ran through the Pound, and the keeper was strictly bound to preserve it carefully for the use of the cattle that might be committed to his charge. This stream ran through the gardens and orchards until it joined the Blackwater River, and it is even now known as the Pound Burn”

Thomas Gaffikin Belfast 50 Years Ago 1875
Black & white image of young boy
Lower Falls, Belfast Street (1960s)

The Need for a New Church

The three Catholic churches of Belfast could no longer support their growing congregations. The influx of poor Catholic inhabitants to the area, meant a new church was a necessity. St Mary’s, ‘Belfast’s Mother Church’ in Chapel Lane, as the nearest, was packed to overflowing every Sunday, with worshippers having to stand in the street.

“St Peter’s, like most of her sister churches, arose in response to the cry for further accommodation for the faithful. The recent coming of the mills and factories to the Falls district had attracted large numbers of Catholics who made their homes within easy reach of the mills”

Edmund Glynn Catholic Belfast 1934
Barney Hughes Blue Plaque Belfast
Barney Hughes Blue Plaque Belfast

Barney Hughes

The respected baker and philanthropist, Barney Hughes addressed the need for a new church and welcome employment for many.

“The generosity of a prominent Belfast layman – Bernard Hughes, proprietor of the Railway and Model Bakeries – offered the means of averting this predicament”

Rev Patrick Rogers, St Peter’s Pro-Cathedral 1866-1966

The New Bakery & the Pound Loney

When Barney Hughes was in a position to add another bakery to his business, it was to this Falls area that he looked. The location was one of the poorest in the town. The Catholic working-class community that lived there depended on bread as a cheap staple, in their diet.

At this time a businessman, John Alexander of Milford in County Carlow, owned a large flour mill on the corner of Percy Street and Divis Street. He also owned a lot of land in the district. Barney Hughes secured a lease from John Alexander of an extensive plot of land to the south of Divis Street to construct his new bakery.

“Perhaps the most important factor following Barney’s decision to expand was where to locate his third facility. A large proportion of his sales were made to the Catholic community who were working-class and among the poorest inhabitants of the town, making them potentially large bread consumers. They were concentrated in the western fringe of the town in an area known as the Pound. Barney would have been aware of the deprivation and poverty that was the lot of his fellow-religionists and this appeared to be a factor in his decision to where best he could site his bakery”

Jack Magee Barney, Bernard Hughes of Belfast 2001

The new Hughes bakery, situated just a few yards from Pound Street, provided welcome employment. Barney also had some houses erected known as the Hughes Buildings.

The Site for St Peter’s Church

In October 1858 Barney Hughes acquired a lease on a neighbouring plot of land. It extended 214 ft along Milford Street, 138 ft along Dysart Street, 138 ft along Derby Street and 197 ft along Alexander Street. This he presented to the Right Rev Dr Denvir at a ‘pepper-corn’ rent for a new Catholic church for Belfast. (A peppercorn rent is a token amount charged for legal purposes)

“Mr Hughes, on 2nd December 1858, made a fee-farm grant of this ground to Dr Denvir in trust, to erect on it a church, reserving the nominal rent of a pepper-corn”

Rev James O’Laverty, Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor 1880

Construction of St Peter’s Church

The foundation stone was laid on 1st August 1860 but it took 8 years to complete the new Catholic church. The parish was not a wealthy one. Times were hard and wages were low. Most of the families in the area barely had enough to live on, yet build a church they did.

The Baptismal Font
The Baptismal Font

“It was mainly due to the donations of the Falls and Belfast parishioners – their pennies and tuppences – that St Peter’s Church was built”

Geraldine McAteer, Down the Falls 1983
St Peter's - Belfast Street Directory 1870
St Peter’s – Belfast Street Directory 1870

Rev Jeremiah R McAuley – the Architect of St Peter’s

St Peter’s was designed by the architect-priest, the Rev Jeremiah R McAuley.

Jeremiah Ryan McAuley was born in Belfast. He trained as an architect under Thomas Jackson of 16 Donegall Place. Discovering he had a vocation he entered the priesthood and was ordained on 26th November 1858. As well as St Peter’s, Fr McAuley also designed churches at Aughlisnafin, Ballykinlar and Ballycastle. However in 1862, before the completion of St Peter’s, he left to study at the Irish College in Salamanca in Spain. The work was completed by John O’Neill Esq., from Stewartstown in County Tyrone. He had his business premises at 48 Donegall Street.

St Peter's - Front Elevation
St Peter’s – Front Elevation

The Design of St Peter’s

St Peter’s was described as being in the Gothic style, similar in design to French cathedrals but on a smaller scale. It was constructed of grey Scarbo stone from north Down with Scottish stone dressings.

The main entrance on the western edifice, at Derby Street, were triple doors of solid oak with elaborate mediaeval-type hinges. Above these was a carved panel (tympanum) depicting the liberation of St Peter from prison by an angel.

The Liberation of St Peter
The Liberation of St Peter
Entrance Doorway
Entrance Doorway

The western façade boasted a seven-bay, richly ornamented stain-glass wheel window. Two further doors are centre-point on the side walls (these are now side chapels). Five windows line either side of the church.

The eastern side of the church had tall, slender windows with triple lights. The construction is thought to have cost between £13,000 – 14,000. The first contractor of the project was Mr John Ross and he was succeeded by Mr John Murphy of Great George’s Street. The pews were made by Mr John Connor of York Street and the gas-fittings installed by Mr J Baxter of Donegall Street.

The church measured 180 feet long by 70ft wide. The north aisle leads to the altar of the Blessed Virgin and the south to the Chapel of the Sacred Heart.

A beautiful triple stain-glass window faced the main body of the church. The magnificent altar was composed of Caen stone and Irish marble, with relief sculptures of Irish saints and scenes from the life of St Peter. These were the work of Nottingham-born sculptor Mr Thomas Earp. Today’s altar is a much less elaborate affair.

St Peter's Altar
St Peter’s Altar

Above the altar was a pyramid baldachino (canopy) of carved tracery reaching nearly 40ft. It was surmounted with a cross and rested on 6 columns. Today a cross is suspended from a beautifully painted ceiling.

The Suspended Cross
The Cross
The Cross and ceiling detail
The Cross and ceiling detail

The open ceiling with stained timbers rose to a height of 70ft. The floors were boarded but the aisles paved with encaustic tiles, patterns made with different coloured clay. Latin inscriptions in illuminated letters decorated the cornices of the naves and aisles. These were quotations from Scripture relating to the life of St Peter.

St Peter's Church with Ceiling Detail
St Peter’s Church with Ceiling Detail

The nave is separated from the main aisle by seven arches. The corbels above the cylindrical pillars are decorated with the carved heads of saints.

The chapel dedicated to Our Lady was donated by Barney Hughes in memory of his daughter Roseann Mary who had recently died, aged 15. It is decorated with mosaics and has a stone altar on a black marble plinth.

Two stain-glass windows were also paid for by Barney and his sons to commemorate his first wife (and their mother) Jane, who had passed in 1847.

“Everything necessary to the due performance of the Roman Catholic ritual is superbly represented. The great church is remarkable for the simplicity, yet general and harmonious arrangement of the design”

Northern Whig 15th October 1866
St Peter's Church Dedication - Belfast Morning News 15th October 1866
St Peter’s Church Dedication – Belfast Morning News 15th October 1866

The Official Opening

On Sunday 14th October 1866, St Peter’s was officially consecrated. This was the feast day of the Dedication of the Churches of Ireland. We are told the surrounding streets were crowded with masses of people to witness this important event and every nearby window crammed with spectators. Special trains were laid on to convey visitors from more rural areas such as Moneymore, Castledawson, Toombridge and Randalstown. Carriages and cabs had started to arrive from 5:30am.

“….from an early hour vast crowds surrounded the building and lined the thoroughfares leading to the sacred edifice” (Northern Whig 15th October 1866)

As was usual in all churches at the time, special occasions like this were an all-ticket affair. Prices ranged from 10 shillings, to 5 shillings (and from 2 shillings 6d to 1 shilling for the evening service).

“The occasion being one of exceptional character in the Province of Ulster, some of the details connected with it may be given for the information of those not present. It was known that the sale of tickets had been very great, although the prices were 10s and 5s respectively, and many persons who arrived from the country towns by the morning trains forthwith made their way to the church, from their anxiety to obtain an early place”

Belfast Morning News 15th October 1866

The ceremony commenced at 11:00am with a procession of clergymen, including the Archbishops of Dublin and Birmingham and bishops and priests from the length and breadth of Ireland. They entered from the west door and proceeded up the main aisle and around the church building. The prayers, Actiones Nostras, sung in Latin, were led by Dr Dorrian.

Great cheering from the assembled people outside announced the arrival of Cardinal Cullen. As he walked to the altar the choir sang ‘the spirited air’ Ecce Sacerdon Magnus. High Mass was said by the Cardinal accompanied by Haydn’s Number 3 Grand Imperial played by a full orchestra. The Most Rev Dr Ullathorne (from Birmingham) preached the sermon. The solemnities ended at 3:15pm.

“Suffice it to say that the gorgeous and mysterious rites were performed with all the impressive grandeur that the most aesthetic could desire. The air was heavy with the perfume rising from thuribles with which the altar and the prelates were incensed. Every accessory of the display was attended to with remarkable accuracy, and the vast majority of the spectators, save when a bell – a ‘call to prayer’ – was rung, at which they bowed their heads in devotion, looked on with mingled awe and wonder”

Belfast Newsletter, 15th October 1866

It was noted that a number of ‘gentlemen’ of different denominations attended the service. Some of these, including Messrs Grimshaw and Mr Beck, acted as collectors. An impressive sum of £1,500 was raised.

That evening at 5pm Pontifical Vespers were sung in the new church. Cardinal Cullen presided, with the Vespers being sung by the Most Rev Dr Butler from Limerick, and Dr Leahy, Bishop of Dromore preached. The music was under the direction of Mr P Mulholland. Again, the building was packed to capacity, with many thousands thronging the streets unable to gain admission. The interior of the church was well-lit for an October night, adding to the glory and colour of the occasion.

“There were about 300 lights in the building and, when they were all burning, the appearance was really magnificent. The splendour of the altar decorations and the variety of the robes of the ecclesiastics added to the striking beauty of the coup d’oeil”

Belfast Newsletter 15th October 1866
St Peter's Evening Vespers - Belfast Morning News 15th October 1866
St Peter’s Evening Vespers – Belfast Morning News 15th October 1866

“Belfast had never witnessed such a magnificent and solemn religious spectacle, this marks a symbolic change in the attitudes and expectations of the Catholic people. …..they took pride in the possession of imposing religious institutions and willingly and generously contributed to them”

Ambrose Macaulay Patrick Dorrian, Bishop of Down and Connor 1987

In 1883 a majestic pipe organ was installed, replacing the original harmonium.

St Peter's Pipe Organ and Stained Glass
St Peter’s Pipe Organ and Stained Glass
View from the front to the back of St Peter's
View from the front to the back of St Peter’s

In 1886, finances at last permitted the erection of the two slender, tapering spires. These were designed by the architect Mortimer Thompson from Killyleagh, County Down. The firm of Henry Fulton of Brougham Street, were employed as the builders. The spires cost £5,000. They were fitted out with a carillon of 10 bells (£1,500).

“The Bells of St Peter’s! The Bells of St Peter’s!

Oh, ring them out gaily – nor ever forget!

That the voice of their chiming from yon lofty steeple

Shall echo the shouts of our liberty yet!”

Fr James McGreevy
Altar Boy
Altar Boy

St Peter’s Cathedral Today

100 years later, during centenary celebrations, the bishop of Cork and Ross, Rev Dr Lucey, praised the residents of the parish, without whom the beautiful church could not have been built

“They are the men and women of the parish through whose sacrifices the building was paid for…the vast majority were working class, unskilled working class…. no really wealthy families – the Penal Laws had seen to that – These were the people who really built St Peter’s – the poor of Belfast, out of their few shillings a week wages. What sacrifices they made! What faith, what generosity was theirs!”

Rev Dr Lucey

St Peter’s has been refurbished several times over the years. However, the latest renovation in 2003-5, has restored it much closer to the original. It remains an impressive building in the centre of a working-class area that has suffered more than its fair share of deprivation and social injustice.

St Peter’s is more than a church, more even than a cathedral, it is the beating heart of this community yesterday, today and tomorrow.

St Peter's side chapel
St Peter’s side chapel


The Cross - St Peter's
The Cross – St Peter’s
View across St Peter's
View across St Peter’s
Stained Glass Windows behind the Altar
Stained Glass Windows behind the Altar
St Peter's Ceiling Detail
St Peter’s Ceiling Detail
St Peter's Arch with Chapel behind
St Peter’s Archway with Chapel behind
Chapel of Our Lady
Chapel of Our Lady
View to side chapel
View to side chapel
XIV Station of the Cross - Jesus is laid in the tomb
XIV Station of the Cross – Jesus is laid in the tomb
Side View of Church Interior
Side View of Church Interior
St Peter's Altar View
St Peter’s Altar View
Diagonal View to the Rear of the Church
Diagonal View to the Rear of the Church
Interior View
Interior View

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The construction of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Belfast in 1784 with widespread Protestant support reflected the end of the Penal Laws

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