From St. Mary’s to The Cathedral of Christ the King

It was in the year 1932, just a century after the town of Mullingar had first become the Cathedral town for the Diocese of Meath that Dr. Thomas Mulvany – who had become Bishop of Meath in 1929 – visited Pope Pius XI in Rome with plans for a new Cathedral in Mullingar, and the Pope indicated his support, suggesting that the new building be dedicated to Christ the King.
So it was that Meath became the first diocese in the world, and Mullingar became the first town, to have a Cathedral dedicated to Christ the King, with the contract for the new Cathedral signed on 23 March, 1932, involving a sum of £199,500, with the total cost of the project estimated at £275,000.
Just a week later, on 31 March, the first sod was cut by Dr. Mulvany and the work began which was to culminate in the new Cathedral first opening for worship on 6 July, 1936, with the formal opening and dedication on 6 September, 1936. The Primate, Cardinal MacRory presided and an eminent Westmeath clergyman, Archbishop John Joseph Glennon (a native of Kinnegad) from St. Louis, Missouri who had preached at the special Mass in 1936, was again in attendance, with thirteen bishops. An appeal for funds across the diocese and a general collection in 1934 had brought a generous response, enabling the work to be completed by 1936.
The consecration of the Cathedral of Christ the King took place on 30 August, 1939, with the solemn High Mass a few days later, on 3 September – the day that war (World War 2) was declared between Britain and Germany. Not surprisingly, it was a time for great celebration, with the grounds of the new Cathedral en fete with flowers and bunting, and the whole town specially decorated with Papal flags flying everywhere to mark the famous occasion.
The shadow of the world war swiftly impinged upon the events, however, as a contemporary account describes how the Cathedral had been floodlit several nights during the week, “but on Saturday and Sunday with orders for black-out issued through the whole country due to the outbreak of War, it was in darkness”.
The Cathedral of Christ the King has stood the test of time well, and hopefully, the 75th Anniversary celebrations on Sunday, 7 September next will precede an even bigger Centenary celebration a quarter of a century hence, in September 2039.
As noted, it was not until the late 1830s that the principal church in Mullingar parish became the Cathedral, or mother church for the Diocese of Meath. Before then, Trim was the Cathedral town. The change came about mainly, it seems, because the then Bishop, Dr. John Cantwell, who had become Bishop of Meath in 1929, immediately following Catholic Emancipation in Britain and Ireland, was responsible for building the new church. In 1930, he decided to live in Mullingar and even before the solemn Consecration in 1939, it was already being described as St. Mary’s Cathedral – and was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, on 15 August, 1936 by Dr. Cantwell.
The old Cathedral, demolished in the 1930s, had replaced the previous “Catholic Chapel of Mullingar”, situated “at the Back of the Town” – as it was then described . Where precisely this building was situated is a matter of conjecture, though it was the Catholic place of worship from 1755 up to 1836. An official Protestant report in 1731 describes how “the Mass-house of Mullingar, built in 1730, is remarkably large, has an aisle, three galleries and spacious altar-piece, painted and set off with images, flower pots and gilded candlesticks.’ The report also said that the Catholic bishop exercised jurisdiction,” despite the opposition of magistrates”. A report from the Westmeath Sheriff in 1744 described how “one Stephen Egan, reputed popish bishop of the diocese of Meath, celebrated Mass in the popish chappel of Mullingar… and lately performed the ceremony of Confirmation of children in the Mass-house aforesaid”. One local traditions suggests that the present Mullingar Parish Community Centre building, known until recent decades as the “Old Chapel House” was part of the location of the church from the 1730s, but this is not likely, as a hundred and eighty years ago, in 1834, average Sunday Mass attendances in Mullingar was 3,000 people, with three Masses – so the church building must have been more substantial. Possibly, the area now occupied by the Presentation Convent property may have been the actual location.
During the month of August, the Cathedral museum is open to the public from 2.30pm to 4pm, starting this Wednesday, 6 August. It contains some very interesting items, including a copy of the manuscript containing the life of St. Colmán of Lynn, various Penal chalices and crosses, and a set of vestments worn by the martyred archbishop, St. Oliver Plunkett, and a ring once worn by the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who was convicted and executed on trumped up charges on 16 October 1793, during the French Revolution. (Incidentally, the unfortunate 37 years old queen never said “Let them eat cake” as claimed. The phrase had been attributed to two of the king’s aunts, years before it was used to rouse public indignation against Marie Antoinette.)
After the special 11am Mass on Sunday 7 September, to which the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been invited as main celebrant, there will be a Street Party in Mary Street, Mullingar (weather permitting) and the support of parishioners is being sought to organise this special event and others aspects of the special day. Contact Linda or Fiona at Mullingar parish office (93-48338) if you can volunteer to help in any way.
Couples who were married in the Cathedral 50 years ago, or 25 years ago, are also being contacted at present, so if you were wed in the Cathedral in 1964, or in 1989, please contact them.