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Archbishop Conti on the rebirth of Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Cathedral

The grey-painted plaster that hid its inherent grandeur for almost 200 years has disappeared, and Glasgow’s first post-Reformation Catholic church, on the banks of the River Clyde, has gone from gloomy to glorious.

Its soaring fluted stone pillars and arches have been carefully reworked in imitation ashlar to look like sandstone, their elegant sweeps highlighted in glorious 32.5-carat gold leaf, and with blue, white and green decorative paintwork.

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Rib-vaulted ceilings and decorative boss caps have also been painted to bring out previously unseen biblical motifs, in colours that echo the original 19th-century stained glass, now restored, that sits in the gothic revival windows behind the new white marble altar and above the original stone statues of Saint Andrew and Saint Patrick.

After being under wraps for a two-year, £4.5m restoration, St Andrew’s Cathedral will reopen to parishioners and visitors in its spectacular new guise on Monday, following the return today of the cathedra (the bishop’s chair) and the rededication of the new altar, designed by Archbishop Conti himself, and a mass of consecration on Sunday afternoon. The funding has come from a variety of sources, including parishioners’ contributions via the Cathedral Renovation Fund, the Faith Into Action fundraising programme, a private bequest and publicly funded bodies.

Changes will be immediately noticeable to congregations more accustomed to entering the 19th-century cathedral via a dark brown wooden porchway. This, together with the old wooden doors leading into the body of the church, has been removed and in their place is an entire wall of four plate-glass doors, giving a direct view of the altar the moment you enter the building from the busy street. From left to right, these doors are each engraved with the coat of arms of the three most recent bishops of Glasgow: Archbishop Scanlon, Cardinal Winning and Archbishop Conti, with the last door left clear to await the next incumbent, who could be in place within weeks. The two central doors are engraved with the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. These match the coats of arms, depicted in the original stained-glass windows behind the altar, of the four pre-Reformation and four post-Reformation bishops from 1870 onwards. The removal of the pipe organ from the clear leaded front window that overlooks the Clyde allows further white light to flood the interior. Internal lighting will be provided by a dozen brass chandeliers designed by Mike Stoane Lighting of Midlothian to provide a variety of illuminations, from uplights to spot when the occasion requires.



The cathedral’s resurrection is the result of a project that has been managed by the archdiocese, and overseen by Archbishop Conti. Following the main contractor Hunter & Clark’s fall into administration last June, the archdiocese decided to deal directly with the subcontractors who had already been commissioned, including Glasgow’s specialist painters and gilders Dumbreck Decorators. The completed building has been hugely enhanced by a string of new religious artworks commissioned by the archbishop from contemporary Scottish artists, including an impressive oil painting by Peter Howson of The Martyrdom Of Saint John Ogilvie, set in a massive 32-stone arched and gilded wooden frame by Mike Greer.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the entire undertaking is how it has refocused the gaze inwards and upwards towards the new marble altar and beyond to the cathedra, via a white marble path that leads from the door. A large, circular baptismal font has been sited at the highly visible centrepoint of the central aisle, halfway between the front door and the altar. This font is made of the same Carrara white marble used by Michelangelo in his Renaissance sculpture Pieta. Designed by Hamilton-born sculptor Tim Pomeroy, who trained at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, it features biblical scenes carved into its wide rim. It will continually bubble with water as a reminder that baptism is the entry point into the faith.

“The intention here was to focus on the progression of the spiritual journey, and to draw the eye immediately upwards to the altar and beyond the altar to the chair. It is like a theology lesson in architecture,” says the archbishop, who has long been a patron of the arts and founded AGAP (Archdiocese Of Glasgow Arts Project) in 2006.

The tightly packed pews, which used to ram right into the outer walls and into the base of the pillars, have been replaced by pale Scandinavian wood pews, made in Ireland, which sit on new Scottish slate flooring. There are no pews outwith the huge original fluted pillars and so, unlike previously, nobody in the congregation will have their view of the altar restricted.

The walkways between the pillars and the external walls, and around the outside of the seating, will allow for a clearer view of the Howson portrait, which soars above the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on one side, and of the new Marian Shrine on the other. The original stone statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary now sits on the wall above, so encouraging the eyes heavenward. Underneath are newly commissioned bronze doors decorated with carvings that depict six Scottish and Irish saints, created by Glasgow metal worker Jack Sloan.

“The depiction of both Scottish and Irish saints on the bronze doors is symbolic of the people who helped build the cathedral in 1816,” says Archbishop Conti. “There was extreme pressure on the highlanders and islanders who were losing their crofts during the Highland Clearances, and on the Irish who were experiencing the potato famine, and Glasgow became a magnet for them. They formed a small community towards the end of the 18th century when Glasgow was offering opportunities for work, not in the shipyards or iron foundries but in cotton mills and in weaving, mostly at Calton. It was they who helped build the cathedral.”

A frieze has been created around the walls, bearing the gilded words of the Hail Mary, in Latin, to echo those of the Eucharistic hymn Ave Verum Corpus on the other side, leading to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

The feeling of both space and unity is quite breathtaking. The building is more blatantly colourful and ornate, as if, after centuries of neglect, the cathedral were asserting its place in the city once more.

Ranald MacInnes, head of heritage management for Historic Scotland, which helped fund the project, says, “St Andrew’s Metropolitan Cathedral is one of Glasgow’s most important buildings.

“The work at the cathedral is a true illustration of breathing new life into a historic building, by bringing together new design principles with the careful conservation of the existing fabric. The internal reordering has had the visual effect of ‘shortening’ the church, making the space seem like an internal square or a gathering place. As a result the space seems very grand but also intimate and inclusive. We are delighted to be associated with this superb project.”

Brendan Keenan, of Dumbreck Decorators, believes many of the original design details have never been seen before.

“They will be viewed for the first time the way we believe the architect wanted them to be,” he says. “We assume it was thought that the heat and soot from the hundreds of candles that would have lit up the cathedral would damage any colour, and so they did not apply it. Also, since the church was built in straitened circumstances by poor highlanders, they would not have had the where-withal to decorate the building further.”

The archbishop has taken great pleasure in working with skilled craftsmen. “What’s given me great satisfaction is seeing so many skilled people, artists and craftsmen, enjoying the opportunity to use their traditional skills,” he says. “These people are very gifted. There aren’t many projects today of this character.”

St Andrew’s Cathedral, designed by Dunblane-born architect James Gillespie Graham in the neo-gothic style and completed in 1816, was the first post-Reformation Catholic church to be built in the city, and remains one of only an handful of post-Reformation Catholic churches.

The archbishop adds, “I think what we have done is true to the architect’s original intention. He decorated St Andrew’s Cathedral so that it appeared to have been built of stone though it was of lathe and plaster. He relied on the expert plasterworkers for the vaults and conches. I am especially interested in that side of design, as my maternal grandfather was was a decorative plasterworker. During this project certain things in my life have come around to greet me again, and this is one of them.

“The other is learning about Mr Andrew Scott, a bishop from my home country in the north-east of Scotland and the son of a Banffshire farmer, who came to Glasgow as a missionary in 1805 and resolved to build the cathedral in the face of warnings from both Protestants and Catholics that such an undertaking was sheer folly.”

The archbishop, who was born in Elgin and appointed Bishop of Aberdeen in 1977, before becoming Glasgow’s archbishop in 2002, designed the altar himself. “I’d hoped to be able to commission another prominent artist to design it, but to remain within budget I did it myself. I wanted it to be more substantial than the original, and drew the design on the back on an envelope.”

This was interpreted by Scots stonemason Neil Reid, an expert in marble work, who inscribed the front and back of the table. Reid also designed the lectern and altar for the papal mass at Bellahouston last September.

In the period before St Andrew’s Cathedral was built, only 450 Catholics remained in Glasgow following the Protestant Reformation. But that number was found by Mr Scott (as priests were referred to at that time) to have swollen to 3000 due to the influx of migrants from the highlands and islands during the Clearances, and from Ireland during the famine. Their usual place of worship was the Calton Chapel but it had become too small to accommodate them. Due to demand from this “hidden” community, Mr Scott determined to have a bigger church built. But it was not easy.

In his book Underground Catholicism In Scotland 1622-1878, published in 1970, the former Benedictine monk Peter F Anson writes: “Presbyterians looked on with horror and alarm at the rising walls of the Popish Mass House facing the Clyde. Under the cover of darkness the more bigoted spiritual sons of the Covenanters attempted to pull down what had been built the previous day. When at last the chapel was completed it was proclaimed to be the most magnificent Papist place of worship in the whole of Britain. More than this, Mr Scott had created visible proof that Catholics in Glasgow could be regarded no longer as a small body of despised aliens.”

Archbishop Conti points out, “This spot was, at that time, on the outskirts of the city and on the site of the town’s hospital for the poor, next to a wood yard. Dunlop Street and the Broomielaw hadn’t yet been developed. The High Street would have been the spine of the town.” What is now known as Glasgow Cathedral was of course the Catholic St Mungo’s Cathedral until the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was established as the mother church post-Reformation.

St Andrew’s Cathedral thus represents the formal reintroduction of Catholicism to Glasgow, and is the mother church of the archdiocese. Since then hundreds of Catholic churches have been built in the archdiocese and beyond. But incredibly, this is the first time St Andrew’s has been redecorated since it first opened its doors almost 200 years ago.

This weekend’s celebrations will be tinged with sadness for the archbishop, who at 77 is already two years over the normal retirement age for a bishop. His successor could be announced at any moment and with very little notice.

The decision is made by the pope, relayed to the UK Papal Nuncio in London who telephones the successor directly. The archbishop will then be informed. “It could happen soon,” he says. “When I was made Archbishop of Glasgow by Pope John Paul II in January 2002, I only had a few days’ notice.

“Depending on my health and the goodwill of my colleagues, I hope to continue to live in Glasgow and to assist in some way, perhaps in the field of art and architecture if I’m allowed.” He will become Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow.

He is reluctant to view the refurbished cathedral as his legacy, instead paying tribute to those who helped build and then restore it. “The years up to the opening of the cathedral in 1816 was a time of uncertainty and a time of poverty, yet these people had the vision to build a church of this quality to be clear focal or anchor point for the Catholic community, which has withstood nearly 200 years of history,” he says.

“St Andrew’s Cathedral belongs to Glasgow as well as to the Catholic community. I want it to be seen as open to everyone. I hope that visitors to the city will find it most welcoming, and regard it as somewhere to put on their ‘must see’ list.”

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