St Colmcille's Church, Holywood, Co. Down

Holywood is an early ecclesiastical site dating from the seventh century with a history punctuated by conflagrations resulting in the destruction of church buildings. This tradition continued in 1989 when the church of St Colmcille was almost completely destroyed by fire. The 150 ft high spire, which dates from 1874, survived and was incorporated into the design for the new church building which was dedicated and opened on Sunday 28 May 1995.

The Second Vatican Council reformed the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It redefined the creative possibilities presented to architects and artists challenging them to give new meaning and relevancy to tradition. The Church no longer favoured any particular art form or style with all new works subjected to only two criteria, quality and appropriateness. Poor quality workmanship and the ephemeral was excluded.

The design for the new church therefore would have to create a sense of timelessness and permanence without recurrence to architectural or artistic fads. To this end quality materials are employed in the construction such as copper, salvaged and new stone, cedar, mahogany and afromosia woods. Building form is composed of simple shapes such as the circle, square and triangle. Battered walls give a sense of rootedness to the site. A circular plan facilitates a fuller participation by the assembly, as required by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as proximity to the liturgical action is of prime importance and a circular arrangement is particularly effective in this respect. With the altar at the centre it naturally becomes the focus of the layout creating a sense of God among His people and reflecting the fact that the celebration of the Eucharist is at the centre of the life of the parish. The place of the Word of God, the ambo, is located to one side on a separate platform emphasising the shifting focus of the liturgy.

The central space is surrounded by an ambulatory from which all other spaces are accessed. A cedar ceiling rises to a lantern and central feature which directs the eye down again to the altar below. Roof lights and light fittings have been integrated into the ceiling which lowers slightly to emphasise the ambo/chair platform. Similarly the wall behind the ambo/chair platform has been treated differently by means of mahogany trellises which incorporate copper and enamel panels depicting the community of saints.

The church is entered either by the Narthex, a place for hospitality and greeting from which the committee room is accessed for coffee and functions. Here also are the repository and toilet and from here too the altar is visible through a glazed screen. 

To the right and also visible from the Narthex are the baptismal font and Blessed Sacrament chapel where the tabernacle is located. The font is in a top lit semi - circular space surrounded by a mosaic by Helen McLean which has as its theme the redemption of Man by means of life - giving water. The Blessed Sacrament chapel has a high ceiling with a seven metre high stained glass window by Lua Breen depicting a peacock and butterflies. Reconciliation rooms are located to the back of this space where we begin our journey of redemption towards the tabernacle at the other end. The colours of the window increase in brightness from the reconciliation rooms to the tabernacle as we follow this journey.

The liturgy requires diversity within a unified whole. The assembly and the priest are the one body but have different roles within that unity. The form and plan of the church building reflect this by creating distinctive spaces within the one building. Consequently the main worship space, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Baptistery and Narthex all have their own places, separate buildings in one volume which are emphasised by roof projections.

The main entrance is approached through a new courtyard which ties together the spire, graves and parochial house. It facilitates the approach of limousines and hearses to the door and recalls the atrium traditionally located at the entrance to church buildings in early Christian times.

Artworks were commissioned from a variety of Irish artists but all with the same underlying principle that the works were not just functional but were to be teaching aids, prompting contemplation of God's awesome presence through imagination, discussion and memories stirred in the sub - conscious. The parish priest, Very Rev. J. Stewart P.P. was particularly interested in this aspect of the project and was responsible for inspiration for most of the symbols employed in the various pieces. The altar, ambo, tabernacle and baptismal font are all in Portuguese limestone designed by Richard King from Dublin. Mr King was also responsible for the paschal candlestick tabernacle lamp and processional cross in bronze and the copper and enamel stations of the cross, tabernacle door and angel panels.

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