There is something fascinating about a building, that was intended to stand for a short, fixed length of time, remaining. The Church of the Holy Rosary survived because of the fondness the congregation developed towards it and could not bare to see it go.
The church of Our Lady of the Rosary – designed by architects Liam McCormick (1916–96) and Frank Corr (1916–86). You can read about their other churches in Clare and Donegal in this series. It was commissioned by Monsignor Michael Moloney in 1949 as a chapel of ease for the growing parish of St Munchin in Limerick city. Moloney had read about Corr and McCormick’s competition-winning design for the church of Our Lady and St Michael in Ennistymon, Co. Clare in 1947. A prolific contributor to the North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Monsignor Moloney – the most prominent scholar in matters relating to Limerick church history since John Canon Begley – encouraged an appreciation of ecclesiastical art in the region. Between 26 May and 10 June 1952, Moloney organized an exhibition entitled 'A thousand years of Christian art and ecclesiastical antiques from North Munster’ in the newly constructed church.
The completed church, built by contractors Messrs P. Molloy & Sons, accommodating a congregation of 600, was blessed by Dr Patrick O’Neill, bishop of Limerick on 11 December 1950. The church was, in fact, erected as a temporary, wooden-cladded single cell, easy to disassemble: rectangular in plan, it is parallel to the boundary roads with an altar at one gable and the entrance porch at the other. This explains why the church is set well back on the site with the intention of accommodating the permanent church that never was. To complete the overall design, the principal approach to the building was marked by a bell tower which has become a landmark on the Ennis Road. It was extended in 1955 and again in 1976, to the design of McMahon and Hickey who worked from plans received from McCormick’s office. Over three decades, McCormick established a reputation as the most important church architect in Ireland until his retirement in 1982. In acknowledgement of this signal contribution, McCormick was created a Knight of St Gregory in 1984, the highest honour a layperson can obtain from the Catholic Church.
Our Lady of the Rosary Church houses a wealth of mid twentieth-century Irish artwork. It boasts a fine stained-glass triptych, with the centre piece of the Baptism of Christ by Evie Hone (1894–1955): the surrounding panels depicting the Nativity and the Resurrection are by John and Róisín Murphy. There is a statue of St Anne with Mary by Eamonn Costello and the tabernacle is by Br Benedict Tutty O.S.B. (1924–96) of Glenstal Abbey. The Deposition from the Cross, a piece entitled Ghosts by Andrew O’Connor (1874–1941) is a plaster model for the bronze exhibited at one time in London’s Tate Gallery.
Over the years, some unfortunate losses have been sustained to the patrimony of the church, including the life-size tableau of the Annunciation – the work of Ian (†2013) and Imogen Stuart – which is now missing. And the series of paintings by Fr Jack Hanlon (1913–68), recovered in 2018 following their theft five years earlier, but not before they suffered significant damage. In 1993, three stained-glass windows were inserted at the altar gable. They depict Christ with children, the Assumption and the Sacred Heart with St Margaret Mary. Made by Mayer of Munich, they were originally installed in St Mary’s Convent, King’s Island by the Sisters of Mercy in 1885.
The entrance façade of the bell-tower was chosen as a suitable background for a magnificent life-size figure of Our Lady of Fatima in white teak by Oisín Kelly (1915–81). Kelly was also responsible for the design of the baptistery plaques. In addition, he co-designed the original altar furnishings, since replaced: and the cast decorative motif of a pelican on the tabernacle, which includes a ruby, has been attributed to him. Here, Our Lady is depicted as a young, smiling, barefoot teenager with rosary beads held aloft in prayer. It was to become one of his most popular statues with one critic describing it as ‘a work of great sweetness and charm’. Kelly is best known for his large bronze sculptures such as Children of Lir at the Garden of Remembrance and the Irish Life Centre’s Chariot Of Life. Our Lady of Fatima was Kelly’s first religious commission. He was later to be awarded a gold medal by the RIAI in 1958 for his ecclesiastical artwork. In recent years a wooden hood has been affixed over the statue as it was beginning to suffer water damage.
At the back of the church is a strong yet tender Madonna and Child by self-taught Limerick artist and carpenter/joiner James ‘Jimmy’ Clancy (1936–2015) from King’s Island in the city. Our Lady is holding the infant Jesus by his feet. He is holding a globus cruciger or orb and cross as a Christian symbol of authority. Mary’s smile has faded as if she can foresee the sacrifice her child will have to make when he is grown. This statue is beautifully carved with the sculptor’s skill evident in the folds of her robes.
Behind the altar on the left there is a statue of the Sacred Heart while on the right there is a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, both by French carver and landscape painter Yvonne Jammet (1900–67). Jammet exhibited at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in the 1940s and the subject of her work was often religious, such as The Twelve Tribes, created for the Jewish synagogue in Terenure, Dublin. After the rebuilding of St Michael's Church, Dún Laoghaire following its destruction by fire, Jammet donated a set of carved Stations of the Cross. Jammet’s Our Lady of the Rosary is an older woman, denoted by additional layers of dress, with her eyes cast downwards in prayer, and again holding rosary beads but with open hands.
Before the tragic car crash that was to take his life Monsignor Moloney dedicated the new national school, on the same site as the church, to US President John F Kennedy who visited Limerick in 1963. The school, the only national school in the Republic of Ireland designed by Liam McCormick, opened in 1964 and was demolished in 2010 to make way for a new school complex. Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church, listed on Limerick's Record of Protected Structures, might not have been Corr & McCormick’s first design but nevertheless their first completed build and therefore holds a special place in the national story of Irish twentieth century architecture.