It was only in the last decade of the 12th century, during the episcopate of Felix O’Dulany, that Kilkenny became the seat of the bishop of Ossory, replacing Aghaboe which in turn had replaced Seir Kieran in the 11th century. The new cathedral, dedicated to St. Canice, was begun early in the 13th century by Bishop Hugh de Rous and took over half a century to complete. During the period of the Confederation it was David Rothe’s cathedral church, and it was here that the aged bishop formally received the papal nuncio Archbishop Rinuccini in November 1645. With the coming of Cromwell St. Canice’s reverted to Protestant hands and the Catholics had no cathedral. A small chapel in St. Mary’s parish – St. James’s Chapel, built in 1700 just outside St. James’s Gate – functioned as a cathedral. Replaced in 1772-74 at a cost of about £700, it was known as the ‘old cathedral’ and was in use up to 1857.
It was William Kinsella, appointed bishop of Ossory at the age of thirty-three, who initiated the building of St. Mary’s. His era in Ossory (1829-45) saw nineteen churches built, including the fine parochial churches of Ballyragget, Castlecomer, Freshford, Inistioge, Durrow and Lisdowney, two wings of the present St. Kieran’s College completed, and a new cathedral begun. William Deane Butler, the architect for St. Kieran’s and Ballyragget, was chosen to be the architect of St. Mary’s. His neo-Gothic style marked a new and ambitious phase in church architecture. It set his buildings apart from previous ecclesiastical buildings in the diocese, and it reflected the new found confidence of the Catholic community.
Kinsella had already announced his project for a new cathedral in February 1842 because St. James’s chapel had become “very old, very inconvenient and entirely too small”. The site chosen was Burrell’s Hall which housed the first Catholic college founded in Ireland after the repeal of the law against Catholic schoolmasters in 1782. Subscribers from St. Mary’s parish pledged over £1500 including £100 from Bishop Kinsella and £20 from Fr Theobald Matthew who had once been a student of Burrell’s Hall. Money was also raised from door and street collections, from the sale of site material and from bank loans. Work was begun in April 1843. On 18 August the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Kinsella assisted by the administrator, Fr Robert O’ Shea and others. When Bishop Kinsella died in his fiftieth year in December 1845 the walls were only seven feet high.
The new bishop Edmond Walsh aided by Robert O’ Shea and a very active lay committee continued the project. They kept it going right through the famine years providing much needed work locally. Collections were taken up in all the parishes of the diocese and bank loans were obtained on the securities of local merchants. The much publicized sermon of Dr Patrick Murray of Maynooth also helped to raise funds. The cost of the original building is estimated to have been £25,000.
For the grand opening admittance was by ticket only with prices determined according to where one was seated. Bishop Walsh began the ceremony of consecration on Sunday morning, 4th October 1857, at 6.15 a.m. and concluded about 9.00 a.m. The usual ceremonies accompanied the consecration – the procession three times around the cathedral, with hymns and the sprinkling of holy water, the knocking on the main door twice and finally the entry into the cathedral, the consecration of the high altar and the altar of the Lady Chapel and the deposition of the saints’ relics in the altars. Twelve crosses which hung on each pillar along the nave were blessed and the bishop celebrated Mass in the Lady Chapel. The preacher for the occasion was the Bishop of Kerry, David Moriarty. Crowds flocked to the cathedral for the opening. The recently opened railway ran special trains and the C.Y.M.S did the stewarding. In the evening there were solemn pontifical vespers.
The cathedral was described as “of pure Gothic design, built entirely of chiseled limestone and cruciform in shape”. The tower which has become a landmark of the city was originally designed for St. Kieran’s College, and rises to a height of 186 feet. The high altar of Italian marble was purchased in Italy. The relics of Sts. Cosmos and Damian and St. Clement were brought from Rome. Those of St. Victoria came later. At its opening the Cathedral was like many of the churches at that time rather bereft of ornament. A statue of Our Lady by Benzoni who sculpted the O’ Connell monument in the Irish College in Rome and the Bianconi mortuary chapel in Boherlahan was later commissioned by Bishop Walsh and stands in the remodeled sanctuary. The railings around the Cathedral were added in 1862.
During Bishop Brownrigg’s time a new sacristy and chapter room were added (the old sacristy was beneath the high altar) and many other improvements were made. The center porch and organ gallery were remodeled, heating was installed and new statues purchased. James Pearse, the father of Patrick and Willie, completed the marble altar rails and erected the altar to the Sacred Heart.
About £8,000 was expended and the refurbished Cathedral was reopened on 9 April 1899 in the presence of Cardinal Logue, Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, and many other dignitaries.
Less than thirty years later Bishop Collier found it necessary to do a great deal of work on St. Mary’s both inside and outside. Turrets had to be repaired and a leaking roof overhauled. Mosaic work and painting were done on the sanctuary and side chapels, pitch pine seats were put in the aisles and transepts, an altar was erected to the Little Flower, the organ was remodeled at a cost of £2,500 and choir stalls introduced. The cost came to £28,000 and was raised by collections throughout the diocese.
During Bishop Birch’s time the cathedral was modernized to bring it into line with the requirements of Vatican II. Under the great tower was placed a new high altar of polished limestone surrounded by copper relief’s depicting scenes of church life in Ossory. Many other changes were made including a new tabernacle to facilitate exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and what is practically a new organ constructed by a distinguished German organ builder.
St. Mary’s Cathedral still dominates the landscape of Kilkenny, its great tower being visible from all approaches to the city. It stands as a reminder of the faith and growing confidence of a far off generation – a reminder and much more than a reminder.