Michæl McFarland Campbell

Always telling the story

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The Phœnix, the altar frontals, and the Protestant nuns

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It is often said that the truth is stranger than fiction. On Tuesday, Rachel Phelan A-ICRI, the lecturer at the first of the “Of the Cloth” lectures at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, brought together three unlikely strands that told the story of two altar frontals.

For those who don’t know, an altar frontal is a cloth that covers (at least) the top and front of an altar or Communion Table, particularly in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Often made of silk damask of the liturgical colours, they may also have Christian symbols embroidered upon them.

The story begins

Rachel’s story began with her being asked to conserve one such altar frontal in Kilternan Church of Ireland in south County Dublin. The frontal in question is somewhat of an oddity in that it is in quite a rich blue. Blue is not one of the more normal liturgical colours (white or gold, red, green, violet or purple, rose, and black). Not only is the frontal blue, but it has lots of fleurs-de-lys embroidered upon it. When Rachel saw the frontal, it was very threadbare after constant usage.

Information from the parish

She didn’t know who had made the frontal, but a parish member came forward with the information that a Mr Myerscough had commissioned it with his winnings from the 1943 Irish Derby. It was stated that he had also commissioned another frontal for St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The latter piece of information surprised Rachel as she had worked on conserving the frontals in the National Cathedral, and she had no recollection of such a piece. However, she did recall something from the back of a cupboard in the diocesan Christ Church Cathedral.

The frontal in Kilternan had a maker’s label on it,

St John’s School of Embroidery,
Sandymount, Dublin

Where was this school of embroidery? Who ran it? Rachel contacted St John’s Church in Sandymount. It became apparent that the St John’s School of Embroidery was run by the Community of St John the Evangelist (CSJE), founded in Sandymount in 1912 by the Reverend Sheridan Fletcher Le Fanu. The first nuns, including Sister Edith Mary Whiteman, came from St Mary’s Wantage. The members of CSJE were referred to as the Protestant nuns.

On arrival in Dublin, the nuns did not know how to sew. But they took lessons from a Dublin seamstress, and having seen the work on the frontal in Kilternan church, Rachel confirmed that their work in 1943 was excellent.

Rachel contacted Christ Church Cathedral and discovered a green frontal for the high altar, which dates from 1943 and has similar flowers, though it is different from that in Kilternan.

Other examples of altar frontals worked on by the St John’s School of Embroidery include that on the high altar in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

Photo of the high altar in St Mary's Cathedral Limerick with a Celtic design upon it.

More about the CSJE

By the 1960s, the work of the CSJE changed as they moved from their original home to that of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, another Irish Anglican religious order for women, where they took over looking after the nursing home there. St Mary’s home was relocated to St John’s House on Merrion Road in November 2019, when only one member of the CSJE left. Sister Verity Ann Clarendon CSJE said at the time of the final service in St Mary’s Chapel,

I’m the only one left.

She added that the demise of the Community was a great loss. With its demise the expression of the religious life within the Church of Ireland more or less came to an end. It is not quite at an end with there being members of the First Order and Third Order of the Society of St Francis, as well as the fledgling Community of St Benedict.

And The Phœnix?

Now, I’ve not quite explained everything have I? Where does The Phœnix come in? That was the name of the horse that won the 1943 Irish Derby owned by Mr Myerscough. Without the winnings from that race, the two altar frontals would not have been commissioned by him, and we would not have had the lecture on Tuesday.

Of the Cloth: a series of four lectures

Tuesday’s talk was the first of the “Of the Cloth” series of lectures organised by Christ Church Cathedral Dublin for the Tuesdays during February 2024. The second lecture will be by Dom Colmán Ó Clabaigh of Glenstal Abbey on Medieval ecclesiastical and liturgical vesture. The third lecture will be by the Very Reverend Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick, entitled “Robing the righteous: From ruffs, rochets, and caps to frockcoats, cassocks, and gaiters”. The fourth lecture is by The Venerable Peter Thompson FBS, Archdeaon of Armagh, entitled “Dressing by degrees: the convergence of ecclesiastical vesture and academic dress”. The four lectures are at 13:10 in the Chapter House of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on the Tuesdays of February 2024. Find out more.