Mark Greaves visits Glasgow’s Catholic cathedral as workers toil to finish one of the most ambitious church renovation projects in years

On February 22 2002, the day that Archbishop Mario Conti was installed as Archbishop of Glasgow, he thought: “Something has to be done about this cathedral.” It was, he says, looking rather tired. Now, nine years later, the Metropolitan Cathedral Church of St Andrew is about to re-open, having undergone the biggest renovation and redecoration in its 200-year history.

Partly, the work has been practical: the cathedral has new heating, new wiring, new lighting and a new floor. But its aesthetic makeover has been dramatic, too: it’s been re-painted; the font and altar have been replaced; an ambitious, large-scale piece of art is being installed. It is even getting a garden.

Its new look is very much down to Archbishop Conti. Most of the ideas are his; the altar he designed himself. He has enormous practical interest in art and architecture: as a seminarian in Rome he painted the set for a Gilbert and Sullivan musical.

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He has been managing the project closely. According to Ronnie Convery, his director of communications, he would go up the scaffolding in a hard hat and, after inspecting some work, suggest a change to colour or design.

And he has only just managed to fit it all in: at 77, he is two years past retirement and the oldest Catholic bishop still holding office in Britain. He is likely to step down within months of the cathedral re-opening.
When I visit there is only a week to go. The pews are under plastic sheets; wires, foam and dust cover the floor. Workmen are busy drilling and sawing.

For a cathedral, it is tiny. It was Glasgow’s first post-Reformation Catholic church, built as a chapel in 1816. When it later gained the status of a cathedral its small structure was left unchanged. From the front, it has a view of the River Clyde; a few yards away on a side street is a lap-dancing club.

Pictures of the interior before the renovation show it looking tatty. In the 1970s the previous Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Thomas Winning, had plans to build a new cathedral; he decided in the end to spend the money on social causes instead.

Archbishop Conti and Ronnie Convery have agreed to give me a tour. The cathedral is by no means ready: Convery says work will probably finish around five minutes before the opening hymn.

As we walk inside I am struck by how light it is. The stained glass absolutely gleams – each pane has been taken out and cleaned.

The centrepiece of the renovation – Peter Howson’s painting of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie – is not yet in place. The work, which was completed last year, depicts the saint just as he is about to be hanged, with a noose around his neck. It is 10ft by 7ft and has apparently required the biggest framing project in Scotland for centuries.

Archbishop Conti explains that the saint, who was executed about 800 yards from the cathedral, is Scotland’s only Reformation martyr. “But a lot of people suffered for their faith,” he says softly. The archbishop has a gentle manner – at times I can barely hear him over the drilling and banging.

He talks about Scottish Catholic history. At one point, he says, Catholics were “pretty much wiped out” in Glasgow. He says that for many early immigrants, “this was the church”. (Archbishop Conti himself is from a pocket of north-eastern Scotland where the faith managed to survive – although, as you might guess from his name, his grandparents are all Italian.) He praises Fr Andrew Scott, who commissioned the building, and James Gillespie, the architect whose name is carved into the front archway: they wanted a church “worthy of its purpose”. In many ways, he says, the redecoration has been an attempt to “get closer” to Gillespie’s original vision.

We look up at the ceiling. Before, its decorative features were covered over in a dull grey. Now they are an exquisite gold, blue, red and green (over 3,000 books of gold leaf have been used). This, says Convery, was the archbishop’s idea.

Next we turn to the pillars. Before, they too were grey; now they are decorated with ribbons of blue and gold. They are plaster, but have been painted to look like stone. “I had to insist on this,” the archbishop explains, “because the architect [Justin Fenton] said it would look false.” He nudges my arm mischievously. “It was when the principal adviser to Historic Scotland came on my side that he buckled.”

We walk towards the centre of the church. The new altar, made out of white veined marble, is longer and more traditional than the old one, now fitted into the wall. I ask the archbishop where he got his inspiration. “From my head!” he says.

Behind us, at the centre of the nave, is a new baptismal font. It, too, is white marble, from Carrara, in Italy. Archbishop Conti pulls aside a foam covering so we can see the sculpted frieze around its rim: it shows people walking towards a baptism. Archbishop Conti says that, apart from the Howson painting, it’s the feature he’s most proud of. He explains that its place at the centre of the cathedral is a “clear statement about the importance of baptism”. The old font, he says, was behind a pillar, and difficult to use. When the cathedral re-opens it will be bubbling with water.

On our way out we pass a floor mosaic depicting the archdiocesan coat of arms. It was created by craftsmen in Bethlehem, Glasgow’s twin city. It took two years to make and was then shipped over. Circling it are the words: Specialis Filia Romanae Ecclesiae (“Special Daughter of the Roman Church”), the title given to Glasgow by Pope Alexander III in the 12th century.

As we step outside Archbishop Conti says the city council has spent more than £1 million paving the area in front of the cathedral. “I don’t want to say that too loudly,” he says, his eyes twinkling, “because of jealousy.”

The cloistered garden – the final element of Archbishop Conti’s vision – won’t be ready until May. It will have a fountain and a 200-year-old olive tree donated by a village in Tuscany. Archbishop Conti describes it as “an oasis from the world”, inbetween “the marketplace and the sanctuary”.

At its centre will be the world’s largest memorial to those who died in the sinking of the Arandora Star, a cruise ship, in 1940. The ship was torpedoed by the Nazis while carrying mainly British-Italian internees; about 800 people died. The memorial will be a cluster of mirrored steel slabs, like huge gravestones. On one side of each will be a quote from the gospels; on the other a line from classical Italian poetry.

Finally, we sit down in the lobby of the archdiocesan offices and I ask Archbishop Conti how he feels now the cathedral is about to re-open. “It’s been a long haul,” he says. He had wanted, he explains, to build a retrochoir as well. But he would have needed more time and more money.

The cost, he says, was £4.5 million, funded mainly by a couple of well-timed bequests and the selling off of “unused property”. Only 15 per cent – £670,000 – was from an archdiocesan fund-raising campaign called Faith in Action. The garden was funded by donations from Italian benefactors.

Once he is retired, he says, he will want to “just sit there and absorb the beauty of the building”. He will be happy “to see someone else in the bishop’s chair”, as it will relieve him of a “huge amount” of administrative work. He adds: “Hopefully I will be fit enough to continue the pastoral side of things.”

Asked if he has any advice for his successor he pauses and then, slowly, says with comic emphasis: “Just leave it alone now.” He explains that he has put a time capsule inside the altar containing his homily for Sunday’s consecration. “You can’t expect things to last for ever. Another generation will come and want to change the altar. That’s inevitable, I think. On the other hand, I hope there is much that will last the test of time.”

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