A LANDMARK cathedral, ruined by fire on Christmas Day 2009, is to rise from the ashes over the next five years as part of a multi-million euro project.
The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Colm O'Reilly, yesterday announced that a contract had been signed with a design team of top-level architects to restore St Mel's Cathedral in Longford town.
A packed congregation of 700 worshippers attending Sunday Mass in a temporary chapel in the gym of the nearby St Mel's College applauded as Dr O'Reilly named Dr Richard Hurley, a distinguished church architect, as the lead designer in alliance with Colm Redmond, of FitzGerald, Kavanagh and Partners.
The historic cathedral, which was founded by Bishop William O'Higgins in 1840, was rated as a gem of Irish building, with critics acclaiming its interior to be "one of the most beautifully conceived classical spaces" in the country.
Today is the feast day of St Mel, the diocesan patron saint, and Dr O'Reilly said that each year on the Sunday closest to February 7, he would give updates on the progress of the restoration.
The 76-year-old bishop said that an annual restoration collection would be held on the Sunday closest to St Mel's feast day, as it was "the people's cathedral and it would be restored by the people".
He added: "We believe we are taking an important step towards a new day when we will be able to reverse the disaster of Christmas 2009.
"I am convinced that the two architects can deliver a restored cathedral which will not just be faithful to its original architectural splendour, but also a place of worship which will be inspirational for a new time in the life of the church in Ireland."
No figure is yet available for the final cost of the project, but Dr O'Reilly, has promised transparency by publishing details annually.
Dr Hurley vowed to recast St Mel's cathedral as "a religious space of powerful resonance, respecting the past, living in the present and pointing towards the future".
"If this can be achieved the cathedral will live again."
Dr Hurley, whose portfolio includes churches in Ireland, Britain, Africa and Australia, recalled how the man who began work on the cathedral, Bishop William O'Higgins, was inspired by classical buildings such as the Madeleine in Paris, the Pantheon in Athens and the Great Basilicas of Rome.
Referring to the many-times-destroyed Chartres Cathedral, Dr Hurley said his team was approaching the restoration "with the same ardour and belief that St Mel's will rise again and live again at the centre of Catholic life in the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise".
Up to €2m has been spent so far on essential maintenance to preserve the cathedral, explained project manager Niall Meagher while showing journalists the extensive damage to the walls, plaster work, columns, statues and marble decorations.
Mr Meagher pointed to the temporary roof put on the cathedral last August, which he said "has prevented the building from further disrepair from inclement weather".
The diocese has agreed with the design team to provide an apprenticeship scheme to train workers in specialist conservation skills, according to Seamus Butler, chairman of St Mel's Cathedral Project Committee
"It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for skilled workers," he added.
While insurance will cover replacing the building, further costs will be incurred by the installation of toilets, a creche, wheelchair facilities, and meeting health and safety standards.
John Cooney Religion Correspondent