Prayers answered for £1.6m Catholic Cathedral makeover

Perfect fit: Father Chris Posluszny admires              the finished work.                         PICTURE: SARAH WASHBOURN
Perfect fit: Father Chris Posluszny admires the finished work. PICTURE: SARAH WASHBOURN
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IT’S Wednesday evening and there are just 24 hours until the first parishioners are welcomed back to Sheffied’s Catholic Cathedral Church Of St Marie after a 14-month, £1.6 million redevelopment.

Father Chris Posluszny looks uneasy as he opens up to reveal dozens of builders, electricians and joiners working on what, inside, still resembles a construction site.

“I have faith it will be ready,” he says serenely. “Although if I had any hair left, I’d probably be pulling it out with stress. It’s going to the wire.”

Not even in the house of the Lord, it seems, do renovations run smoothly.

Still, as those set to attend this morning’s special dedication service and official unveiling will no doubt agree, these are some renovations.

A sigh of relief (or was it a word of prayer?) was heard last night as the work, with the odd minor exception, was indeed finished in time for a preopening service.

And the results of what has been the biggest makeover in the Norfolk Row church’s 162-year-history are certainly impressive.

Out has gone the tired furniture, fibre board ceiling and chocolate brown paint job favoured during a 1970s facelift. In has come a new stone floor complete with underfoot heating, an exposed wood beam roof, and a glass covered narthex.

The sanctuary has been extended, the confessional booths relocated and the decorative features - some dating back to the Victorian period - completely restored. There’s a new altar, Bishop’s Chair and lectern, and an original mosaic crafted in the floor to mark the overhaul.

Lighting has been rewired. The sound system has been updated. And there’s now an option to install video screens for special services.

“We have created a church fit for the 21st century but one which also remembers the building’s past,” says Father Chris, dean of the cathedral.

“Much of what we have done, for example, is simply to pull back renovations done in the Seventies to reveal what the Victorians had built before.

“Like with the ceiling. That has been covered in dark boards for the last 40 years - but underneath were astonishing Victorian patterns which we have now uncovered.”

There’s been the odd surprise too. Seven 15th century carvings depicting scenes from the life of Christ were discovered in a sacristy cupboard, and more was found of the sarcophagus of the church’s founder, Father Charles Pratt.

“Doing the work has certainly helped us to learn more about the church,” says 51-year-old Father Chris.

And it seems the changes have gone down well with parishioners.

“It’s glorious,” says Margaret O’Malley, of Greystones. “The first thing you notice is how bright and colourful it is, compared with before.

“There are so many features that really draw the eye now they have been cleaned, painted and gilded – particularly the angels in the sanctuary and the reliefs on the altars in the side chapels.”

Father Chris again: “As much as anything I think they’re glad to be home.

“We have been made to feel tremendously welcome at St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Carver Street where weekend services have been taken and we can’t thank them enough for having us, but it will be nice to be back in our own church.”

The work itself has been 15 years in the making.

Officials started talking about an overhaul as early as 1997 but it was in 2007 when Father Chris arrived that the project took on a new urgency.

“The building had become dated,” he says. “It wasn’t ideal for taking mass anymore, and we were having to make minor repairs fairly regularly. So, a decision was made to do a full job, and make the church fit for the next 30 or 40 years.”

Top brass at the Diocese of Hallam supported the plan, and £1.6 million was made available and raised. An application for a further £300,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund has now been made with a view to restoring the 19th century Lewis organ.

The work, planned by Manchester architects Buttress and Fuller, started in September last year.

The grade II listed church has been shut since then with daily worship being conducted next door in a temporary cathedral set up in a former hair salon

“The unexpected thing about that was it has seemed to open up the church a little more to passers-by,” says Father Chris. “People perhaps felt more comfortable coming in because of the windows so we are now trying to draw up ideas to make the cathedral itself feel more open.”

Those plans will include full time stewards on hand to show people round, as well as arranging school visits to tour the cathedral. A small shop will eventually be set up near the entrance.

“This is such a magnificent building,” says Father Chris. “And it would be a shame if we weren’t encouraging more people to come in.

“It hasn’t been an easy job but it looks so beautiful now. It has certainly been worth it.”

A mass of rededication, led by the Bishop of Hull, the Rt Rev John Rawsthorne, takes place today at 11am.