The recently enhanced red luminous cross of the Church of the Ascension overlooking Cork city draws renewed attention to the first of the magnificent Rosary churches of Bishop Cornelius Lucey. The cross is visible from all over Cork by night and the Gurranabraher parish church over which it presides is part of a story worth telling. The church is one of the five churches built in a short period of just seven years – between 1955 and 1962 – in the expanding suburbs of Cork.
The Cork Churches Project, five churches in the city and three in the county harnessed an enthusiasm which was all embracing and provided landmark churches on the hilltops of the north and the valley land on the south of the city.
Providing churches for the housing developments of the post war years was an early priority for Bishop Lucey. In 1953 he announced that five new churches would be built in the city; in Gurranabraher, Farranree, Mayfield, Wilton and Ballyphehane.
The Bishop stated his intention to have “the house of God in the midst of the houses of the people of God”; their number lent to naming the churches after the five glorious mysteries of the Rosary. The work remains an outstanding accomplishment in the annals of church building in Ireland, let alone in Cork itself.
The foundation stone of the Church of the Ascension was laid in December 1953 and its solemn opening was on Ascension Thursday, 19th May 1955. It was one of the four Rosary churches designed by James Rupert Boyd Barrett, the foremost ecclesiastical architect in Cork over many years.
Its tiled roof and tower blended with the hues of the hundreds of homes on the hillside dubbed the “red city” because of the myriad of crimson roofs.
Notable features of the church are the pendant canopy over the sanctuary and the exquisite marble altar. There are well-executed paintings of the Ascension scene and of the Baptism of Our Lord by Marshall C. Hutson who was Vice Principal of the Crawford School of Art. Nine steps, conveying the sense of height and ascent, lead from the nave to the tabernacle.
The materials for the tabernacle include jewels from rings and broaches generously donated in memory of loved ones.
The church provides a good example of how tasteful modifications can occur over the years; there is a large shrine of Our Lady of Fatima which was built in 1983 in the former mortuary chapel on the western side. The church’s main doors open to a panoramic view of the city while the church itself commands visibility for miles around.
Although it is hard to envisage by present day terms, the contract price for the church was £89,920, a sum which in the 1950s called for significant fundraising. By contrast, extensive reroofing and general renovations completed in 2018 cost in excess of €460,000.