The Chapel of the Sacred Heart

The Chapel of the Sacred Heart is a neo-gothic gem, in which architect J.J. McCarthy (1817–82), son of a Kerry family that settled in Dublin, drew on the nineteenth-century revival of medieval architectural styles and infused them with Irish overtones. More than that, it is a sacred space, illuminated in the artistry of its stained-glass windows. The chapel was refurbished in the 1920s under the direction of Mother Ita Macken, and completed with the installation of Harry Clarke’s windows, which Mother Ita commissioned at a cost of £1,000 in 1922. These beautifully crafted windows illustrate the life of Christ from his birth to his resurrection.

The altar of the chapel is dedicated to the Sacred Heart, as is clear from the Sacred Heart, symbol of Christ’s love for us, neatly displayed on the tabernacle door and on the front of the altar table. The window directly behind the altar depicts the Apparition of the Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque. The altar was designed by R.M. Butler and sculpted by George Smith. Rudolf Maximilian Butler, to give him his full name, was a leading church architect of the period and also designed what is now the National Concert Hall, Dublin. He was appointed head of University College Dublin’s Department of Architecture in 1924, a post he held until his death in 1943.

Butler designed the sanctuary also, decorating its walls with colourful Italian marble tiles. On the lower section of the walls are twenty-four panels adorned with special symbols, such as the oak tree, symbol of the Presentation Order. Other symbols displayed include the vine, the chalice, a Celtic cross, and symbols related to the Passion – the crown of thorns, nails, the spear and the sponge – which depict different aspects of Christ’s saving passion, death and resurrection, the great mystery of the Christian faith, which the Sisters celebrated and gave thanks for in their daily Eucharist. The Sisters also left a charming ‘thank-you’ on the end panel of the wall, on the left: a hammer and rule in memory of the builders.

Choir stalls are ranged along each side of the main body of the church, underneath the Stations of the Cross. The Sisters each had their set place. The novices sat closest to the altar, while the Mother Superior and the Mistress of Novices were seated on either side of the entrance. Carved from Spanish oak, the arches of the stalls are mounted with the oak-leaves-and-acorn symbol of the Order. The Sisters chanted the call and response of the Office and hymns, antiphonally, one side to the other in dialogue fashion, then turned towards the altar for the Gloria Patri. The hinged seats lifted up as the nuns rose for those parts of the Liturgy where they were required to stand; underneath each seat is a protruding ledge, specifically for the elderly Sisters to rest on while still appearing to stand. In the medieval tradition these ledges were known as misericords (derived from the Latin word for the mercy or compassion shown towards the infirm or elderly) and were ornately carved, often depicting a secular and humorous scene or theme.