In 1863, only 1 in every 3 Catholics attended Sunday Mass in Belfast because there were simply not enough churches to accommodate them. By this time, Catholics in Belfast were so numerous that congregations could overflow onto the streets on Sundays.
The problem was so bad that many Catholics found it impossible to fulfil the Sunday obligation of attending Mass on Sunday. The solution was clear, the city needed a new Catholic church.
Enter Mr Barney Hughes, a leading Catholic figure in Belfast and a bakery magnate, who was compelled to solve this problem.
Hughes obtained a large area ‘extending along Milford Street 214 feet, along Dysart Street 138 feet, along Derby Street 138 feet and along Alexander Street West 197 feet.’ He believed that this land would provide a perfect site for a new church and in December 1858, Hughes transferred the land to the local bishop at a nominal (‘peppercorn’) rent.
The builder originally engaged to construct the church was John Ross of Great George’s Street, but the final stage of the operation was undertaken by John Murphy. Two architects were also employed on the project, Fr Jeremiah Ryan McAuley (an architect by training) and John O’Neill, under whose direction St Peter’s was finished.
St Peter’s was the first Catholic Church in Belfast to be built in the Gothic style and its commanding position made it a conspicuous landmark on the southern and western approaches to the city. Its impressive features included two great towers, five doorways, two porch entrances and a sculpture depicting the liberation of St Peter from prison (Acts 12:1-11)
The church was built of Scrabo stone. Apart from a series of triple-lighted windows, lighting the aisles, the western gable was illuminated by a large wheeled window. The High Altar was described by a contemporary observer as ‘a magnificent work of art’ with the tabernacle ‘surmounted by a crocketed spire of sculptured Caen stone raising to the height of thirty three feet from the ground.’
St Peter’s opening ceremony took place on Sunday 14th October 1866. The church was densely packed long before the dedication ceremony began. In particular, a vast crowd had gathered in the surrounding streets to greet Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, who had done so much to mould the Irish Church after the Great Famine. Cardinal Cullen presided at the solemn High Mass while the sermon was preached by Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham.
The following day, the Belfast Morning News described the opening ceremony this way:
‘Inside the building the scene was one great panorama of strange variety, beauty and effect. Bishops and priests arrayed in vestments of the most gorgeous descriptions; an immense mass of eager, earnest people of both sexes watching the movements of the clergy with strained anxiety; a great high-vaulted roof of stained wood covering them; the heads of saints cut in corbels round the nave looking down on the vast congregation … tall, towering pillars on which depend the arches which support the roof; the grand alter constructed of Caen stone and Irish marble standing high and erect in the sanctuary …’
In March 1889, Fr James Aloysius Cullen, SJ, the leading advocate of total abstinence, came to the parish to conduct a ‘temperance retreat’. During his stay in the presbytery, Fr Cullen composed a new pledge, the ‘Heroic Offering’, based on purely spiritual motives.
That evening, over three hundred parishioners – men and women – took the pledge in St Peter’s, publicly declaring their abstinence from alcohol for life. The ‘Heroic Offering’ was to become the charter of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, formed by Fr Cullen a year later.
It is unclear when St Peter’s became the cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor as there is no record of any official act conferring the title of Pro-Cathedral on St Peter’s. However, nearly all the ceremonies appropriate to the cathedral of a diocese took place there before its official solemnisation in 1988.
The twin spires, the distinctive feature of the church, was added in 1886. They were designed by Mortimer Thompson from Killyleagh, Co. Down. The firm of Henry Fulton of Cambridge Street was employed as the builders. The spires cost £5,000 and were fitted with a carillon of 11 bells for £1,500. The carillon was cast at Murphy’s Bell Foundry, Thomas Street, Dublin.
In honour of the occasion, Fr James McGreevey composed a poem which was enthusiastically received by the people of the “Pound” and the Falls Road.
‘The Bells of St Peter’s! The Bells of St Peters!
Oh, ring them out gaily – nor ever forget
That the voice of their chiming from yon lofty steeple
Shall echo the shouts of our liberty yet.’
– Rev. Patrick Rogers, St Peter’s Pro-Cathedral, 1866-1966 (Howard Publications, 1967)
By the 1960s, St Peter’s was on the threshold of unimaginable changes. The next few years would see the parish transformed by the redevelopment of the ‘Pound Loney', the erection of Divis Flats Complex and the outbreak of the Troubles in August 1969. Yet, over the decades, the ‘twin spires’ have dominated the changing landscape of the city, a symbol of the continuity of the faith in West Belfast.