The Rock Chapel at 150 Years
by Ged Johnson
The British Listed Building website has a Grade 2 listing, dated 16 November 1962. Its CADW identification number is 1409 and its location is a wooded hill to the south of St Beuno’s. The reason for the Listing? ‘An architecturally simple and unusual work of religious piety in association with St Beuno's College, successfully designed for landmark significance, a strong essay in simple gothic.’ It is, of course, the “folly” known as the Rock Chapel, designed by architect and Jesuit Ignatius Scoles.
The origin of the Rock Chapel began with the clearing of the Rock (Garreg-fawr), in 1862, for public access, at the behest of the Rector, and then by a visit to the Rock on Boxing Day 1865 by a group of young Jesuits who conceived the idea. The foundation stone was laid in March 1866 and by September 24th of the same year Fr Scoles, newly ordained, was celebrating his first Mass there. Named, erroneously as St Michael’s on the Ordnance Survey (in fact it was the Rock itself that was dedicated to St Michael), the chapel was dedicated to the Virgin and is known as St Mary's or Our Lady of Sorrows. Letters and Notices, March 1966, reads: “A stone in the Rock Chapel at St Beuno’s records: "This stone of the chapel was laid on May 10, 1866, and the chapel was opened on September 24, 1866." It may not be generally known that it was built in honour of Our Lady of Sorrows and as a pilgrimage shrine in reparation for the 64 shrines (we have a map of them) in honour of Our Lady destroyed in North Wales during the Reformation years. It was apparently built by local labour and is of Welsh granite, like the College.”
In 2010 and 2011 the chapel underwent some renovation and saw the installation of the stained-glass windows by County Tipperary artist Claire Mulholland who, having spent time here on retreat, offered her artistic services for free. Having spent much of her career working in oils, she began glass-work in 1994 having asked herself was there anything she would come to regret never having done. The answer that came to her was not having worked in stained-glass: “I haven’t looked back. I love colour. I love the intensity of light through coloured glass – the way it changes, varies and comes alive in different light and times of day, the way it transforms a dull building, a dull corner or a dull day.” Claire exhibited in Scotland and Ireland, and is in private collections in the UK and Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Canada. In 2012 she visited the chapel to view the windows with her husband, having dedicated them in celebration of the lives of her family. She died the following year. She regarded the seven windows for the Rock Chapel, in the seven colours of the rainbow, as her greatest artistic achievement.
On Saturday 24th September, this year, a group of about thirty residents, friends and retreatants climbed the Rock to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Photos show the gathering in 2016 and also from a pilgrimage of 350 pilgrims from the neighbouring villages and towns on 1st July 1954, led by Fr Leo O’Hey rector of St Beuno’s. An article from the Denbigh Free Press, dated 17/7/1954, says, many pilgrims venerated the Old Cross of Tremeirchion (see March edition of the e-news). The Rock Chapel “has served as a place of prayer, repose and reflection for succeeding generations of residents and visitors to St Beuno’s who find it provides a precious space in which to encounter God ‘heart speaking to heart’” (Alan Harrison SJ).