French Kings and Edinburgh flames

The history of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, from King Charles X of France to Pope John Paul II.

Ancient beginnings

The Catholic See of St Andrews is ancient, dating back to before 900 – perhaps even as far back as 747 as is recorded in the Annals of Ulster. It was massive, stretching its narrow, long territory from Aberdeen to the Borders, hugging the coast all the way.

The most prestigious of all the Scottish dioceses, its episcopates took the title ‘High Bishop of Scots’ – one which Archbishop Leo Cushley is yet to reclaim.

However it was not until 1472, only 99 years before it would be dissolved, that a pa- pal bull declared it an archdiocese.

Then, amid the tumult of the Reformation and the death of Archbishop Hamilton in 1571, there would not be another archbishop in the diocese for 307 years when the hierarchy was restored in 1878.

The second coming

Now at a point of traffic congestion connecting the high street and Leith, the site of St Mary’s Cathedral was chosen by Bishop George Hay, Vicar Apostolic for the Lowland District, who in his younger years had been arrested for following the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie before he later would convert to Catholicism.

It was chosen in 1801, and in August 1814 its first Mass was celebrated – a moment of great joy for Edinburgh’s growing Catholic population. The building itself, both inside and out, has been built-upon and remodeled considerably over the years.

When you walk into the Cathedral’s side entrance, on your left you will see a grand painting. It was a gift to the Cathedral from a parishioner – Charles X of France. Exiled following the French Revolution, in 1830 it was his place of worship.

His son, the Comte de Chambord, was confirmed in the Cathedral, and the painting stands as a mark of his gratitude.

In 1878, when the Scottish hierarchy was restored, St Mary’s was the obvious choice to be the Cathedral of the restored archdiocese.

Despite its august history, it hasn’t always been blessed with the greatest of neighbours. For nearly a century it stood next to the Theatre Royal, dubbed the world’s unluckiest theatre.

It burned down on four occasions in a little over 30 years between 1853 and 1884 before a fifth and final blaze in 1946.

The 1892 fire was particularly severe and required significant renovations to the cathedral.

Memorable moments in the last century include the solemn reception of Cardinal Gordon Joseph Gray on his return from the consistory in Rome when he received the red hat of a Cardinal, the first on these shores in 400 years and the reception of Cardinal Glemp, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland in 1985, when Poland was on the verge of breaking free of communist oppression.

The modern era

On May 31, 1982, during Pope St John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Scotland he stopped at St Mary’s Cathedral. There, he met with priests and religious and prayed at the National Shrine of St Andrew.

Within the shrine rests two bones of St Andrew: one gifted in 1879 and another gifted by Paul VI to Cardinal Gray, who prayed with John Paul II that day.

The relics have a long history before arriving in Edinburgh, once being in the care of Emperor Constantine (272-337) and ending up in the hands of the Church after the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

There are a few unique events in the St Mary’s calendar as well. Each August it hosts a Mass to mark the Edinburgh International Festival.

Later in the year comes the annual ‘Red Mass’- the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated to implore God’s blessing and gift of wisdom on the deliberations of the legal profession in Scotland which attracts many of the finest legal minds in the country.

Throughout the year however, St Mary’s music is renowned. Sir James MacMillan, Scotland’s most accomplished living composer, currently serves as the Cathedral’s patron of music.

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