The church was constructed in the gardens beside and behind number 87 St Stephen's Green. The house itself, unfortunately no longer in the possession of the church having served as its presbytery until 1988 when it was sold, was built in 1730 and remained in good structural condition.
Access to the church is through a Romanesque porch erected a few years after the church itself. It was constructed of polychromatic brick with short columns and cushion-capitals bearing the symbols of the four Evangelists and six angelic figures. Above the main door is a richly coloured arch with three small windows and an ornamental metal cross. The porch was a gift to the church from Fr William H Anderdon (1816-1890), whom Newman appointed as chaplain to University Church in 1856. Like Newman, Anderdon had been an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism and who was a nephew of the Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward (later Cardinal) Manning (1808-1892) - another convert to Catholicism. Fr Anderdon remained as chaplain until 1863.
Above the porch is a small belfry. The original bell is now in the administration block of the Belfield Campus but a set of electronic chimes, a gift from John and Isobel Foley who have a long association with the Church, is housed in the belfry.
On leaving the porch one enters the atrium by six descending steps. This contains a number of wall plaques including, on the left hand side, one to Eugene O'Curry (1794-1862), first professor of archaeology at the University, and another in Irish in memory of the nationalist Máire de Paor who died in 1916. On the right hand wall, a plaque commemorates the co-founders of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland - the priest brothers Thomas Joseph Farrell, who died in 1940, and Ernest RS Farrell who died in 1955. Another plaque is a memorial to Michael Charles Aughney, a student and auditor of the University's Literary and Historical Society, who died in 1872. Glass cases contain items of Newman interest.
The atrium leads into a kind of ante-church, which has an overhead gallery supported by arches, beams, marble columns and other slender pillars. The columns have alabaster capitals with carved foliage, fruit, flowers, birds and a sacrificial lamb. On six them angelic figures hold scrolls with the inscriptions Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth. Until 1990 iron railings divided off this section of the church from the nave, as it was Newnan's original idea that this area should be reserved for catechumens - those under instruction in the Catholic faith and preparing for baptism. The railings now surround small shrines on either side. These house, on the right hand side, pictures of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, St Joseph and an icon of the Annunciation with statues of St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Anthony of Padua.
On the left hand side is a large Crucifix and this side also contains two recent (2004) additions - gifts of the current pastor, Very Reverend Pearse Walsh. One, immediately to the left on entering, is a large Spanish painting of The Presentation of the Virgin from "the circle of Estaban Marquez de Velasco" (d 1696). Fr Walsh presented it in memory of his parents, Edward and Mary Walsh.
Just beyond a door leading to the driveway beside the church is a stained glass piece in a lighted box by the Co Wicklow-born artist George Campbell (1917-1979). An expressionist in style and noted for his use of colour and manipulation of mood, influenced by regular visits to Spain, this striking work represents The Scourging at the Pillar. Its donation to the church is in "memory of Fr Alfie Tonge", who served in the (mother) parish of St Kevin from 1949 to 1967. At the back of the ante-church are two wooden confessionals and, for the time being, small framed replicas of seven of the tapestries from the walls of the nave.
Moving into the nave, from which another door leads to the side driveway, one finds the flat red-timbered ceiling divided into mullioned compartments on which are painted sprays of vines. There are irregularly grouped windows, glazed with knots of glass, acquired from the Dublin Glass Bottle Factory in Ringsend, at the very reasonable costs necessitated by the financial constraints of Newman's budget.
The sanctuary is raised above the nave by five steps behind the alabaster columned communion rails. The alabaster altar frontal has twelve discs of Derbyshire fluorspar crystals set in two groups of six. In the centre of the frontal is the outline of a Byzantine cross. Christ in Glory appears in the centre with the Evangelists John and Mark on his right and left and Matthew and Luke above and below him. In the corners are the doctors Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome.
Three tall wooden candlesticks, but gilded to make them look like metal, stand on either side of the brass Crucifix with its ivory figure above the tabernacle. A 'clever Dublin tinker' executed the Crucifix from Pollen's design and carpenters, employed by the contractors JP Beardwood & Son of Dublin's Westland Row, carved his candlesticks. Above the altar is a deal baldachino framed into the wall behind. Its five small domes and decorative carving further extend the Byzantine idea of the sanctuary.
On either side of the baldachino are formal patterns of circles filled with flower motifs and linked with latticework. The circles and lattices are of glazed ceramic tiles. This band separates the semi-dome above the baldachino from the marble inlay on the lower walls of the apse and it also serves as a kind of reredos where circular studs of glass are set into the alabaster and marble framework to give a jewelled effect as they reflect the candlelight from the altar.
The Church of San Clemente in Rome inspired the semi-dome above the sanctuary. In the centre is the Virgin, enthroned as Seat of Wisdom (Sedes Sapientiae), as patroness of the church. Above her is a dove with outstretched wings representing the Holy Spirit and a jewelled cross represents Christ. At the top are brilliant colours emerging from the hand of God the Father.
Rising from the centre, a vine extends its branches in coils of circles to fill the entire area of the semi-dome. The circles contain virgins of both sexes bearing palms. Various birds, including a pelican, and insects inhabit the tendrils. Deer, rabbits and other animals, representing the homage of creation, can be seen at the roots of the vine. This motif is continued into a border at the base of the semi-dome and this houses small medallions of further birds and bunches of grapes.
A choir-gallery stands on the left hand side of the sanctuary. Supported by seven marble pillars with alabaster capitals having plant designs, it is accessed from the sacristy and topped by a wooden screen of pierced lattice panels. Opposite the choir-gallery is the pulpit, supported by four marble pillars bearing the symbol and names of the four Evangelists. It is approached by a stone staircase with an alabaster balustrade and its platform is encased with panels of marble of various colours. The pulpit has a canopy with two marble pillars between which is an ivory and ebony Crucifix showing the Madonna and St John at the foot of the cross.
The sidewalls of the church are decorated with three bands of marble of different depths and colours. The black marbles come from Co Kilkenny, the green from Co Galway, the red from Co Cork and the brown and grey from Co Armagh and Co Offaly. The first band, with its fictive pillars and alabaster capitals on which rest the carved Stations of the Cross, depicts the life of birds. The second consists of eleven arch-shaped panels with lunettes painted by Pollen. There are three on the sanctuary wall opposite the choir-gallery with four facing each other from the opposite walls of the nave. Each lunette has a standing saint with an angel on either side and with decorative foliage. All have a gold coloured background.
The saints depicted have a relevance to university life with maybe the exceptions of the patrons of Ireland, St Patrick and St Brigid, and the Dublin patron St Laurence O'Toole whose lunettes are in the sanctuary and St Peter and St Paul (the church's secondary patrons) on either side of the pulpit. The right hand side lunettes in the nave present St Dominic, St Anthony of Padua, St Philip Neri and Blessed John de Britto, a Jesuit martyred in India in 1693 and beatified in 1853. The left wall lunettes contain St Benedict, St Thomas Aquinas, St Fiachre, representing Ireland's missionary activity in Europe and beyond, and St Ignatius Loyola.
Above the three bands of marble are a gilt moulding and a series of large Raphael tapestry copies. Over the years these have become so darkened as to be almost indecipherable except in bright early morning or late evening light. Attempts at restoration in 1962, 1979 and 1991 failed and a further examination in 2004 by personnel from the National Gallery resulted in the decision to have them recopied. Thanks to a generous donation from the State, through the Office of an Taoiseach, Bertie Aherne TD this work is now taking place "…in recognition of the role of Newman in the founding of the Catholic University in 1854 and of the opening of the University Church in 1856. Although the University he founded has both changed in form and in location, the Church that he saw as the centre of a community of scholars remains today in the heart of the City of Dublin".
This work is being carried out under the supervision of the Offices of Public Works. Directed by Brian Maguire of the National College of Art and Design, the actual painting is currently (March 2006) taking place at the studios of the Istanbul-born artist Levent Tuncer (b 1952) in New York and it is hoped some of the finished work will be in situ by Ascension Day 2006, the 150th anniversary of the opening of University Church.
The original paintings, completed in Rome by the French artists M Sublet and M Souslacroix, although this is possibly Charles Soulacroix (Paris 1825- c1900), were copies of Raphael tapestries designed for the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and the Abbey Church of Tre Fontaine outside Rome. The paintings, depicting aspects of St Peter and St Paul, and separated by pictures of the other apostles, show the following incidents; - on the right hand wall - The Descent of the Holy Spirit; The Conversion of St Paul; St Paul Preaching at Athens; Christ's Threefold Command to St Peter; The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and The Death of Ananias. On the left hand wall can be seen The Stoning of St Stephen; St Paul at Lystra: The Blinding of Elymas and The Healing of the Lame Man at the Beautiful Gate.
A statue of the Sacred Heart also adorns the sanctuary on the right hand side, while the Lady Chapel on the left was added as a gift from Mr Justice William O'Brien (1832-1899) in 1875. Entrance to the chapel is by two steps under the choir-gallery. The Virgin is represented as Our Lady, being assumed into Heaven and supported by two winged angels on a cloud. The Lady Chapel also serves as the baptistery and has three stained glass windows depicting The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi and The Boy Christ among the Doctors in the Temple. The Lady Chapel also contains pictures of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, the Madonna and Child and St Anne with her child, Mary.
A bust of John Henry Newman, by Sir Thomas Farrell (1827-1902), has occupied a niche half way up the nave on the right hand side since 1892. Nearby, in the ante-church, is a medallion portrait in memory of Thomas Arnold (1830-1900) - professor of English and Literature at University College, and son of Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, and brother of the poet Matthew Arnold.
Beneath the choir-gallery is another recent (2004) addition, courtesy of Fr Pearse Walsh PP. This is an etched copper plate triptych by the Parisian-born Austrian-domiciled artist Michael Fuchs (b1952) depicting the Magnificat, Benedictus and Nunc dimittis.
The Church's Telford organ is located in a small gallery within the larger gallery over the ante-church. Access is from the atrium and the design of the organ gallery replicates that of the choir-gallery in the sanctuary. Entry to the sacristy, which is located behind the sanctuary, is by a series of steps under the choir-gallery and by the double-doors on the opposite side.