The Dean of Derry, Very Rev Raymond Stewart, has opened an exhibition at St Columb’s Cathedral and launched a new booklet, both of which commemorate the life and work of the renowned hymn-writer, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, and her husband, Bishop William Alexander – a former Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. Both husband and wife were accomplished poets and exemplary Christians.
Pride of place in the exhibition goes to two 7 x 5 foot individual portraits of the Alexanders, commissioned for the 25th anniversary of Bishop Alexander’s consecration and painted by the distinguished artist, Charles Napier Kennedy. The paintings, which the Dean said had suffered “the ravages of time”, were restored by Jim Mullin and Trevor Millar of Irish Art Restorers, thanks to financial assistance from Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland.
The booklet, which accompanies the exhibition, was written by historian Richard Doherty and illustrated by Tim Webster. Speaking at the launch, Mr Doherty said Cecil Frances Alexander had managed to do what very few Victorian women had done: she put a man completely in the shade. “That man,” Mr Doherty said, “was her husband who, with any other wife, would have been much, much better known because of his own gifts. This was a man who was offered Chair of Poetry at Oxford; a man whose reputation as a preacher was worldwide; and yet more people know about his wife than know about Archbishop Alexander, who rose to be the Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of All Ireland. So, Cecil Frances Alexander is someone we can be very proud of in this city.”
Mr Doherty said Mrs Alexander was what some people would call a muscular Christian, who rolled her sleeves up, went out and helped people - regardless of their creed. “She didn’t just give an air of piety,” he said, “she turned that into work every day of her life. And her husband actually said that was in spite of the fact that she was an old fashioned, ‘prayer book Christian’. So, she was a woman who believed deeply and who practised what she believed. We’re inclined to think, in this little part of the world, that we have been divided by religion. And yet somebody like Cecil Frances Alexander shows us that we’ve actually been neighbours and we’ve been friends and we’ve helped each other.”
Dean Stewart thanked Mr Doherty and Mr Webster for collaborating on the booklet, which he said had shown the importance of faith and works to the Alexanders. He said the couple lived out the Christian faith in practical ways among the most needy, irrespective of class or creed, in the parishes and communities in which they lived and ministered.
The Dean acknowledged the generosity of Heritage Lottery Fund NI in helping to restore the Kennedy paintings, the generous financial assistance provided by Derry and Strabane District Council – without whom the exhibition would not have been possible – and the support of the Walker Club of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, who paid for the restoration of a portrait of Rev George Walker – joint-Governor of Londonderry during the siege in 1689 – which is also on display in the Chapter House.
Paul Mullan, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland, said HLF was delighted to be associated with the restoration of the Kennedy paintings. “One of the pleasures of the job that I have – apart from being able to give money out to various groups – is seeing the results of the money, such as bringing these paintings back to life,” Mr Mullan said. “For us it was quite a modest grant. Our funding has been able to invest significant sums – up to £17m for example in HMS Caroline in Belfast, £5m into Hillsborough Castle, £3m into the Giant’s Causeway, really large significant projects – but I find that some of the projects that have given me the greatest pleasure are the small ones, the ones that seem to capture people’s imagination in really quite unique ways.
“Finding out a little about Mrs Alexander and her hymn-writing skills, that her songs and hymns – which have gone right around the world – originated in this place, that is the type of uncovering of heritage that is incredibly important. A cathedral like this can tell us so many different stories about so many different people and this is just one of those stories.”
The exhibition will run at St Columb’s Cathedral until the middle of October.