With its origins in the 13th century, St Mary’s Church has experienced much alteration to its fabric since that time. It is one of the earliest of the ecclesiastical buildings to be erected in Kilkenny and was built some time before 1205 (Hogan, 1884). A ‘large medieval parish church with a long chancel, an aisled nave and transepts with several side chapels, it was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and to SS Peter, James and Nicholas. By 1205, it was sufficiently well established for Hugh de Rous, bishop of Ossory (1202-1218), to convene an ecclesiastical court there’ (Bradley 2000a:97).
In 1739, the church was substantially rebuilt, incorporating elements of its 13th-century fabric. Much of its present fabric dates to that time (Bradley 2000b). In 1951, the parish celebrated the final service in the church, which was then deconsecrated and closed to worship six years later.
The graveyard, which is contemporary with the church, is now disused. It was referred to as a cemetery in 1337, a churchyard in 1788, and is described as a graveyard in all editions of the Ordnance Survey (Bradley 2000b). As a consequence of continued use, particularly by a number of old Kilkenny families during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the graveyard possesses a rare and significant collection of tombs, some of which are unusually and beautifully carved.
The church was in a neglected state when it was closed in the late 1950s, having lain vacant for almost 10 years. The Office of Public Works (OPW) was then approached to take on the ownership of the site as a national monument. At the time, the OPW argued that it could only do so if the roof was removed.
To secure the site and the building, a decision was made in the early 1960s to transform the church building into a parish hall. In 1963, works were undertaken which led to the creation of the hall, service areas and the Freemasons’ meeting rooms in a newly created upper floor. Refurbishment was greatly assisted by funds raised from the sale of the Freemasons’ existing premises and their decision to incorporate their meeting rooms into the building.