The Life and Times of a Cathedral: Foundation to Restoration: 1858-1996

By T.A. Hazell

The Diocese of Melbourne was created, as a suffragan see of the Archdiocese of Sydney, by Pope Pius IX on 26 June, 1847. Father James Alipius Goold, an Augustinian priest who was in charge of the District of Campbelltown, just out of Sydney, was appointed the first Bishop of the new diocese on 9 July, 1847. The sesquicentenary of these two events is being commemorated, also, in this centenary year of the consecration of St Patrick's Cathedral (1897). The first Bishop and, later, the first Metropolitan Archbishop of Melbourne was an Irishman from County Cork who had studied for the priesthood at Augustinian monasteries in Perugia and Viterbo, in the Papal States, and who knew the City of Rome. He was also a fluent Italian speaker and this was to stand him well in his dealings for the Church of Melbourne with the Roman curia.

James Goold was well educated, in accordance with the standards of his time, and had an appreciation of art and architecture. His rule of the Melbourne church for almost 40 years has been described as somewhat autocratic, but nothing else could really have been expected of a colonial bishop, at the far end of the earth, who was clearly setting out to establish something tangible and intangible, something which he knew would last until the end of time.

The consecration of James Alipius Goold as Bishop of Melbourne was delayed considerably, due to the difficulties of bringing together co-consecrators with the Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding, an English Benedictine monk who had ruled the Australian church since 1834. Eventually it took place in the old Pugin- designed St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. The symbols of office of the new Bishop, the mitre and pastoral staff bestowed on him by Archbishop Polding, are carefully preserved in the diocesan museum which bears the name of the first Bishop of Melbourne.

Soon after the consecration, Bishop Goold set out for his new diocese in an epic journey, overland, in his own carriage. He was the first person to undertake such a journey. He seemed to know he was making history and his diary records the exact time that he crossed the River Murray and entered the territory of his spiritual jurisdiction. Father Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan, the Franciscan friar who had been in charge of the church in Melbourne since 1839, met the new Bishop in Seymour with a cavalcade of some dozens of horsemen and more than fifty carriages. Meanwhile, the Catholics of Melbourne assembled at what is now the corner of Swanston and Franklin Streets. In mid-afternoon on 4 October, 1848, Bishop Goold arrived in his city and made an immediate impression on the crowd with his youthful and agile appearance and by the fact that he leapt from the carriage to greet them. They escorted him in procession to St Francis' Church, one of the most impressive buildings in the young settlement. By a happy co-incidence, it was also the Feast of St Francis.

On the Sunday after his arrival, James Alipius Goold was formally enthroned as Bishop of Melbourne in St Francis' Church and presented to the people by Father Geoghegan, as the first Bishop of Australia Felix. St Francis' Church then assumed the dignity of a cathedral, a position it was to hold for the next two decades. In true Roman style, the Bishop's Coat-of-Arms was placed, in stone, over the main entrance and painted in heraldic colours upon the ceiling of the sanctuary. Both of these relics of Francis' glory as the Cathedral Church of Melbourne are still to be seen today. But it was really a short-lived glory, for it must have soon become apparent to Bishop Goold that it would not be suitable, neither in size nor in splendour, for what he had in mind for his cathedral.

With the discovery of gold and the almost simultaneous granting of independence from New South Wales in 1851, the new State of Victoria rapidly assumed an importance unimaginable only a few years previously. It is fair enough to say that Goold's vision of the future was extraordinarily grand. Land had been granted by the Government for a church building and school on the present site of the Cathedral in East Melbourne. This was done, not without opposition but achieved with the intervention of Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe. There is a somewhat confused history of building attempts on the Eastern Hill site. More than likely, a temporary weatherboard structure would have been erected first. Then Samuel Jackson produced plans for a church which, in all probability, was not commenced. Next in order of succession, came plans from the firm of George and Schneider. Of these plans, a fragment of an aisle was built together with the first section of a tower and main entrance. It is not difficult to appreciate the frustration of the community at what was described as the annual knocking down and rebuilding of St Patrick's. To make matters worse, building was forced to come to a standstill with the departure for the gold diggings of almost every able-bodied man in the colony. Thus the situation remained through the interesting but troubled first eight years of the life of the new colony.

A heaven-sent opportunity presented itself in the latter half of 1858, with the arrival in Melbourne of a very distinguished architect and devout Catholic, William Wilkinson Wardell. He was thirty-five years old when he set foot in Melbourne and can really be said to have left England at the peak of a very successful career. A disciple of Augustus Welby Pugin, the most significant architect of the Gothic Revival movement, and a member of the intellectual and artistic circle around the Earl of Shrewsbury, Wardell had very impressive credentials. He brought with him many references from the hierarchy and laity of the British Isles and the plans for most of the many churches and other buildings erected to his designs in England over a period of some fifteen years of a flourishing architectural practice. Bishop Goold and his Vicar-General, Dr John Fitzpatrick, may well have known of Wardell's impending arrival, for they express no surprise when they learn that he is in Melbourne, but only record some impatience at his delay in getting in touch with them.

From here on events moved with extraordinary rapidity and, within a very short time, William Wardell produced plans for a magnificent Cathedral of immense proportions. It was, in fact, greater than anything attempted by English and Irish Catholics in their home countries and it is also the largest church to be built anywhere in the world, as a single entity, entirely within the 19th century. In the U.S.A., only the Cathedral of New York, it too dedicated to St Patrick and commenced at much the same time but brought to completion only in this century, comes close to rivalling it.

The construction of St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne was to occupy Wardell, by now also appointed inspector General of Public Works for the Government of Victoria, with the right of private practice, for the rest of his life. He was present at its consecration in 1897 and was working on plans for areas of the building not quite completed when he died two years later. In summing up his career, the writer of the obituary in the London Tablet compares him to Pugin and suggests that he excelled perhaps even more at adapting the architectural style of England's Catholic past to meeting the requirements of modern times. Perhaps more than in anything else, this is where Wardell's genius is most apparent. The Melbourne Cathedral, whilst fulfilling all the requirements of medieval church architecture, as interpreted by the masters of the Gothic Revival, presents a timeless quality, such as befits a building intended for all time.

The fact that Wardell produced the plans for St Patrick's Cathedral almost immediately is all the more remarkable when it is considered that he seems to have been his own draughtsman. There would have been no doubt that it would be a building in the "Gothic" or "Christian" style of architecture, but the scale of the project must have occasioned comment and concern in the small and poor community for which it was intended. The only requirement imposed upon the architect was that it should incorporate as much as possible of the existing George and Schneider church building.

No ceremony seems to have marked the beginning of building operations late in 1858 - perhaps the Bishop did not relish attention being drawn to a site where at least two attempts to erect a church building had already been made. Be that as it may, work proceeded rapidly and the community soon supported the great project. It should be remembered that the total Catholic population of Victoria at the time numbered just over 77,000 persons, or about one quarter of the population of the State as a whole.

St Patrick's Cathedral is planned as closely as possible upon a traditional east-west axis, that is, with the altar at the eastern end symbolising belief in the resurrection of Christ. Like nearly all great cathedrals, the plan is cruciform, in the style of a Latin cross, consisting of a nave with side aisles, transepts with the fairly unusual arrangement of side aisles, a sanctuary with seven chapels arranged in a chevet around it, and sacristies. A cloister was intended to link the Cathedral to a palace for the Bishop, to be erected along the Albert Street frontage and incorporating existing buildings on the site. Ground plans survive for this complex which would doubtless have been erected in the Gothic style of architecture.

The main dimensions of the Cathedral are: total length, 340' (103.6m): total length across transepts, 185' (56.38m); width across nave and aisles and across transept and aisles, 83' (25.29m). Internally, the length of the original sanctuary is 68' (20.72m) and there are four chapels each 22' x 17' (6.7m x 5.18m) and two each 27' x 22' (8.23m x 6.7m). The height of the nave and transepts is 95' (28.95m). The exterior was meant to be crowned with a central tower and spire rising to 260' (79.25m) and the flanking towers and spires of the front of the building were intended to be 203' (61.87m) each. The heights of all three spires and of the central tower were considerably increased in the 1930s when the time was opportune to complete the building.

It was the architect's intention that the Cathedral should be erected in two stages: the nave and its aisles as soon as possible, with work then proceeding on the realisation of the remainder of the building. Consequently, and in keeping with medieval tradition, there is a change in style between the two clearly defined construction projects. The nave is in the architectural style known as "Early English", whilst the rest of the building is in that known as "Geometric Decorated" of some two centuries later in the development of Gothic style architecture.

"Early English" style Gothic architecture is comparatively simple and has minimal ornamentation, so, although the construction of the nave was a mighty undertaking for a small community, it was not as costly as it might have been, had the "Geometric Decorated" style been used all the way through the project. In keeping with medieval tradition, the stone used is local thus associating the building with the earth from which it rises. As well and also in keeping with tradition, the Cathedral sits almost on the ground, further emphasising the relationship with the surroundings. The original West Door was very simple indeed. it was, in fact, a double doorway, symbolic of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine. Wardell's intention with the symbolism expressed in the West Door was not entirely appreciated: eventually, it was changed to a single door: later still, there is evidence that he was considering a further enlargement. In the alterations of the late 1930s, it was rebuilt in the present form which would almost certainly have not met with Wardell's approval.

The nave was completed within ten years, in itself a most remarkable building achievement. Wardell's collaborator in the project was Dr John Fitzpatrick, Vicar-General of the Diocese and Dean of the Cathedral, who was also responsible for raising the funds. A man of true piety and scholarship, he had a deep appreciation of Gothic style architecture. It might well be said that he supervised the placement of almost every stone of the structure. Of equal importance was John Denny, a builder who had worked for Pugin at Alton Towers and who had erected the most magnificent of the Pugin churches, St Giles at Cheadle. Denny was indispensable in the Wardell plan, as he acted as the supervising architect for the Cathedral and for other churches being erected in the Diocese.

During the decade of the 1860s, parish life began at St Patrick's and societies and sodalities, so much a feature of 19th century religious life, were founded. It is not clear when Bishop Goold moved his Cathedral seat to St Patrick's as many important occasions continued to be celebrated at St Francis' which maintained an episcopal throne well into this century. Meanwhile, the building programme continued on the second stage of St Patrick's. Occasionally, it almost ground to a halt, so grim was the financial situation. But always in the background were Dean Fitzpatrick with his constant exhortation: "it is God's work, it cannot be stopped" and William Wardell with his insistence on perfection in what was to be "a building for all time, for generations yet unborn". Through the whole period, there runs the passionate belief of the Victorian era and the anxiety to get things done as quickly as possible. Soon too, the so-called "Marvellous Melbourne" began to be fascinated by the great structure rising on the Eastern Hill. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole community saw it as an admirable civic project.

From time to time, great ceremonies marked the completion of sections of the building. Most of the columns were erected by individual communities and this generosity was marked by the blessing of the capitals. The western window depicting the glory of the Ascension into Heaven was erected as a memorial to Father Geoghegan, whose features, in true medieval tradition, were shown as those of St John.

The central tower was completed, up to its first stage, as a memorial to Bishop Goold's escaping an assassination attempt in Brighton. Finally, the body of James Alipius Goold was laid to rest in the uncompleted chapel of the Holy Souls. He did not live to see his cathedral completed, but enough had been done to indicate what it would be like. Within a few years, he was joined in death by his Vicar-General and friend, Dean John Fitzpatrick who, likewise, was denied the opportunity of seeing the completed St Patrick's Cathedral.

The new Archbishop, for Melbourne had been elevated into an archiepiscopal see in 1874, was Thomas Joseph Carr, the Bishop of Galway, who was dismayed at his appointment and accepted only through filial obedience to the Holy See. He was a quiet, dignified and scholarly man, a refined gentleman who was liked by all. His first years in office saw the completion of the Cathedral and he took a deep interest in all aspects of its construction and decoration. Just ten years after Dr Carr's arrival, the building was free of debt and therefore ready for consecration. This great event and ceremonies associated with it took place in October 1897 in the presence of enormous crowds from all over Australia. Wardell saw the completion of his cathedral. He died two years later, still working on design matters for uncompleted parts of the building.

Archbishop Carr took his duties as parish priest very seriously and was a constant presence in the Cathedral. Unlike his predecessor and his successors, he saw no need to live away from St Patrick's, so his involvement with the building was very close. In the twenty years after the consecration of 1897, the Cathedral's interior decoration was completed, basically according to Wardell's intentions, but it is doubtful if he would have been entirely satisfied with the stencil patterned walls of the sanctuary and chapels, done to the designs of William Tappin. There was no attempt made to provide stained glass, other than in all the chapels and the sanctuary. This might well have been a conscious decision, for one of the real beauties of St Patrick's is the quality of light obtained through the use of specially imported amber or cathedral glass.

Daniel Mannix succeeded as Archbishop of Melbourne in May, 1917. One of his first acts was to remove late Victorian and Edwardian era monuments which had been installed during Dr Carr's period. It was he who also had the interior painted in a grey colour, eliminating the typical Wardell buff- pink coloured interior. But Archbishop Mannix's greatest contribution was the completion of St Patrick's by the addition of the spires and other elements in the late 1930s. The Archbishop maintained a constant interest in the Cathedral which he visited on an almost daily basis. It was he who brought about musical reforms and who insisted on a worthy celebration of the elaborate ceremonies of the pre-Vatican II church.

The liturgical reforms instituted by the Vatican Council encouraged a greater participation in the liturgy on the part of the laity. Major alterations were made to church buildings to accommodate new ways of thinking. St Patrick's was altered to accommodate these changes. Some furnishings and fittings were removed and a new carpeted timber platform was constructed in the crossing as an extension of the existing sanctuary. Now, more than twenty years later, this extension has been made permanent. To celebrate its Centenary, the Cathedral has been restored and conserved through the generosity of Governments, major donors and the people of Melbourne. As this century draws to a close, the great Cathedral dedicated to St Patrick maintains its traditional role as the principal church of the archdiocese and the centre of Catholic life. We enter not only a new century but also a new millennium, when the Cathedral will continue to serve the faithful and endure as a reminder of God's presence in our city.


Tom Hazell was born in the Cathedral parish and has known St Patrick's all his life. His affection for the Cathedral dates back to his time as an altar server and family friendship with those who had been associated with the building, since the last century. He developed a particular interest in Gothic Revival architecture, church liturgy, and the work of William Wardell and has written on these matters.