Sunday 4 March 2012
By Kathleen McCarthy
President of the Friends of St Patrick's Cathedral
The city of Melbourne is fortunate in being the site of possibly the best example of 19th century Gothic Revival architecture in Australia. St Patrick's Cathedral more than rivals Sydney's St Mary's and St Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, New York.
How did this magnificent, outstanding example of 19th Gothic Revival church building come to be erected here in the city of Melbourne, in a colony less than 50 years old? In fact, that settlement was only 23 years old when Archbishop Alipius Goold made the bold, visionary decision to commission newly arrived architect William Wilkinson Wardell to design this grand cathedral. Within 40 years, it was finished, all but for the spires (another story there), paid for and consecrated.
St Patrick's Cathedral can be viewed as a barometer of the socio-economic history of Melbourne and of Victoria at large. Begun in October 1858, in the wake of the Victorian gold rushes and consecrated in 1897, its construction mirrors the transformation of Melbourne from a provincial town to the thriving metropolis of 'Marvellous Melbourne'. It also mirrors the evolution of the Catholic Church in Victoria from a virtually mono-ethnic Irish community to the multicultural church of today.
Renowned historian, Professor Oliver MacDonagh, titled his opening lecture in the series celebrating the centenary of the consecration of St Patrick's Cathedral in 1997, The Sharing of the Green. He was referring to the enormous Irish immigration to Australia, and more especially to the colony of Victoria, that occurred in the 19th century. Between 1801 and 1900, more than 7 million people emigrated permanently from Ireland, and a large number made their homes in Australia. The British response to the Irish potato famine beginning in 1845 and continuing for over a decade, was to open a few soup kitchens. Then in 1846, Charles Trevelyan, permanent head of the Treasury, told the British Parliament:
The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes it more necessary ... Whatever may be done hereafter, these things should be stopped now, or you run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years.
In his last speech in the House of Commons a few weeks before he died in 1847, Daniel O'Connell pleaded:
A nation is starving ... Ireland is in your hands ... if you do not save her, she cannot save herself ... a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.
As we know the Irish did save themselves but not before an enormous loss of population from the famine and from emigration. For us in Melbourne, the wonder is that it was largely from the pennies and pounds of those Irish immigrants that this magnificent cathedral rose.
St Patrick's, the one cathedral for the whole of Victoria until the creation of the dioceses of Sandhurst and Ballarat in 1875, is attested by the inscriptions on the brass plates on the pillars in the cathedral nave. Indeed those plates give witness to the donations from the Catholics in 1861 of Richmond, Emerald Hill and Warrnambool, in 1862 of Bendigo, of the Catholic Irishmen of the Constabulary Force, and of Pleasant Creek (now Stawell), and in 1868 of Ararat. In December, 1862, a meeting of Catholic school teachers, held at St Francis', decided to erect a pillar, but as there is no pillar commemorating the teachers, it is likely that any money they collected went towards the chapel of the Irish saints, which acknowledges the Catholic Children of Victoria.
One pillar, erected in 1861, commemorates Sr Mary Austine (Collins), the first vocation to the Sisters of Mercy in Melbourne.
Sr Austine's father was a city merchant who died in 1861, and Mary was professed the following month; but she died at the age of 25 in July, 1864. Many other donors are commemorated on the brass plates on the pillars that border Our Lady's Chapel, while the truly major donors to the cathedral's centenary appeal of the 1990s are acknowledged on the west wall near the cathedral's entrance.
Still today, the Irish are there in the cathedral's name, St Patrick, their patron saint; in the stained glass windows of St Patrick, St Brigid and St Columba; in the chapel dedicated to the Irish saints; in the magnificent statues that grace the cathedral's grounds of the 'Liberator', Daniel O'Connell, and Archbishop Daniel Mannix; and in the Celtic cross that tops the cathedral's spire, a gift from the Government of Eire to the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
It was Archbishop Mannix who took the brave decision, despite the hardships of the Great Depression, to commemorate the centenary of the saying of the first Catholic Mass in Melbourne in 1838, by finishing the cathedral with the erection of its towers and spires, and in 1937 an appeal was launched. The central tower, which was to rise to 340 feet, a height beyond that planned by Wardell, was to be dedicated to Archbishop Thomas Carr, and the twin towers would be erected to the memory of the cathedral's first bishop and, after 1875, Archbishop, Alipius Goold.
In May, 1938, the Archbishop of Melbourne received this cablegram from Eamon de Valera, head of the Government of Eire:
Members of the Government and a few of your friends desire to donate a cross to surmount spire on the cathedral. May we have the pleasure?
Archbishop Mannix sent the following cablegram in reply:
Mr de Valera, Dublin.
Deeply touched by generous offer; accept with much gratitude.
And the Irish were once again remembered when the new marble sanctuary floor was laid in 1996 with the beautiful mosaic inlays of the four Evangelists from the illuminated designs in the Book of Kells.
Today the statues one encounters on a walk round the cathedral grounds commemorate not only Daniel O'Connell and Daniel Mannix, but Sts Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, the patron saints of Italy, recognising the enormous contribution to the Church in Australia of the Italian community; a bronze bust commemorates Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960), recognised by the Croatians in Australia as a saint and martyr; and a stone bust celebrates Malta's saint, George Preca, founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine.
A stone inlay in the cathedral's forecourt and an Aboriginal Message Stick inside the cathedral acknowledge the wrongs of the past done to the Indigenous people of this land, and highlights now the special place Aboriginal people occupy in the Church.
Our Melbourne cathedral is not only an architectural icon in the city of Melbourne, but is steeped in the history of this city and of its Catholic people. The Reverend Walter Ebsworth wrote in 1938 in the foreword to his history of the cathedral:
On ground which less than a century back was recovered from the Australian wilds, St Patrick's Cathedral stands today complete in every detail—a splendid monument to living faith ... It is proof—if proof be needed—that the vitality of the Church continues unimpaired and undiminished; that the Mystical Body of Christ is one and indivisible through the centuries; that the wonder of the Eucharist still inspires men with the same heroic virtues, the same artistic sense, as in other days called forth the glories of Canterbury, Amiens, Chartres, Antwerp, Cologne, Seville, Milan, Byzantium, and Rome.
(Rev. Walter A. Ebsworth, St Patrick's Cathedral Melbourne, Melbourne, Graphic Books, 1938)
Kathleen McCarthy is currently completing post graduate research for a M.Theol. in Art and Theology at CTC.
Photos: Top: Statue of ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell in the grounds of the cathedral. Bottom: Mosaic inlay on the sanctuary floor of the cathedral. Photos by Fiona Basile.