The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding, spoke with obvious optimism on this day 150 years ago, as he led the ceremony of laying the foundation stone for St Mary’s Cathedral.
Just three years earlier, the beautiful Catholic church on the same site in College St had been devoured by flames, casting its congregation into despair as embers lit up the night sky and were blown towards Woolloomooloo Bay.
But even before the embers were cold, Polding had been uplifted by the concern and support shown to the church, even by people of other religious denominations.
So, shortly after 10am on December 8, 1868, Polding and various bishops as well as lesser clergy were joined by “a very large concourse of spectators” for a special service in which the Cathedral choir featured and Reverend Padre Barsanti gave the sermon.
The Archbishop sprinkled the foundation stone with water and blessed it. Using a ceremonial trowel with a Latin inscription, he marked its corners with the sign of the cross.
“After the night of our misfortune, the bright day has dawned upon us,” Polding told the congregation.
“Men are already beginning to wonder what the fuss of anger and suspicious hate has all been about, and very obviously the outcrop of poisonous plants which threatened to mar our 30 years’ harvest of brotherly harmony and goodwill has begun to wither away.”
Polding was no doubt referring to the discrimination his church’s followers had suffered in Australia ever since the colony’s first Catholics landed with the First Fleet.
Polding added that he hoped to attend the Ecumenical Council in Rome the following year and tell them about Sydney’s new cathedral.
“I should dearly love to boast a little about you at Rome and to hear them say, ‘what a fortunate Archbishop that is!’” Polding said, as reported by the Illustrated Sydney News.
“(They will say) ‘He comes one year with a sad history of a cathedral destroyed and then almost the next he comes with the picture of a tenfold more magnificent one already built’ — for well begun, you know, my friends, is half done. May God bless you.” Sadly for Sydney’s Catholics, the way ahead was not without more disaster. The year after the laying of the foundation stone for St Mary’s, the temporary wooden “pro-Cathedral” that had been built on the site also burnt down, the fire engulfing almost all the few treasures that had been salvaged from the first fire in 1865. Polding’s anguish at this new setback was terrible. “I am completely bereaved, stript of all except two mitres and the stole the Pope gave me. I begin to consider myself a Jonah to be flung into the sea for the wellbeing of others,” Polding wrote to his fellow Benedictine, Henry Gregory. Perhaps Polding had heard rumours about the cause of the pro-Cathedral fire. As the Riverine Herald reported: “The origin of the fire is at present unknown, but on account of certain circumstances, there is a suspicion the fire is not altogether accidental.” All stumbling blocks aside, St Mary’s Cathedral was indeed built. Today the Gothic Revival-style cathedral is the mother cathedral for Catholics all over Australia. Archbishop Polding’s remains are interred inside the cathedral, along with those of other former archbishops.
The history of St Mary’s begins in 1820 when Governor Macquarie, on the petition of pioneering priest Father John Joseph Therry, gave land for the creation of a church. The land was close to the convict barracks and a barren brickworks. It might be a beautiful location now, but in 1820 it wasn’t up to much.
In 1821 Macquarie laid a foundation stone for the church and it was blessed by Father Therry before a large crowd.
The church was completed two years later.
In 1842, Polding was installed as first Archbishop of Sydney and St Mary’s Chapel was elevated to the status of a cathedral.
But on June 29, 1865, a night fire destroyed the cathedral, leaving only the Augustus Pugin-designed facade and bell tower, and part of the northeast transept.
One journalist reported that the flames sounded like crashing waves. Polding engaged a brilliant English architect called William Wardell to design the new cathedral. A former Anglican turned Catholic, Wardell had arrived in Australia from England in 1858. Polding told Wardell to design “any plan, any style, anything that is beautiful and grand. I leave all to you and your own inspiration”. In 1882, although the cathedral was unfinished, the first section was opened and consecrated. Stained glass windows made in Birmingham were installed in the late 1880s, and in 1900 the cathedral was officially opened by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran. When he consecrated St Mary’s five years later, Cardinal Moran described it as a gift from the poor, since they had donated most of the money to construct it. In 1928, just in time for James Scullin to become Australia’s first Catholic Prime Minister the following year, the cathedral was virtually complete. In 1970 Pope Paul VI became the first Pope to celebrate mass in St Mary’s, and in 1986 a new peal of bells was consecrated. St Mary’s finally received its two beautiful spires in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At noon today, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP will celebrate a special Mass to mark the sesquicentenary of the cathedral. A copy of this article will be among contents of a time capsule to be buried outside the cathedral after Mass.
St Mary’s Cathedral today, and (below right) Archbishop John Bede Polding.
The old St Mary’s cathedral burning to the ground in 1865.
The Cathedral in 1928.