The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Extra Saturday - EL­IZ­A­BETH FORTES­CUE ARTS ED­I­TOR

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.

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