As James Goold was on his way to Melbourne to take his place as the first Roman Catholic bishop, architect Augustus Welby Pugin, the leading proponent of the Gothic Revival in England, wrote about his Gothic dream for the Antipodes on the pages of the Tablet:

Soon the solemn chancels and cross-crowned spires will arise, the last object which the mariner will behold on the shores of the Pacific till their venerable originals greet his glad view on England’s shores (2 September 1848, p. 563).

Little did he know that James Goold shared his vision and was carrying with him to Melbourne one of the architect’s drawings to build a large Gothic Revival church, St Patrick’s. Unfortunately, Goold’s first attempt at building a Gothic church in Melbourne was unsuccessful. But early failures meant that, some ten years later, he could approve the imposing plans created by William Wardell for a cathedral that rivalled in size the medieval buildings that inspired its design

Beginnings

James Goold arrived in Australia in 1838, and for almost ten years, he was stationed in the small township of Campbelltown. From there, he witnessed Archbishop Polding’s efforts to build Gothic churches in the vast Archdiocese of Sydney. At the time, the Gothic Revival style was accompanying British colonial expansion, especially as the Church of England saw in it a powerful tool to promote Anglicanism throughout the Empire.

But Gothic was also a favourite of Roman Catholics, as Pugin, a Catholic convert, had imbued the revival with moral associations deeply intertwining the style with Catholic faith and spirituality.

During his ad limina visitations to Europe in the 1840s, Polding had acquired several Gothic Revival architectural drawings from both Pugin and Charles Hansom, another Catholic revivalist architect, with the intention of promoting the realisation of new churches in Australia following closely English medieval tradition. According to Pugin, Gothic was the only truthful architecture, and its revival would not only foster a return to ancient Catholic spirituality and sacramentality but also help to reposition Catholic faith at the centre of everyday life.

Pugin, a Catholic convert, had imbued the Gothic Revival with moral associations deeply intertwining the style with Catholic faith and spirituality.

Goold had participated in the preparations for the erection of Berrima church to a Pugin design. After being appointed Bishop of Melbourne, he was invited by Polding to select an architectural drawing for his new diocese. In a letter to Goold on 22 June 1848, Polding recommended one of the plans designed by Charles Hansom, but Goold selected a plan by Pugin, the master of Gothic. In Melbourne, such a building was a novelty. According to Pugin’s theories, an attentive study of medieval Gothic buildings was necessary for the proper revival.

However, early ecclesiastical architecture in the Port Phillip district was still characterised by the Gothick style, an idiom developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including ‘romantic’ structures with picturesque elements. An example of Gothick is the first Catholic church of Melbourne, St Francis’, which was designed by one of Australia’s pioneer priests, John Joseph Therry, and built by architect Samuel Jackson between 1841 and 1845. When Goold arrived in Melbourne, St Francis’ was the only complete church of the diocese (St Mary’s of the Angels in Geelong was partially built).

As soon as the survey of Eastern Hill became available in 1849, the bishop selected a site in this most prominent position. It was considered the best ecclesiastical site in Melbourne, and an outbreak of sectarianism delayed the formalisation of the grant. Thanks to the intervention of Superintendent Charles La Trobe, the area was eventually assigned to the Catholic Church, and on 9 April 1850, Bishop Goold solemnly blessed the foundation stone of St Patrick’s at the conclusion of an impressive celebration attended by more than 2,000 Catholics.

It has long been assumed that Samuel Jackson designed this ‘first’ St Patrick’s, and indeed he had created a cruciform design probably inspired by St Francis’ Church, but this was set aside as Goold had brought a copy of Pugin’s architectural drawings from Sydney. Nonetheless, Jackson acted as superintending architect. He prepared working drawings and altered several details to his taste, creating a ‘conglomerate of Gothic styles’ Pugin wouldn’t have approved of. Still, with his dominant tower and its polygonal chancel, measuring about 49 by 21 metres, this ‘first’ St Patrick’s would have become the most ambitious church in the region.

A wooden structure was temporarily erected to serve the local congregation while the foundations were dug, for a sum exceeding £900. But his contract to raise the walls to the windowsills was never finalised as the Victorian gold rush shocked the economy in July 1851. Goold was in Europe, and his vicar, Fr Patrick Geoghegan, found it impossible to continue the work: most men left their workplace to try their fortune on the goldfields, and trade and construction sites were left at a standstill as it was difficult to find either building materials or reliable workers. Melbourne had become one of the most expensive cities in the world.

When Goold returned to Melbourne in 1853, he was unsatisfied. ‘Money has been most shamefully advanced to the contractor of St Patrick’s Church—Eastern Hill—during my absence. But little has been done for it,’ he wrote in his diary in March 1853. The bishop appointed a new vicar, Fr John Fitzpatrick, to manage the day-to-day building operations and commissioned a lithograph of the proposed church to raise money. Despite significant expenditure, the efforts to build St Patrick’s halted less than a year later, in March 1854, when the economy of Victoria registered a marked downturn, causing architect Jackson to go out of business.

A second attempt

Works on the church remained at a standstill for almost two years as precedence was given to the erection of St Patrick’s College nearby. But in the meantime, Goold contacted architects Charles and Joseph Hansom in England to review the project, since Pugin had died prematurely in 1852.

After the gold rushes, bluestone had become increasingly popular for construction as it was affordable, plentiful in the Melbourne area and very resilient—even if many judged it too dark and solid for proper architectural treatment. Samples were sent to England, together with the drawings of the foundations partially completed, and the Hansom brothers provided a new design that suited the new building material and matched the ground plan of the previous building.

After the gold rushes, bluestone had become increasingly popular for construction as it was affordable, plentiful in the Melbourne area and very resilient.

Once the drawings were received, local architects James George and Joseph Schneider were engaged to supervise the erection of the new church. While bluestone was used for the solid walls characterised by plain lines, a lighter-toned freestone was delicately sculpted for the refined window tracery and floriated pinnacles, creating an impressive chromatic contrast. The amount needed for the completion of the church was estimated between £8,000 and £10,000, and funds were raised through weekly collections and vehement appeals. In 1855, The Catholic Directory for the Diocese of Melbourne, entreated its readers:

St Patrick’s Temporary Chapel! Is this a reality of fact, or is it mere fiction? Is it possible, that amid our daily increasing Catholic population, a population so abundant and ample in pecuniary resources, there stands but one, poor, small, wooden Temporary Chapel, under the name of the Great Apostle of the Irish Nation.

Works on the ‘second’ St Patrick’s commenced in June 1856, and in two years, more than £15,000 was spent to complete the foundations, raise part of the nave walls and complete three bays of the southern aisle. In a letter to Goold on 10 November 1857, Fitzpatrick lamented that delays and disappointments marked the supervision of George & Schneider, who were simultaneously working on several projects, while the bishop had to borrow money to pay the contractors.

Figure 7 George and Schneider Church
George & Schneider’s ‘second’ St Patrick’s, with three bays enclosed (detail from a September 1858 panorama photograph of Eastern Hill).

On 25 January 1858, Goold recorded in his diary: ‘I looked over the works at St Patrick’s and examined that portion of the building that we expect soon to open’. The aisle was sealed off and completed with a temporary wooden altar and an episcopal seat; local artists Le Gould and Souter painted and gilded the interiors, while paintings from the bishop’s collection were hung on the walls. On 14 February, Goold sang Pontifical High Mass and blessed this first section of St Patrick’s.

The church was open for worship, but any hopes of seeing the building completed were crushed a few months later when George & Schneider failed to pay the contractors, leaving a debt of £900 that stopped the works. Fitzpatrick dismissed the architects while the clergymen of Melbourne struggled to repay the debts with the offerings of the working classes. With his financial management of the diocese being questioned by local critics, Goold left for his second ad limina visit to Europe, where the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome approved of the centralised system Goold had created to oversee every architectural project of the diocese. With their full support, he returned to his diocese, ready to see his dream realised.

This is the first of the two-part ‘Building dreams’ series. In part 2—‘Wardell’s vision’—we meet William Wardell, the English-born Catholic convert whose architectural vision and remarkable persistence will finally help make the dream of St Patrick’s Cathedral a reality.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the December 2022 and June 2023 edition of Footprints, the journal of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission. It has been reproduced with permission.

Banner image: Detail of AC Cook’s 1879 presentation drawing of Wardell’s originally planned concept for St Patrick’s Cathedral.