While Bishop James Goold was in Europe in 1858 on the second ad limina visit of his episcopate, William Wardell settled in Melbourne. Originally from London, Wardell had trained as an architect and converted to Catholicism, working for the Catholic Church in England for more than a decade. Almost all of his churches had been designed in a Gothic Revival style, so faithful to Pugin’s principles that architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock judged him ‘the ablest of Roman Catholic architects working in the tradition of Pugin’.

Vicar Fitzpatrick was indeed happy to meet him and reported his impressions in several letters to Goold from September to November 1858: ‘Mr Wardell appears to be just the man we want’, he wrote, observing that ‘he appears to be a good Catholic’ and that he seemed to be ‘competent to carry on any building that may be required in Melbourne’. Goold also heard satisfactory reports from English clergymen who had worked with Wardell previously. ‘I have been speaking to several persons of Mr Wardell and they are all loud in his praise’, he wrote to Fitzpatrick in November, ‘by all means engage him.’

The building of a grand cathedral, matching in size the Gothic examples dating back to the Middle Ages, was the dream of every Gothic revivalist, and Wardell could realise it in Melbourne. He started to assiduously visit the site on Eastern Hill to measure and sketch, and a few weeks later, his grand design was ready to be forwarded to Rome for the bishop’s approval.

In the wake of the gold rushes, Melbourne had seen the creation of imposing and refined public buildings such as the Public Library, the University of Melbourne, Parliament House and the Treasury Building, all worthy of a major city. The city’s development had been incredible, and the Catholic population had grown with it. Their dream of having a grand cathedral closely recalling ancient Catholic tradition in its full medieval splendour was finally close at hand.

The building of a grand cathedral was the dream of every Gothic revivalist, and Wardell could realise it in Melbourne.

Wardell was given freedom in designing a new St Patrick’s; the only condition imposed upon his design—and noted on the ground plan drawing of the cathedral, signed by Wardell—was that is was to incorporate as much as possible of the previous building to avoid unnecessary expenses. The scale of Wardell’s building dwarfed the previous church, though: the already opened southern aisle was included in the new church, while all the other sections of the buildings were demolished.

Several criticised Goold’s ruthlessness in adopting a new design for St Patrick’s, but he also received encouragements, including from his episcopal neighbour Robert Willson, the Bishop of Hobart, who had been a friend of Pugin in England, and who wrote to Goold on 12 February 1859 that ‘the good sense of many will overcome much noisy opposition. The noise may be for a few months, the improvements for centuries.’

Works on Wardell’s St Patrick’s started promptly in December 1858 and continued without significant delays for more than 40 years. Under Fitzpatrick’s careful management, the building was cleared of debts in 1863. The nave was completed in 1868 and temporarily sealed off to be used for liturgies while works on the transepts and sanctuary continued.

The cathedral was consistently enriched with items from the best workshops of Australia and the world, including a soapstone baptismal font created by Mr William Lambert in Portland, a cathedra realised by local master carver George Bell, a peal of bells from Murphy in Dublin, mosaics from Salviati in Venice, stained glass windows from Hardman’s in Birmingham and from Mayer’s in Munich, a marble crucifix from Achtermann’s studio in Rome, and altars from Farmer & Brindley’s in London.

Goold single-mindedly pursued the highest standards of Gothic architecture in the Puginian tradition, and Wardell was the right man at the right time.

The building quickly became a prominent landmark in Melbourne’s nineteenth-century cityscape, and as it neared completion, people of different confessions expressed their wish to see the cathedral completed. On 22 June 1880, The Argus predicted that the new cathedral, designed ‘by one of the best ecclesiastical architects in the colonies’, would remain for all time a conspicuous monument of religious zeal and generosity. We say ‘for all time’ because it is built so as to last for ages. Nothing has been sacrificed to haste or an injudicious economy … Every detail throughout the building, from the encaustic tiles in the pavement to the lead on the roof ridge, displays good designing skill and first-class workmanship applied to the very best materials. It is not too much to say that St Patrick’s Cathedral is the most substantial and honestly put up building in Melbourne, besides being by far the grandest church in the colony.


Bishop Goold started his episcopacy with two churches and three clergymen. Under his guidance, the Diocese of Melbourne was elevated to an archdiocese in 1874. It came to include more than 70 stone churches, so many that one of his clergymen, Fr Fitzgerald, said in December 1885 that Goold had ‘blessed more foundations and cornerstones than, perhaps, any prelate since the days of Saint Patrick’.[1]

Goold single-mindedly pursued the highest standards of Gothic architecture in the Puginian tradition, and Wardell was the right man at the right time. Together they were able to fulfil their grand Gothic dream. For forty years, the rising cathedral building attracted support from people of different denominations, becoming a symbol of pride for the young colony. The Gothic lines of St Patrick’s embodied an ancient religious tradition, and seeing it towering above ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was the realisation of a dream for all Australian Catholics: their faith was claiming a central place in Australian society.

This is the second of the two-part ‘Building dreams’ series.

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: ‘St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Eastern Hill’, in The Australasian Sketcher, 8 July 1876. It shows the sanctuary under construction, while the nave was used for regular liturgies with the temporary wall enclosing the east end.