There is an historical treasure housed within the grounds and across the road from St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne. And it is Rachel Naughton, Archivist and Museum Manager of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission who has been ‘at the service’ of these treasures and records – both historical and administrative – for the past 25 years. We celebrate and give thanks for Rachel’s contribution during this time and for her years of meticulous care and dedication to some of the world’s finest artefacts, all of which help tell the story of the Catholic Church in Victoria.
For 25 years, Rachel Naughton has been ‘at the service’ of the vast collection of administrative and historical records and artefacts that help tell the story of the Catholic Church ‘at work’ in Victoria. The administrative records, which are ‘used in the normal business of the day’ and can assist in providing an accurate and detailed picture of the Church in action, are kept within two large rooms of the Cardinal Knox Centre in Albert Street. Rows and rows of shelves are filled with boxes that contain documents, maps, administrative files, and a large collection of photographs that are often featured in books and displays.
Across the road, in the Goold Museum, which is spread across several stories in two adjoining terrace houses, the collection of historical artefacts includes liturgical objects, vestments, furniture, artworks, statues and personal memorabilia. ‘Most people are interested in the historical pieces in the museum, which is a conglomeration of all the different stories that generally tell a story of the Church in Victoria and the Church at work,’ said Rachel.
It can be difficult to fully comprehend and understand the depth and richness of what is housed within the Museum and archives, but the items in the historical collection are things of great beauty and importance. We’re the servants who look after it and document it – it’s so important to do that.’
On any day, you could find Rachel answering general phone enquiries from the public, or from PhD students or researchers, interested in any number of records and information about the Church in Melbourne, or perhaps a parish secretary is wanting help to organise and scan their sacramental records. Rachel assists wherever she can, applying the skills she gained from having years of experience in records management from previous employment, as well as having completed a Masters in Information Management at Monash University.
‘They’re always after something very tricky by the time they get to us,’ she said. ‘It’s usually some sort of document to do with who donated this land to the parish back in 1906 or sourcing a photograph to be featured in a book. It’s very time-consuming work.’
Rachel says ‘we have a symbiotic relationship especially with our professional researchers, people doing PhDs and people writing books and articles’. ‘The researchers are very important as they really dig down through our collection and find all sorts of things. It’s very important they get access to the correct facts and information. They also help us to learn more about our own collection, and we need them to tell the story of the church.’ Rachel also helps in sharing the story of the church through the publication of Footprints,
an historical journal that is published twice a year.
Over several years, Rachel played a particularly important role in assisting the authors of two historical volumes that honour the life and cultural contribution of Archbishop James Goold (1812-1886) who arrived in 1848 as the first Catholic bishop of the newly created diocese of Melbourne. Volume One, published in 2019 by authors Prof. Jaynie Anderson, Rev. Dr Max Vodola and Shane Carmody is called The Invention of Melbourne: A Baroque Archbishop and a Gothic Architect. The second book, The Architect of Devotion is soon to be launched and has been dedicated to Rachel in acknowledgement of her ‘great work of conserving the Goold material’.
‘Goold put together the biggest Church art collection in Australia,’ said Rachel, ‘He exported 230 artworks out of Italy and they’re all big!’ ‘I find that in the museum, you have to have some of those big paintings on display, because particularly for visiting school students, when they come in, they’re interested in all the smaller items, but it’s the great big paintings that make them go, “Wow!” And of course, that’s why Goold bought them. It was a wow experience for people to go into a church and be elated by this wonderful artwork. So, it’s very important to have them. There’s nothing like a beautiful or large painting.’
Walking through the museum, Rachel shared the historical information with ease and passion. She explained that she’s ‘particularly fond of’ the first Mass box, a small wooden chest with handles on either side and a hinged lid and shared the story: ‘Jeremiah and Catherine Coffey arrived in Victoria (via Tasmania) from Ireland with their family in 1838. At the time there was no Catholic priest, so in the meantime, Catherine taught catechism to her children herself to ensure the faith remained alive.
‘When Fr Patrick Geoghegan arrived in 1839 – he’s regarded as the first priest to have arrived in Victoria – the first Mass was held in an open-roofed warehouse on the corner of Little Collins and Elizabeth Street. He used Mrs. Coffee’s little travelling box on a table and covered it with the white linen cloth. That was the altar for the first Mass. I’m sure he did that to honor Mrs Coffee because of what she’d been doing. That’s the little box in the museum.’
Rachel is also particularly fond of the vestments that Fr Geoghegan brought with him to Melbourne. Rachel explained, ‘He brought his own vestments probably because he didn't know what would be available here and they were obviously made by the women that he knew because they’re hand sewn and made of different sorts of fabrics – they used whatever they had.
‘They were originally bright red, but because they’d been on display for so long, they’ve faded to nearly white, but we now have them safely put away. Those first Mass vestments are treasures, and we have the whole outfit – the chasuble, the stole, the maniple, the little chalice veil and the burse. It just amazes me at what survives, really.’
The museum also contains the largest collection of Church textiles in Australia. Rachel said, ‘We have people coming from all over the place who are interested in liturgical textiles’, including an assistant to a former Governor of California. ‘He arrived impeccably dressed in a silvery suit, I sat him down in the kitchen and made him a cup of tea and rather than provide him the full collection of photographed textiles and vestments, I decided it was easier to show him where all the cabinets that contained the textiles were. And we could hear drawers opening and closing for about two hours. Eventually he had a break and he said, “This is the most amazing collection”. And it is.’
The vestments have come from all over the world including Japan, China, England, Australia, Italy, and other parts of Europe. ‘When you look at the vestments, particularly the chasubles and stoles,’ said Rachel, ‘the embroidery is unbelievable, and the patterns and details are so different.’
Reflecting on the artefacts in the museum, Rachel is grateful to those who came before her in the role who were passionate about recording and archiving the historical treasures.
Over the years, the many artefacts in the museum have come from a range of sources. Things that have been either been gifted to the Archdiocese or the Archbishops themselves or others have collected items recognising that “This is precious. We need to keep this”.’
‘At a time when the various parishes were getting rid of things, luckily Fr John Keaney was taking whatever anybody was giving away. In the 90s, again, we had a priest here, Fr John Rogan, who was very interested in the textiles, so he was going out gathering vestments that people had. So now we have this big collection and they’re absolutely beautiful.’
Rachel acknowledged the generosity of religious orders, too, who have gifted the Museum with many items. ‘Most of the statues and three-dimensional things we have come from religious orders, and a few come from parishioners. It all tells the story of the archdiocese of Melbourne. It’s important to document and leave a record for the next generation.’
In reflecting on her 25 years, Rachel is grateful for the opportunity to work in an environment that enhances her faith, as well as her own curiosity and love of research and history.
‘This job has been a gift from the beginning and it’s a gift that I can still be here now,’ she said. ‘I do love my job and that’s probably one of the reasons that I’ve been able to stay here for so long too! I’m grateful that they've been happy for me to stay here this long!’
Images by Fiona Basile for Melbourne Catholic
Both the archive and the Goold Museum can be accessed via 383 Albert Street, East Melbourne. It is best to contact Rachel on (03) 9926 5677 to arrange a visit. Click here to learn more about the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission (MDHC).