When the second archbishop of Melbourne, Thomas Joseph Carr, died on 6 May 1917, he was laid to rest beneath the floor of Sacred Heart Chapel in St Patrick’s Cathedral. At the time, there was no crypt for his body to go to, but this final resting place was fitting for other reasons.

Not only had Archbishop Carr overseen the completion of St Patrick’s Cathedral, but the completion of the Sacred Heart Chapel was one of the final phases, and much of its décor was donated or paid for by Carr himself. The stained-glass windows were paid for exclusively from Carr’s own pocket.

The Sacred Heart Chapel is one of seven chapels surrounding the sanctuary, forming the semi-circular ‘apse’ at the eastern end of the cathedral. That St Patrick’s has an apse is surprising, since it was modelled primarily on English Gothic cathedrals, and they tended to be built with a square end. By including an apse, the architect of the cathedral, William Wardell, created a unique blend of the English and French Gothic traditions.

Thomas Joseph Carr
Archbishop Thomas Joseph Carr (1839–1917).

In 1874, a statue of the Sacred Heart arrived from Germany, and since devotion to the Sacred Heart was spreading rapidly, Melbourne’s first bishop, James Alipius Goold, thought it appropriate to give it a prominent position in the cathedral. In fact, a year later, Goold would consecrate the Diocese to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The relationship between Goold and William Wardell was friendly, though Goold had a habit of ruffling Wardell’s feathers by interfering with his projected designs, and Wardell was very particular about what he wanted. The construction of the Sacred Heart Chapel was one of those interferences.

Originally, the space now occupied by the chapel had been dedicated to the organ and choir gallery. In order to make room for the chapel, a new organ gallery was constructed, much to Wardell’s displeasure (in one letter he describes the new gallery as ‘an architectural eyesore’).

Nevertheless, thanks to the work of Archbishop Carr, the Sacred Heart Chapel was completed, making a stunning addition to the cathedral.

The altar is made of alabaster, as many altars have been through the centuries. The choice of this material perhaps has something to do with the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, when ‘a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and poured it on his head while he was at table’ (Matthew 26:7).

This alabaster jar was used to pour out an expensive and sacrificial offering; maybe the alabaster altar is meant to remind us of the costly offering Jesus made on the cross when he poured out his own life for us—an offering we receive anew at each Mass.

Above the altar and the tabernacle is the German statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Looked at as a whole, the statue of Jesus looks as though he is pointing down towards the tabernacle while tapping his heart, as if to say, ‘There is my Sacred Heart.’

In fact, in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, celebrating the centenary of its institution as a universal feast, Pope Pius XII explicitly said that ‘the divine Eucharist … and likewise the priesthood, are indeed gifts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ (§71).

The statue is in the centre of the reredos, surrounded by relief carvings of the Nativity and the Last Supper. Below are carvings of the Crowning with Thorns and the Agony in the Garden.

Below those is a carved inscription ‘Cor Jesus, Thronus Misericordiae’ (‘Heart of Jesus, Throne of Mercy’).

2023 St Patricks Cathedral 1 Sacred Heart Chapel min
The German statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, surrounded by reredos.
2023 St Patricks Cathedral 1 Sacred Heart Chapel min
The Sacred Heart Chapel during Eucharistic Adoration.

An ornate credence table is placed along the right wall of the chapel and matches the altar. The archway above the chapel bears the inscription: ‘Discite a Me quia mitis sum et humilis corde’ (‘Learn of Me because I am meek and humble of heart’). An inscription on the side arches reads: ‘Venite ad Me omnes qui laboratis et onerati estis’ (‘Come to Me all ye who labour and are burdened’).

Finally, on the wall of the chapel, to the right, a plaque was erected in 1920 to the memory of Archbishop Carr, designed by a man from South Yarra named Mr Arendsen. Made from Italian marble, it is heavily plated with gold and brass. The thistles on either side are meant to signify the sacrifices of the Christian life. Surrounding Carr’s coat of arms are the figures of St Joseph and St Thomas, and the four supporting columns represent the four gospels that support the Church.

The Sacred Heart Chapel is a beautiful space for prayer. Rich in design, it aims to tell the story of God’s burning love for humanity as revealed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Everybody is welcome to come and pray there, and to let the chapel draw them closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

The story of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Originating in the 1670s, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus arose when a Visitation nun in France, Margaret Mary Alacoque, reported visions of Jesus. In these visions, Sr Margaret Mary experienced the intense love Jesus possesses for humanity and was asked to spread devotion to his heart, enflamed with love and crowned with thorns.

In one of the visions, Jesus said, ‘My Sacred Heart is so intense in its love for men, and for you in particular, that not being able to contain within it the flames of its ardent charity, they must be transmitted through all means.’

The devotion spread quickly, and in 1765 the Church in France was granted its own feast.

According to the visions, there are also 12 promises of Jesus for those who venerate and promote the Sacred Heart:

  1. Jesus will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.
  2. He will give peace in their families.
  3. He will console them in all their troubles.
  4. He will be their refuge in life and especially in death.
  5. He will abundantly bless all their undertakings.
  6. Sinners shall find in his Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
  7. Tepid souls shall become fervent.
  8. Fervent souls shall rise speedily to great perfection.
  9. He will bless those places wherein the image of his Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.
  10. He will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.
  11. Persons who propagate this devotion shall have their names eternally written in his Heart.
  12. In the excess of the mercy of his Heart, he promises that his all-powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the first Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance.