Among Melbourne’s landmarks, St Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the most familiar and beloved. To many of us, it always seems to have been there. Perched on Eastern Hill, imposing but serene in its garden surrounds, it looks out over the machinations and bustle of Spring and Collins streets below, inviting the city’s inhabitants to look beyond the distractions of their daily lives.

This week the Cathedral marks the 125th anniversary of its consecration in 1897—a high point in the life of the Church in Melbourne. After half a century of struggle and sacrifice, Melbourne’s Catholics had a Gothic cathedral as grand as any outside Europe. It was a moment for satisfaction, when a sometimes derided community claimed an honoured place in the city’s life. St Pat’s is a story of bold vision, disheartening setbacks, passionate convictions, and remarkable self-sacrifice and resilience.

The story began in 1848, when Melbourne’s first Catholic priest, Fr Bonaventure Geoghagen, purchased 2 acres on Eastern Hill for £300, with the idea of building a new church on what was then the outskirts of the burgeoning city. Four ‘immense gum trees’ grew on the land situated between St Peter’s Church of England and the ‘government paddock’ that would eventually become the Fitzroy Gardens.

Geoghagen envisioned a sacred place on the city’s edge, but of course the city already encompassed sacred places, unseen and unacknowledged by the settlers. The land on which St Patrick’s now stands was occupied and cared for by the Wurundjeri people for more than 40 millennia—a timespan utterly dwarfing the 125 years that the Cathedral will celebrate this week, but hardly guessed at by those who divided up the ancient landscape into Crown grants of land.

Like most of Melbourne’s Catholics, Geoghagen was Irish. Many had been driven from their homeland by poverty and famine. Some were drawn by the lure of gold but in the aftermath of the rush drifted back to Melbourne, where they settled in inner-city enclaves, finding employment as labourers, domestic servants and shopkeepers, or filling the ranks of the uniformed working class as policemen, postmen and railway workers.

St Pat’s was their cathedral, a house of God for people whose own houses were often poor, built from the thousands of small contributions of people who often struggled to put food on their tables.

But it was not theirs alone. From the 1850s, middle-class Irish-born professionals—principally doctors, lawyers and engineers—were making their mark in the city, along with Scottish and English Catholics.

Among them was architect and engineer William Wardell. Wardell was an English Catholic convert and exponent of the Gothic Revival style. He would go on to design not only St Patrick’s Cathedral but many of Melbourne’s grandest public buildings, as well as St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. But St Patrick’s was not his vision alone.

In 1848, Melbourne’s first Catholic bishop, the Very Rev. James Alpius Goold, arrived in the newly established diocese at a time or rising sectarian tensions. Sincere and single-minded, Goold became a vocal defender of the Catholic cause. Piqued by Anglican claims of precedence at government functions, he boycotted the official Queen’s birthday celebrations in 1859, and in the 1870s waged a campaign against the ‘scheme of godless compulsory education’ created by the withdrawal of government financial support for denominational schools.

In 1850, not long after his arrival, Goold laid the foundation stone for a modest parish church at Eastern Hill, but as the gold rushes brought ever more people and ever more wealth to the city, Melbourne rapidly transformed from a frontier town into a booming, fashionable metropolis. To accommodate this growth, Goold announced in 1858 that much of the almost completed St Patrick’s church would be pulled down to create a much larger and more ambitious cathedral, based on Wardell’s design.

To fund such an enormous project, Goold launched a fundraising effort that would span decades and rely as much on the good will and self-sacrifice of ordinary Catholics as on the generosity of wealthy donors. Today, an observant visitor to the Cathedral might notice one of its most moving features: a series of brass plaques honouring the selfless contributions of various clergy and religious, regional townspeople and Catholic workers’ associations.

Dying in 1886, Goold did not live to oversee the Cathedral’s completion. That task fell to his successor, Archbishop Thomas Carr. Urbane, scholarly and moderate in tone and temperament, Carr’s style contrasted with the more pugnacious, missionary-pioneer approach of his predecessor. While firm in his convictions and a gifted Catholic apologist, Carr remained on friendly terms with those whose views he opposed, winning the admiration and trust of Melbourne’s citizens, regardless of creed or background. Conciliatory in his dealings with the Australian hierarchy, he focused on social integration, and on consolidating and elevating the position of the Catholic Church. Even with the challenges and hardships brought about by the financial crash of the early 1890s, his episcopate was marked by growth and stability, and a genuine, practical compassion for the poor.

St Patrick’s Cathedral was finally consecrated almost fifty years after construction had begun on the site. It would take another thirty-one years for its famous spires to be completed. For those early congregations, the three unfinished towers were perhaps a poignant reminder of a Church still on its way to true ‘completion’ in Christ.

The consecration celebrations in 1897 continued for days, with a series of Masses featuring elaborate liturgies and stirring sermons from prominent Catholic clergy, reflecting a Catholic Church more confidently taking its place in the life of the city. As thousands flowed into the Cathedral to marvel at its scale and beauty, 120 police were assigned to manage the traffic. According to an account in Melbourne’s Australasian newspaper, ‘a liberal sprinkling of members of many other denominations’ were among those who gathered for the Sunday Mass. Past tensions and the turbulence of Melbourne’s early years were put aside as the people of Melbourne came together under the vaulted ceilings of the ‘new’ cathedral and looked up.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli warmly invites you to join him for Mass to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the consecration of St Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday 27 October at 1pm.

This is a beautiful opportunity to come together in the house of the Lord—built by the faithful and generous people from every part of our Archdiocese, and home for all. Mass will be followed by the launch of the Catholic Precinct Walking Tour app, an initiative of the Mary Glowrey Museum.

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