When St Patrick’s Cathedral first opened its doors to the public on Sunday 31 October 1897, an estimated 10,000 people flooded through to see the beauty of it. Cab drivers had never been busier, and a force of 120 policemen on foot, accompanied by a squad of mounted constables, were present to manage the flow of traffic.
Although St Patrick’s had been officially consecrated on Wednesday 27 October, out of the view of the general public, the consecration and the cathedral’s opening were celebrated over the course of three days—a solemn liturgical triduum, something we associate mostly with Easter—beginning with the Sunday and carrying through into the feasts of All Saints and All Souls on 1 and 2 November.
It was a unifying day for the people of Melbourne, and not just Catholics. Newspapers like the Argus and The Age reported the event with warmth and even praise. Ticket-holders for the opening ranged across the spectrum of faith, all coming together in recognition of what a momentous occasion this was for the Catholic Church in Melbourne.
In the year following the consecration, a little book was put together recounting the events of those three days, using eye-witness accounts, newspaper reports, photographs and the sermons that were given. Through this little book, we have a fascinating glimpse of what took place.
At 11am, a three-hour Pontifical High Mass was celebrated, beginning with an impressive procession of bishops, priests, and representatives of religious orders from around the country. There was an equally long list of government dignitaries present. The ‘resounding' music was provided by a choir of 250 vocalists supported by an orchestra of 25 musicians, and because of the solemnity of the occasion, Beethoven in C Minor was chosen rather than Mozart
It was, to say the least, an extravagant liturgy, and few in the cathedral that day could have been described as indifferent to what they were witnessing. Regardless of their feelings about Catholicism, the congregation were reportedly moved by the beauty and sense of mystery. The stonework and sculptures, the paintings and stained-glass windows, the music and magnificence—everything proclaimed the glory of God.
The sermon was given by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, a long and eloquent reflection on St Patrick and his missionary ventures in Ireland.
Cardinal Moran called for people to continue St Patrick’s mission in their own time, to let the faith of their ancestors be planted anew in the soil of Australia. Since, demographically, the Catholic Church at that time was predominantly Irish, he placed particular emphasis on the trials of the Irish people. Despite their sufferings over the years, they had endured, the cardinal said, and one thing carried them through:
It was the realisation in the heart of hearts of Ireland’s sons of the great mystery of the Incarnation of our Blessed Lord.
This was the source of their love, their devotion and their missionary fervour: the belief that God truly had been made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
Looking to the future, he encouraged the people to let the cathedral be ‘the centre of [their] affections’, and to nurture in their families Christian faith and virtue. In a remarkable statement of hope, he anticipated a day when ‘Australia may become a land of Saints.’
This little booklet also gives us an insight into the significance of St Patrick’s for the Church in Melbourne.
First, the new cathedral was the product of one man’s vision and architectural skill. Throughout much of Christian history, cathedrals had been the result of hundreds of years of effort, with each new generation continuing the mission by adding their own distinctive contribution. By the 19th century, very few cathedrals could claim to have been the vision of just one man.
Second, the cathedral was the largely the fruit of fundraising by ordinary people. Other cathedrals in the past had been funded by the imposition of taxes, but St Patrick’s was a labour of love, the result of people’s generous self-giving. In this way, it was truly their own, a possession of the people. The booklet also shares some financial records, showing us that Bishop Goold himself donated almost every penny he had ‘after meeting other pressing claims of religion.’
Third, this was seen as a new beginning for the Church in Melbourne, a sign that a brighter future lay ahead. It symbolised the strength of faith among Melbourne’s Catholics and the Church’s capacity to weather the passage of time. Even a secular newspaper, the Argus, remarked that ‘the chief glory of the Catholic Church’ was that ‘while other creeds may rise and burst like bubbles on the sea of time’, Catholicism did not. The cathedral gave witness to this.
The celebration continued beyond that Sunday Mass, with Vespers in the evening and two more Pontifical High Masses on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. St Patrick’s continued to be packed out by the public, enjoying for the first time a significant part of their cultural legacy and giving thanks to God for such a momentous occasion.
All images and quotations are from The Consecration of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne (1897).
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.
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.
For all queries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS)26 February 2024
Christian Bergmann26 February 2024