By Margaret Smith

Australia’s largest Catholic church, and one which has been described as ‘the finest church building in the country’, owes its origins to an Irishman from County Cork, James Goold.

He studied for the priesthood in Italy and then volunteered for missionary work in Australia, arriving there in 1838.

Ten years later, he was appointed Melbourne’s first Catholic Bishop but, as there was no Cathedral in the city, it fell to him to organise the construction of one and on 9th April 1850, he laid the foundation stone of the church on land that had previously been a sheep run.

Strangely, eight years were to pass before any work took place because gold had been discovered not far away and men from all levels of society left the city in the hope of finding fame and fortune in the goldfields.

When work did eventually start, Bishop Goold realised that the ever -increasing population of the city meant that the original plans were inadequate and a larger church would be needed. Building work began once again and, after Mass had been celebrated in the partially completed structure, the Bishop then announced that this second church was also going to be inadequate.

Many of his congregation, along with other citizens, were frustrated at what was described as the annual knocking down and rebuilding of St. Patrick’s. Bishop Goold then announced that the ‘new’ St. Patrick’s was going to be a church ‘worthy of the city’ and help arrived in the shape of William Wilkinson Wardell.

This thirty-five year old architect had emigrated to Australia from the UK in the hope of improving his failing health.

The Catholic convert had something of a reputation too, having been responsible for the restoration, or building, of over thirty churches in twelve years. Bishop and architect met and, within a short time, Wardell had produced plans for a cathedral of immense proportions, which was to include – at Bishop Goold’s insistence – parts of the work that had been done on the earlier churches.

The work was actually greater than anything ever attempted in Australia and would become the largest church built anywhere in the nineteenth century. With contracts signed, work began in December 1858, the same year coincidentally as the other great cathedral dedicated to St. Patrick, that in New York, was begun.

By 1868 the nave was completed and Masses were being said and the organ was installed in 1880. But, from then on, building work was very slow, almost coming to a halt on a number of occasions due to lack of funds and the economic situation of the country.

However, John Fitzpatrick, Vicar-General of the Diocese and Dean of the Cathedral, cajoled the people with his regular exhortation that “it is God’s work, it cannot be stopped,” whilst Wardell himself reminded people that this was to be a “building for all time and for “generations yet unborn”.

Eventually, on 27th October, 1897, the building, which had cost over £200,000 sterling, was consecrated. Much work still remained though. In the twenty years after the consecration, the cathedral’s interior decoration was completed largely in accordance with Wardell’s plans. Work went ahead on the three spires during the 1930’s with the main spire surmounted by a cross six metres high, a gift from the Irish government in 1938.

Many are somewhat surprised by the lack of stained glass here, apart from that in the chapels and sanctuary. The remaining windows, with either ‘amber’ or ‘cathedral’ glass, allow light through which actually beautifies the interior.

The original main door, considered too narrow for ceremonial processions, was replaced by a wider one. Today’s Cathedral is 340 feet long and 350 feet high, making it the tallest church in Australia. Sadly, Bishop Goold never saw ‘his’ Cathedral completed as he died in 1886, but he is buried in the Holy Soul’s Chapel, along with Dean John Fitzpatrick. It was perhaps appropriate that his successor should be another Irishman, Thomas Joseph Carr.

This former Bishop of Galway was not initially happy at this new appointment but he carried out his duties with a quiet determination and enthusiasm that quickly gained him the respect and love of his congregation. Indeed, within ten years of his arrival, the cathedral was free of debt.

Wardell, who was also responsible for St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, saw the completion of this Cathedral and even when he died in 1899 he was still working on designs for other ecclesiastical buildings. There are numerous Irish connections both inside and outside this building.

Its two Irish Bishops lie inside, Bishop Goold in the Holy Soul’s Chapel and Bishop Carr in the Sacred Heart Chapel. Outside, in the grounds, is a statue of the man whose success in the 1928 County Clare election led to the attainment of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, better known as ‘the Liberator’. 

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