No. 1052 - Hobart - St Mary's Cathedral (1881)

The reopening of Hobart’s St Mary’s Cathedral in 1881 brought an end to a 40 year saga which had begun in 1841, when a foundation stone was laid for new church at ‘Mount Carmel’ on Harrington Street. It took three attempts before the first Cathedral was built between 1860 and 1866. The history of the first Cathedral, which was dismantled due to serious structural issues, has been the subject of a previous article on ‘Churches of Tasmania’ [see No. 990]. The focus of this article is on the present Cathedral and it will be limited to a brief outline of the buildings construction and development, given that the history of St Mary’s is fairly well known.

In 1876, the St Mary’s Cathedral was closed due to significant structural issues which had developed as a result poor construction practices and inadequate oversight by Henry Hunter, the supervising architect. Nonetheless, Hunter was charged with leading the reconstruction project which was completed by 1881.

William Wardell’s original design was reconfigured by Hunter to provide a more structurally viable building. Wardell's original design and Hunter's modifications included towers and spires, however, these were never built. William Wardell's original design was later used in part for Sydney's own St. Mary's Cathedral.

Between 1896 and 1898 the western end of the cathedral was extended to a design by George Fagg, furthering the vision of Wardell. This included construction of the tower base – but not the tower itself. While the tower was not built, the necessary supporting stonework remains in place and can be observed above the roofline (see photograph below). Within the building, imposing pillars and stonework, exquisite stained glass windows, and a magnificent pipe organ (circa 1895) are works of leading international and Australian artisans. A English Norman period baptism font is one of many gifts to Bishop Willson from his close friend, architect Augustus Pugin, the father of English Gothic Revival architecture.

In 2020 a three-stage restoration project began with the building’s refurbishment. The project will also include the exhumation and reinternment of four early bishops, along with Tasmania’s first priest, Fr Philip Connolly, in the cathedral crypt. The final stage of the project will see the construction of the cathedral spire.

Details of features of the building can be read in the links provided in the reading list at the end of this article.

To conclude this short article I have attached extracts from a fascinating report published in the Hobart Mercury describing the Cathedral’s reopening on Sunday 23 January 1881:

“The ceremonies connected with the re-opening and dedication of St. Mary's Cathedral, Harrington-street, were performed yesterday with the elaboration and pomp with which the adherents of that Church are accustomed to surround their sacred mysteries. It is nearly five years since on the 28th May, 1876—St. Mary's was closed to the public in order to allow of alterations and additions being made, which, after mature deliberation, were deemed absolutely necessary. Some diversity of opinion was at first expressed as to the advisability of demolishing the lantern tower, the most conspicuous feature in the original design, but as stone after stone was removed, revealing the scandalous state of the masonry, the wisdom of the course adopted was admitted by all".

"New plans were prepared by Mr. Hunter, differing in many respects from the original design furnished by Mr. W. Wardell in 1860, and the carrying out of the amended design was entrusted to the Messrs. Shields. The manner in which they have executed their work reflects the greatest credit on them, and adds one more important edifice to the several those excellent and trusty builders have erected in this city".

"As the new building approached completion invitations were sent out by the Bishop of the diocese to the prelates and other distinguished persons in the neighbouring colonies, inviting their attendance at the dedication ceremony, and in response there was a large and influential attendance from the other side of the Straits, and the services were consequently very imposing".

"The attendance was very large. The day was a bright one, and the convenience afforded by the Main Line Railway manager and Mr. Webster, proprietor of the Huon coaches, enabled large numbers of Catholics in the Midland districts and the South to attend the ceremonies. The cathedral being kept empty until it had been blessed, the grounds around it became soon after 10 o'clock the scene of activity and gathering from all points of the compass. At about 20 minutes past 10 o'clock a procession issued from the sacristy door, led by Dean Beechinor (who throughout the whole of the proceedings acted as Master of the Ceremonies), and passed between a long line of members of the Hibernian Society, who were drawn up on either side, standing bareheaded and wearing their regalia. The procession consisted of crucifer, with acolytes, bearing candles; the choir; the clergy; and His Lordship, Bishop Murphy, who was attired in cope and mitre, and bore the pastoral staff. This procession wound its way around the outside of the church, intoning the service appointed for such occasions, and the Bishop sprinkling the walls with holy water. A similar ceremony was observed inside the building, and then the general public were admitted, and very soon every available seat was occupied….".

"The cathedral, we may here say is a very handsome Gothic structure, the style being that of the early decorated period of English architecture. It provides all the necessary space for both congregation and those engaged in the ceremonies (except the baptistry) combined in the entire plan of the building, the only portions remaining unfinished being the western front of the nave, the baptistry at end of the south aisle, and the tower and spire at the west end of the north aisle. The foundations of all these have, however, been built up to the surface level, and the west front shows at present an evidently temporary enclosure of painted weatherboarding. There is ample accommodation for seating from 800 to 1,000 persons. The plan of the church is cruciform, and embraces nave, north and south aisles, transepts and chancel. On the north side of chancel are two chapels, one the Lady Chapel, and the other used temporarily as a baptistry, and a third on the south, besides the Nun's Choir, dedicated to the Sacred Heart".

"….The best of the stone from the original building has been carefully selected and again used in the new, the deficiency being supplied from the contractor’s own quarries on Knocklofty, and from the Tea Tree, near Brighton. The splendid memorial stained glass, to the late Bishop Willson and Father Hall, has been replaced on the great chancel window, and looks, if possible, more beautiful than ever".

"….The contract for the building was, as already stated, let to Mr. R. Shields, the total cost of which will be very nearly £9,000. The architect of the entire work is Mr. H. Hunter, and it fully sustains his high reputation in his profession. The window tracery and several other details of the buildings are from the original designs supplied by Mr. Wardell, the well-known architect of Victoria”.

The West Wall and Organ (photo: Colin Chick)

The medieval baptismal font

The Baptistry window - The Baptism of Jesus. (the window was given in memory of John and Ellen Lynch)

Our Lady Star of the Sea

Our Lady of China

Our Lady of Lourdes

Our Lady of the Immigrants

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

Our Lady of Victories

Our Lady Help of Christians


The Cathedra

Saint Carlo Borromeo

The North Transept and Pentecost Window


            Sacred Heart Chapel blind tracery’ window

The 8th Station of the Cross

Burial Brass - Very Rev. William Hall D.D.

The Brian Harradine Memorial Calvary Group - designed in 1925 by the English architect Frank Ernest Howard 

Supporting stonework for the unbuilt tower remains in place and can be observed above the roofline 

The reconstructed Henry Hunter Cathedral (c.1890)

 Perspective view from the north-east of William Wardell’s enlarged design

 A perspective view of the planned complete Cathedral

Sources and Further Reading:

Mercury, Monday 24 January 1881, page 3

Southerwood, W. T.  Planting a faith : Hobart's Catholic story in word and picture / [by] W. T. Southerwood  [Hobart  1970]


Popular posts from this blog

Welcome to Churches of Tasmania

No. 624 - Dunalley - St Martin's Anglican Church - "In grateful memory of the men who fought in the Great War"

No. 592 - Gretna - St Mary the Virgin - "Worthy of Imitation"