Mass Commemorating the Bicentenary of the Laying of the Foundation Stone of St Mary’s Chapel/Cathedral, Sydney

08 May 2022

St Mary’s Chapel/Cathedral, Sydney, 8 May 2022

The great Renaissance art historian, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), was an advocate of Graeco-Roman, Romanesque and neo-classical architecture, but no fan of the ‘French’ mediaeval aesthetic with its pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and high stained-glass windows. He dismissed it as typical of the ‘barbarian Goths’ who had sacked the Roman Empire,[i] and the nickname ‘Gothic’ stuck.

The first Catholics on these shores were likewise considered barbarians. Predominantly Irish convicts or ex-cons, the Anglican Chaplain, Samuel Marsden, tagged them ‘wild’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘savage’.[ii] Other officials said they were ‘pernicious’, ‘horrid’ and ‘turbulent’.[iii] Governor Thomas Brisbane described them as ‘benighted’, ‘criminal’ and ‘barbarously ignorant’.[iv] Above all, these first Catholics lacked what they regarded as the essentials of civility: Protestant faith and British manners.[v]

But a third of the population could not be ignored. Having tried unsuccessfully to dragoon them into Protestant worship and ways, the Westminster and Sydney establishment eventually came round to the view that letting them have their ‘Romish’ beliefs, priests and sacraments was probably better than nothing!

And so, after waiting 32 years, the Catholics were allowed their own clergy. On arrival Fathers Philip Connolly and John Joseph Therry immediately proposed building a church.[vi] Catholics gave what they could, but most were very poor. While the government had shown munificence to the Church of England, it was more niggardly toward the Catholics. Nonetheless, the Protestant John Thomas Campbell, Secretary to the Governor and now Provost Marshall, volunteered as Treasurer of the project and promoted benefaction amongst his co-religionists. Macquarie donated £20 from his own funds, and granted an allotment of 2 acres, 1 rood and 5 perches of uncleared sloping bushland on the edge of town, near the convict barracks and veggie patch.

On 29 October 1821, “in the presence of a vast assemblage of respectable persons”, Fr Therry, accompanied by choir and brass, blessed the foundation stone for Old St Mary’s. The Governor, using the silver trowel we are displaying today, then laid it, joking that his only qualification for laying stones for a Catholic Church was his many years as a freemason! It was expected that a modest edifice, consistent with the neighbouring government buildings, would be erected but Therry was not one for cooperating with civil or ecclesiastical authority if it could be avoided. He wanted something grander—in stone not wood and in ‘barbaric’ gothic style rather than establishment neo-classical. By the late 1820s “a fine Gothic Catholic chapel” crowned the buildings on the ridge we now call Macquarie Street.[vii]

Fr Therry proved to be the Apostle to Australia, building chapels, schools but, more importantly, Catholic communities all over the city and continent. He was a friend of the poor and Indigenous, in the words of our first reading “bringing joy to all who were destined for eternal life through hearing his word”. But what he started he rarely finished or paid for, and St Mary’s had no roof until 1831 and no Mass until 1833.[viii] There was an ongoing tussle in the colony about state aid for such social infrastructure, and behind that about freedom of religion and anti-Catholicism—concerns that echo down the ages!

In 1835 a Good Shepherd (Jn 10:27-30) arrived for the Australian Church, John Bede Polding OSB, and in the words of our first reading “almost the whole town assembled on the Sabbath to hear the word of God.” (Acts 13:14,43-52) After a solemn entry, Te Deum, and Reading of the Papal Bull, the new bishop took possession of his cathedral and celebrated a Pontifical High Mass. The regular Sunday congregation now numbered over 1500. In February 1836 70 soldiers were confirmed. In May, three men were ordained. In June, the cathedral was dedicated. And later in the year, as a fundraiser, the first ‘oratorio’ was sung in Australia. Under the new bishop’s influence, the roof was completed, the church enlarged, and monastic buildings added.

As the centre of Catholic life, Old St Mary’s was the reception and jumping off point for newly arrived clergy and religious, and the site of many a Mozart Mass, Holy Week ceremony, catechetical instruction, Confession and retreat: 7000 convicts made retreats here in Polding’s first 5 years! Soon a pipe organ (1841), Australia’s first peal of bells (1844) and a Puginesque façade and bell tower were added (1850s).[ix] As new Catholic churches sprang up, St Mary’s became known as the mother church of Australia.

But we lost our first mother on the night of 29 June 1865, when fire destroyed the cathedral. Polding and much of the community wept. Yet as Eastertide recalls, a glorious resurrection can come after a terrible death. Plans for a new, larger cathedral were commissioned from William Wardell, again in honey-coloured Sydney sandstone and ‘barbaric’ gothic style. It would ultimately be Australia’s longest church and the largest English neo-gothic church in the world! Built, opened and consecrated in stages from 1868 to 1928, the Waddell design was finally completed with the addition of the spires in the great jubilee 2000. In the meantime, Therry, Polding and successors fulfilled today’s call to be “a light to the nations that salvation might reach the very ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:14,43-52)

Old and new St Mary’s have been visited by millions of faithful, oodles of tourists and, so far, four canonised saints. It has been an eloquent proclamation in stone of the Christian faith, a centre of prayer and worship, a peaceful refuge in a bustling city, and the jumping off point for the great mission to this continent. As Cardinals Gilroy and Freeman observed at the 150th anniversary, “while a beautiful city has grown around it, it too has grown to add to the city’s beauty.”[x]

What might this building, speaking for the Apostle J.J. Therry, the Good Shepherd J.B. Polding, and the four recognised saints that followed them into this space, say to us today, especially to the imminent Fifth Plenary Council of Australia?

Well, Therry’s slow-built and short-lived chapel might suggest we moderate our expectations: for all his pastoral success, Therry said his ministry was “incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety”.[xi] But he demonstrated what such labour can achieve under God’s grace and reminds us that the torch of teaching, leading and sanctifying has been passed on to us.

If Therry’s building calls us to realism, hope and perseverance, Archbishop Polding’s might point to the crucial tasks he outlined at the first Provincial Council of Australia in 1844: to convert unbelievers and catechise believers, to build up the clergy and offer worthy worship, to correct abuses and unite the bishops.[xii]

From her statue in front of the cathedral, our first sainted visitor, Mary MacKillop, repeats her advice to “Remember we are only travellers here”, “Do all you can to work on in unity”, address every need and “Remember that prayer to our good God is our greatest weapon”.[xiii]

I was ten when St Paul VI met huge crowds in front of this cathedral. In his homily[xiv] I heard him warn Australians to beware “reducing everything to an earthly humanism, forgetting life’s moral and spiritual dimension, and neglecting our necessary relationship to the Creator… For God is the Master of history… the human heart is made for God, and there is no full humanism but in his service.” He called us to re-evangelise this continent, for “The Church exists to evangelize.”[xv]

Mother Teresa uttered wise words each time she visited here: “Be kind and merciful.” “Let no one come to you without going away better and happier.” “Care for the poor. Remember that loneliness is the most terrible form of poverty.” Another terrible “poverty is deciding that a child must die so we may live as we wish.” “Any country that accepts abortion [or euthanasia] is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want.”[xvi]

Finally, the walls of our cathedral recall the words of St John Paul, addressed in this very place to the Bishops of Australia,[xvii] and recalling the Great Commission. “Go make disciples… Foster the unity of God’s people in faith and charity… Sanctify them in the truth and give them a shepherd’s care… Call all to holiness.” We must, he said, address head-on crises in Australia today regarding belief and catechesis, sacramental practice, respect for human life, and in promoting Christian vocations and family life.

Paul VI blessing the tombs of Fr John Joseph Therry and Archbishop John Bede Polding, St Mary’s Cathedral, 1970

Our times are different to those of Therry and Polding, MacKillop and Mother T, Paul VI and John-Paul. Yet as G.K. Chesterton observed, what makes Catholicism the most democratic of all religions is tradition. For tradition means giving votes even to our ancestors. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” right now.[xviii] Living traditions are not museum-pieces, of course; they develop, as do cathedrals, each generation responding to circumstances, contributing insights, making improvements. Yet even after something as disruptive as a church fire requiring a total rebuild, we return to the well of our faith, communion and mission: Jesus Christ, the One Who is, Who was and Who will be.

Our second reading today takes this long view. It is a vision of Easter hope, of that day when people of every nation and language will unite around God’s throne (Rev 7:9,14-17). That is, in fact, the ultimate goal of all our endeavours as a Church: not the worldly concerns for empire, governance and bureaucracy, but the spiritual goal of bringing souls to God. And both our scriptural text and our sandstone one suggest that our ‘elders’—the apostles and bishops—have a crucial role, in transmitting the dream, interpreting the vision, inspiring “a huge number, impossible to count” to join those who, having endured the great persecution, now wear the glorious albs of faithful witnesses.

Thank you St Mary’s for 200 years of such counsel and witness. Happy Mother’s Day to our mother church. Ad multos annos!

[i]      Gothic Art | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (metmuseum.org); Girgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, Translated with an Introduction by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 117, 527.

[ii]     Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic and Community: An Australian History (Sydney, UNSW Press, 1992), p. 7.

[iii]     James Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1959), p. 7.

[iv]     Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter, p. 9.

[v]      Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter, p. 3.

[vi]     On Conolly: Linda Monks, ‘Conolly, Philip (1796-1839),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (MUP, 1966), http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/conolly-philip-1915; W.T. Southerwood, ‘A character study of Australia’s first permanently appointed priests, P. Conolly and J.J. Therry,’ Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 17 (1996), 7-28. On Therry: Edmund Campion, ‘John Joseph Therry’ in Margaret Press and Neil Brown (eds), Faith and Culture: A Pastoral Perspective (Sydney: CIS, 1984); John Eddy, ‘John Joseph Therry–pioneer priest,’ Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 1(3) (1964), 1-14, and ‘Therry, John Joseph,’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2 (MUP, 1967), http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/therry-john-joseph-2722; John McSweeney, A Meddling Priest: John Joseph Therry (Sydney: St Paul’s, 2000); John Ayers, Father Therry: 100 Years (Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1964); Eris O’Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry: The Foundation of Catholicism in Australia, 2 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1922); Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (Melbourne: Nelson, 1977); Percival Serle, ‘Therry, John Joseph,’ Dictionary of Australian Biography (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1949); James Waldersee, Catholic Society in NSW 1788-1860 (Sydney University Press, 1974). On the early history of the Catholic Church in Australia see: Cardinal Patrick Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Sydney: Frank, Coffee & Co, 1895); Eris O’Brien, The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia, 2 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1928); John Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1959); Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History (University of NSW Press, 1977/1985/1992); John Molony, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church (Melbourne University Press, 1969). 

[vii]    Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales: A Series of Letters comprising Sketches of the Actual State of Society in that Colony (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), p. 39.

[viii]    On the history of St Mary’s Chapel and Cathedral: Mark Dunn, “St Mary’s Cathedral,” The Dictionary of Sydney (2008);

[ix]     R.W. Harden, “Old St. Mary’s 1821-1865,” in Patrick O’Farrell (ed.), St. Mary’s Cathedral Sydney 1821-1971 (Devonshire Press, 1971), ch. I.

[x]      Norman Cardinal Gilroy and James Freeman, “Foreword,” in Patrick O’Farrell (ed.), St. Mary’s Cathedral Sydney 1821-1971 (Devonshire Press, 1971), p. xi.

[xi]     Eddy, ‘Therry, John Joseph’.

[xii]    Peter Wilkinson, “The First Australian Provincial Council, 10-12 September 1844,” The Swag xxx, citing James Knox, The Historical and Juridical Importance of the First Council of the Australian Province held in Sydney 1844 (unpublished doctoral thesis, Rome 1949).

[xiii]    http://www.rec.bne.catholic.edu.au/Document%20Library/Documents/Mary%20MacKillop%20Sayings.pdf

[xiv]    St Paul VI, Homily for Mass at Randwick Racecourse, 1 December 1970.

[xv]     St Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi.

[xvi]    https://parade.com/1246359/marynliles/mother-teresa-quotes/; https://www.stjoanofarcchurch.org/Downloads/e8304718-37cb-4c45-81c8-4cb54ae8eb99.pdf

[xvii] St John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of Australia, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 26 November 1986.

[xviii]   G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Introduction to Mass Commemorating the Bicentenary of the Laying of the Foundation Stone of St Mary’s Chapel/Cathedral, Sydney, Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C, 8 May 2022

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Easter or Good Shepherd Sunday. In recent years we have celebrated the bicentenaries of the establishment of the Catholic clergy in the colony, of the first Catholic school, and now of the first church.

With the leadership of priests, the meagre pennies but plentiful faith of the mostly-Irish faithful, and the welcome assistance of some of the Protestant establishment, land was obtained and a fund inaugurated to build a chapel dedicated to St Mary. It would be the first of many churches built by the Catholic community to glorify God and celebrate the mysteries together. It was the base for a great missionary and pastoral outreach to the city and country. And it would be a landmark of great historical, cultural and aesthetic importance. We offer our Mass today in thanksgiving to the Good Shepherd for all that was achieved.

Concelebrating with me are: the representative of Pope Francis, the Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Charles Balvo; the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane; the President-elect Archbishop Tim Costelloe SDB of Perth; Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne; Archbishop Pat O’Reagan of Adelaide; Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart; and Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra & Goulburn;

Bishop Mark Edwards OMI of Wagga Wagga; Bishop James Foley of Cairns; Bishop Charles Gauci of Darwin; Bishop Gerard Holohan of Bunbury; Bishop Michael Kennedy of Armidale; Bishop Karol Kulczycki SDS of Port Pirrie; Bishop Vincent Long OFMConv of Parramatta; Bishop Columba MacBeth-Greene OSPPE of Wilcannia-Forbes; Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst; Bishop Michael McCarthy of Rockhampton; Bishop Robert McGuckin of Toowoomba; Bishop Michael Morrissey of Geraldton; Bishop Bosco Puthur of the Syro-Malabar Eparchy; and Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay;

Monsignor Carl Reid, Ordinary of Our Lady of the Southern Cross; Father Greg Barker, Administrator of Maitland-Newcastle; Auxiliary Bishops Terry Brady and Richard Umbers of Sydney, Ken Howell and Tim Norton SVD of Brisbane, Martin Ashe, Terry Curtin and Tony Ireland of Melbourne and Don Sproxton of Perth; Father Stephen Hackett MSC, General Secretary of the Bishops Conference; Father Don Richardson, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral; and priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney. I also welcome women and men religious.

Two hundred years ago it was Governor Lachlan Macquarie who laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Chapel on Hyde Park and I salute his successor, Her Excellency Hon. Margaret Beazley AC QC, 39th Governor of New South Wales, who will give a short address following the blessing of the plaque.

Also present are Hon. Jacinta Collins, Executive Director of the National Catholic Education Commission, and other lay leaders from national and local Church agencies.

Today is Mothers Day in the civil calendar and so we commend our mothers and grandmothers, living and dead, to God’s care, giving thanks for them and the gift of motherhood itself. And since she is the mother church of Australia, we wish St Mary’s a happy Mother’s Day also!

To everyone present today a very warm welcome.

Remarks after Communion and before Unveiling of the PlaqueSt Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 May 2022

A word of thanks to all those who have contributed to our 200th birthday celebrations today. We are very proud of our beautiful cathedral and its two centuries (so far) of worship, pilgrimage, outreach, history and art. It has been a joy to have most of the bishops of Australia here today: please know that the People of God pray for your leadership and service.

We will now bless a plaque commemorating the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone St Mary’s Roman Catholic Chapel by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. We are delighted to have his excellent successor, Hon. Margaret Beazley AC QC, with us today and I invite her to join me for the unveiling and then to address us.