St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

St Mary’s Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, currently Cardinal Archbishop George Pell. The cathedral is dedicated to “Mary, Help of Christians”, Patron of Australia. St Mary’s holds the title and dignity of a minor basilica, bestowed upon it by Pope Pius XI in 1930. It is the largest church in Australia, though not the highest. It is located on College Street in the heart of the City of Sydney where, despite the high rise development of the CBD, its imposing structure and twin spires make it a landmark from every direction.

In 2008, St. Mary's Cathedral became the focus of World Youth Day 2008 and was visited by Pope Benedict XVI who, on July 19, made the historic full apology for child sex abuse by Catholic priests, inter alia, in Australia, of whom 107 have been committed by the courts. [ [, Pope apologises for 'evil' of child sex abuse] ] [ [, Pope sorry for Church sexual abuse] ]



Sydney was colonised on 26th of January, 1788, as a penal settlement, governed in the name of His Majesty King George III by Captain Arthur Phillip, for prisoners transported from Britain. A good number of the people to arrive in Sydney at that time were military, some with wives and family. There were also a number of free settlers. The colony was chaplained by the Rev. Richard Johnson of the Church of England. No specific provision was made for the religious needs of those many convicts and settlers who were Roman Catholic. To redress this, a Catholic pastor, Rev. Father O’Flynn, travelled out to the colony of New South Wales, but as he arrived without Government sanction, he was sent home. It was not until 1820 that the Reverends Conolly and Therry arrived officially to minister to the Roman Catholics in Australia. Conolly went to Tasmania and Rev. Father John Joseph Therry remained in Sydney. It is claimed that on the day of his arrival, Therry had a vision of a mighty church of golden stone dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary raising its twin spires above the city of Sydney. This vision came to pass, but not until after 180 years and three intermediate buildings.

One Church after another

Father Therry applied for a grant of land on which to build a church. He asked for land on the western side of Sydney, towards Darling Harbour. But the land allocated to him was towards the East, adjacent to a number of the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie’s building projects, the Hospital of 1811, the Convict Barracks and St. James’s Anglican Church, also used as a Court of Law. The site for the Catholic church overlooked a barren area upon which the bricks for Macquarie’s buildings were made, the brickfield now Hyde Park, with avenues of trees and the famous Archibald Fountain.

The foundation stone for the first St Mary’s Cathedral was laid on 29th October, 1821 by Governor Macquarie. It was a simple cruciform stone structure which paid homage to the rising fashion for the Gothic style in its pointed windows and pinnacles. In 1835, the Most Reverend John Polding became the first Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. In 1851 the church was modified to the designs of Augustus Welby Pugin. Father Therry died on 25th May, 1864. On 29th June, 1865, the church caught fire and was destroyed.

The then Archdeacon, Rev. Father McEnroe, immediately set about planning and fund raising in order to build the present cathedral, based upon a plan drawn up by Archbishop Polding. Polding wrote to William Wardell, a pupil of the famous Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Welby Pugin. He was impressed with Wardell's building of St John's College at Sydney University. In his letter, he gives Wardell a completely free hand in the design, saying "Any plan, any style, anything that is beautiful and grand, to the extent of our power.". [Polding's letter to Wardell, 10th October, 1865] Wardell had also designed and commenced work on St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne in 1858.

But there were to be two intermediate stages. A temporary wooden church was constructed, which was also destroyed by fire in the summer of 1869. The third temporary provision was a sturdy brick building on the site, not of the cathedral but of St Mary’s School, which it was to serve long after the present structure was in use.

t Mary’s is built

Archbishop Polding laid the foundation stone for the present cathedral in 1868. It was to be a huge and ambitious structure with a wide nave and aisle and three towers. Unfortunately, Polding did not live to see it in use as he died in 1877. Five years later, on 8th September 1882, his successor, Archbishop Vaughan presided at the Dedication Mass. Archbishop Vaughan gave the peal of bells which were rung for the first time on that day. Vaughan was to die whilst in England in 1883.

But St Marys was still far from finished, the work proceeding under Cardinal Moran. In 1913 Archbishop Kelly laid the foundation stone for the Nave, which continued under the Architects Hennessy, Hennessy and Co. Kelly dedicated in 1928 the nave in time for the commencement of the XXIXth International Eucharistic Congress. A slight difference of colour and texture of the sandstone on the internal walls marks the division between the first and second stage of building. The decoration and enrichment of the cathedral continued with the remains of Archbishop Vaughan being returned to Sydney and buried within the Chapel of the Irish Saints. The richly decorated Crypt which enshrines the bodies of many of the early priests and bishops was not completed until 1961 when it was dedicated by His Eminence Cardinal Gilroy.

For many years the two squared-off towers of the façade gave a disappointing appearance to an otherwise-elegant building. It was from time to time suggested pinnacles should be put up to match the central tower as it appeared plain that William Wardell’s proposed spires would never be built. But with the assistance of a grant from the Government to mark the new millennium, the spires were eventually built in 2000.



St Mary’s Cathedral is unusual among the world’s large cathedrals in that, because of its size, the plan of the city around it and the fall of the land, it is orientated in a North/South direction rather than the usual East/West. The liturgical East End is at the North and the West Front is to the South. See Cathedral architecture of Western Europe

The plan of the cathedral is a conventional English cathedral plan, cruciform in shape, with a tower over the crossing of the nave and transepts, and twin towers at the West Front (in this case, the South.) The chancel is square-ended, like the chancels of Lincoln, York and several other English cathedrals. There are three processional doors in the South with additional entrances conveniently placed in the transept facades so that they lead from Hyde Park and from the Presbytery buildings and school adjacent the cathedral.


The architecture is typical of the Gothic Revival of the 19th century, inspired by the journals of the Cambridge Camden Society, the writings of John Ruskin and the architecture of Augustus Welby Pugin. At the time that the foundation stone was laid, the architect Edmund Blacket had just completed Sydney’s very much smaller Anglican Cathedral in the Perpendicular Gothic style and the Main Building of Sydney University. Blacket was an architect whose competence and flair was extraordinary. It must have been inspiring to Polding to see what was possible, within the burgeoning Sydney Town. St Mary's, when William Wardell's plan was realised, was to be a much larger, more imposing and more sombre structure than the pretty little St. Andrew's, and because of its fortuitous siting, still dominates many views of the city, despite the high-rise buildings.

The style of the cathedral is Geometric Decorated Gothic, the archaeological antecedent being the ecclesiastical architecture of late 13th century England. It is, in fact, based fairly closely on the style of Lincoln Cathedral, the tracery of the huge chancel window being almost a replica of that at Lincoln.


The lateral view of the building from Hyde Park is marked by the regular progression of Gothic windows with pointed arches and simple tracery. The upper roofline is finished with a pierced parapet, broken by decorative gables above the clerestorey windows, above which rises a steeply pitched slate roof with many small dormers in the French manner. The roofline of the aisles is decorated with carved bosses between the sturdy buttresses which support flying buttresss to the clerestorey.

Facing Hyde Park, the transept provides the usual mode of public entrance, as is common in many French Cathedrals, and has richly decorated doors which, unlike those of the main front, have had their carved details completed and demonstrate the skills of local craftsmen in both designing and carving in the Gothic style. Included in the foliate bosses are Australian native plants such as the waratah, floral emblem of New South Wales.

The appearance of St Mary's Cathedral to a visitor approaching from the city is through Hyde Park, where the transept front and central tower rise up majestically behind the Archibald Fountain. The gardeners have further enhanced the vista by laying out a garden on the cathedral side of the park in which the plantings, over the years, have often taken the form of a cross.Despite the many English features of the architecture including its interior and chancel termination, the entrance façade is not English at all. It is a design loosely based on the most famous of all Gothic West Fronts, that of Notre Dame de Paris with its balance of vertical and horizontal features, its three huge portals and its central rose window. There are two more large rose windows, one in each of the transepts. The French façade was, however, intended to have twin stone spires like those of Lichfield Cathedral, but they were not to be put in place until 132 years after the building was commenced.

The crossing tower, which holds the bells, is quite stocky but its silhouette is made elegant by the provision of tall crocketted pinnacles. The completed spires of the main front enhance the view of the cathedral along College Street and particularly the ceremonial approach from the flight of stairs in front of the cathedral. Standing at 74.6 metres, they make St Mary’s the fourth tallest church in Australia, after the triple-spired St Patrick’s, Melbourne, St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Bendigo.


In cross-section the cathedral is typical of most large churches in having a high central nave and an aisle on either side, which serve to buttress the nave and provide passage around the interior. The interior of the nave thus rises in three stages, the arcade, the gallery and the clerestorey which has windows to light the nave. See cathedral diagramThe building is of golden-coloured sandstone which has weathered externally to golden-brown. The roof is of red cedar, that of the nave being of an open arch-braced construction enlivened by decorative pierced carvings. The chancel is vaulted with timber, which was probably intended to be richly decorated in red, blue and gold after the manner of the wooden roof at Peterborough, but this did not eventuate, and the warm colour of the timber contrasts well with the stonework.

The side aisles are vaulted in stone, with a large round boss at the centre of each ribbed vault. Children who, over the years, have crawled into the arched space beneath the pulpit have been delighted to find that there is another such beautiful carved boss, in miniature and usually unseen. On all the terminals of arches within the buildings are carved heads of saints. Those that are near the confessionals are at eye-level and may be examined for their details.

The screen behind the High Altar is most delicately carved in Oamaru limestone from New Zealand. It contains many open niches, but these, like the similar niches in the altar of Our Lady located directly behind the High Altar, are empty the statues have never been completed. There are two large chapels, and two smaller ones, the larger being the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and the Chapel of the Irish Saints. On either side of the Lady Chapel are the Chapels of Ss Joseph and Peter all with ornately carved altars, fully equipped with a small statue in each niche. The embellished mosaics in the Kelly Chapel floor were laid by Melocco Co in 1937 approximately the same time as the mosaic floor in the Lady Chapel of St John's College also designed by Wardell.


The lighting of the cathedral is its least satisfying aesthetic feature. Because of the brightness of Australian sunlight, it was decided to glaze the clerestorey with yellow glass. This glazing has darkened over the years, omits very little light and contrasts badly with the predominantly blue stained glass of the lower windows. To counteract the darkness, and with little understanding of the aesthetics of Gothic architecture, the cathedral installed extensive lighting in the 1970s, with the aim of giving more-or-less equal illumination to all parts of the buildings. The interior is lit with a diffuse yellow glow contrary to the effects of the natural light which penetrates the stained glass, and removing the sense of massive structure from the building. The stone vaulting of the aisles are bathed in even light which negates the surface modelling that is integral to a vaulted compartment. That part of the light in the nave which is directed upwards, illuminates the middle level, or triforium gallery much more brightly than any other part of the building. [The building is an architectural photographer's nightmare!]

tained glass

The glory of St Mary’s Cathedral is the stained glass, all the work of Hardman & Co. and covering a period of about 50 years. There are about 40 pictorial windows representing several themes and culminating in the chancel window showing the Downfall of Humanity and Mary, crowned and enthroned beside her Son as he sits in Judgement, pleading Jesus’ mercy upon Christians. Other windows include the Mysteries of the Rosary, the Birth and Childhood of Jesus and Lives of the Saints. Stylistically, the windows move from the Gothic Revival of the 19th century to a more painterly and lavish style of the early 20th century. The three rose windows above the entrances, in particular, excite a lot of admiration. Many of the windows are of exceptional quality but the masterpiece is the huge window of the chancel, which has few, if any, rivals among the world’s 19th century windows for beauty of design. See Stained glass - British glass, 1811-1918


St Mary’s is full of beautiful treasures and devotional objects. Around the walls of the aisles are located the Stations of the Cross, painted in oils by L. Chovet of Paris and selected for St Mary’s by Cardinal Moran in 1885. In the western transept is a marble replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the original of which is in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. This sculpture was brought to Australia for display in David Jones Ltd. department store and was later donated to the cathedral. Located previously in the crypt where it was touched in the evening by the setting sun, was the Grave of the Unknown Soldier, a realistic and moving depiction of a dead soldier, sculptured by G.W.Lambert. Although previously visibly to the public from above, the tomb has now been moved into the aisle of the cathedral, to give the public greater access to it.

The crypt has an extensive mosaic floor, the achievement of Peter Molocco and his firm. This design has as its foundation a cross most elaborately decorated like a vast Celtic illuminated manuscript, with rondels showing the Days of Creation and the titles of Our Lady.


Pipe organs

* The first pipe organ installed in the original cathedral was built by Henry Bevington of London and installed in June 1841. Of two manuals and 23 stops, it was the largest organ in Australia until its destruction by fire in 1865.
* In 1942 a pipe organ built by Joseph Howell Whitehouse of Brisbane, (1874-1954), was installed in the gallery at the end of the nave, above the main door.
* Between 1959 and 1971 Ronald Sharp (b.1929) installed an electric-action pipe organ in the triforium gallery of the chancel, but this was never completed.
* In 1997 a new pipe organ was built by Orgues Létourneau of Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec, and installed on a new gallery built around the rose window in the western transept. It was completed in 1999 and dedicated by Cardinal Clancy. The Létourneau organ is of three manuals and 46 stops. In addition to being played from the gallery, it may be played with the Whitehouse organ, from a four-manual mobile electronic console located at floor level.
* There is also an organ in the crypt, made by Bellsham Pipe Organs (1985).


There are three main choral groups that perform regularly at the cathedral: the St. Mary's Cathedral Choir, the St. Mary's Singers and the Emmanuel Singers.

t Mary’s Cathedral Choir

The Cathedral Choir is a traditional English-style cathedral choir of men and boys directed by David Russell. The Choir performs every Sunday of the year except during the January school holidays. They sing at solemn high mass and at major festivals including Christmas Eve midnight mass and the great vigil of Easter, and are the oldest continuous musical institution in Australia. They perform works ranging from ancient Gregorian Chant through to renaissance compositions right through to modern 21st century classical compositions.

t Mary’s Singers

The St Mary's Singers is an adult choir of mixed voices directed by Michael Hissey. The choir performs on the 3rd Sunday of every month in at the 9AM Mass and on special liturgical days and for weddings and functions.

Formed in 1990 , this choir of men and women is a two-tiered organisation. At regular events throughout the year the choir numbers approximately 30 -40 members, while at large performances and celebrations, including Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday, the Choir surpasses numbers of 60-80 members. Rehearsing in the Cathedral 'Schola Cantorum' each Monday evening, this choir performs many of the accompanied and a capella masterpieces of the sacred choral tradition.

Emmanuel Singers

A group formed in 2000 as part of the Church’s “New Communities”, the Emmanuel singers place emphasis upon liturgical chants and hymns. The sing most Sundays at the 6.00pm service.


The bells of St Mary’s Cathedral have a unique place in Australian history. There have been three separate rings of bells at the Cathedral, all cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London. The first, of eight bells, arrived in Sydney in August 1843, and were installed in a wooden campanile located away from the main building (approximately where the pulpit is today). They were the first bells hung for change ringing in Australia and rang for the first time on New Year’s Day 1844. When the cathedral was destroyed by fire in June 1865, the bells escaped damage. Construction of new cathedral began in 1866, and during 1868 the bells were removed from the campanile and installed in the new tower, which was situated where the south-western tower now stands.

In 1881 the bells were traded in for a new ring of eight which were installed the following year (the Whitechapel Foundry was then using the name Mears & Stainbank). In 1885 a contract was signed for the construction of the Central Tower (the Moran Tower) to which the bells were transferred in 1898.

A century later an entirely new ring was ordered. Today the Central Tower houses a ring of twelve bells, plus two additional bells which allow alternative groups of bells to be rung, depending on the number and skill of the ringers available. [ [ Sydney, Basilica of S Mary] in Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.] [ [ The Bells of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney] , St Mary's Basilica Society of Change Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.] They were rung for the first time in 1986.

Seven bells from the 1881 peal now form part of a ring of twelve bells at St Francis Xavier Cathedral in Adelaide. [ [ Adelaide, RC Cath Ch of S Francis Xavier] in Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.] [ The Cathedral Bells] , website of St Francis Xavier Cathedral. Retrieved 2008-07-15] The old tenor bell (the Moran Bell) became the Angelus bell and is located in St Mary’s south-western tower.

The bells are rung regularly before Solemn Mass on Sundays and on major Feast Days. They are also rung by arrangement for weddings and funerals and to mark important civic occasions. The bells of St Mary’s were heard leading the ringing that marked the centenary of Australian Federation, and are rung as part of the finale to Sydney's Symphony in the Domain concert in January, in unison with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

The ringing and care of the bells is entrusted to the St Mary’s Basilica Society of Change Ringers.

See also

* St Mary's Cathedral Choir, Sydney
* St Mary's Cathedral College, Sydney
* Hyde Park, Sydney To the West of The Cathedral as well as the Archibald Fountain.
* The Domain, Sydney To the North East.
* Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney To The North.
* St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, the Anglican Cathedral of Sydney


* James M. Kelleher, "Saint Mary's Cathedral - Pictorial Souvenir and Guide", John Fairfax and Sons, Pty Ltd.

External links

* [ St Mary's Cathedral] - from the official Archdiocese of Sydney website.
* [ St Mary's Singers] - Official Website of the St Marys Singers.

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