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In the beginning: St Mary’s Cathedral bicentenary

Delayed for a year by Covid, The Catholic Weekly joins St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney celebrating a very special milestone: 200 years of history

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Historical rarity: hat in hand, a man stands facing the camera. To the right a figure, very possibly a cleric, stands beside a doorway. A blurred shape to the right is a man riding a horse – too fast for the slow shutter speeds of early 19th Century cameras. This colourised picture is one of the very few known photographs of the first St Mary’s Chapel which stood on the site of the present Cathedral in Sydney. It became the first St Mary’s Cathedral before being destroyed by fire in 1865. Photo: courtesy St Bede Studio

The Bicentenary of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, celebrates much more than just a sandstone building.

For two hundred years, St Mary’s Cathedral has been extravagantly, beautifully, wonderfully more than it strictly needed to be.

Arguably, when Fr J.J. Therry founded St Mary’s Roman Catholic Chapel in 1821, the pressing need was for a plain building of modest size in which Catholics could gather for masses, marriages and meetings.

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A church for everyone, rich or poor

Fr Therry, however, was no pragmatist. He had another vision, and he saw things with the eyes of Christian hope and pastoral optimism. He wanted a church that would show forth the Church: a church where even the most wretched and poor convict labourer’s family would be uplifted and liberated by grace, where their hearts and minds would soar upward, where the burden of their exile and their sins would be lightened.

Therry’s plans were criticised by some as too elaborate, grand and costly, and indeed his visionary zeal outpaced his fundraising ability.

But he persisted with his plans for a large beautiful church, even though it was necessary to build a more practical smaller chapel, St Joseph’s, in the meantime.

A source of pride for all

Yet, over a period of years the walls and then the columns and then the roof of St Mary’s appeared, and newcomers to the colony were astonished at what the disadvantaged Catholics of New South Wales had managed to achieve. Old St Mary’s had become a beautiful and much loved spiritual home for Sydney’s Catholics, and a source of civic pride for the whole community.

Fr Therry’s generous and hopeful vision was nevertheless surpassed by that of Archbishop Polding, whose cathedral the old St Mary’s Chapel became.

Polding aspired to something even more refined, more authentic and noble, which would attest with even greater eloquence to the glory of God and the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith.

Despite fire, a vision grew strong

The extensions he added to old St Mary’s were designed by a genius architect, A.W.N. Pugin, and in Polding’s mind the beauty and costliness of St Mary’s stood in deliberate contrast to the worldly practice of dedicating everything costly and exquisite to the service of Mammon or the gratification of luxury. The destruction of old St Mary’s by fire in 1865 was a tragedy, but it did prove one thing: the brilliant flame of Polding’s grand vision had taken hold and burned in the hearts and minds of their flock, for they were determined to support him (and yet another genius architect, W.W.Wardell) in raising an even more glorious new cathedral on the ashes of the old – even if it would take decades of time and every available hard-earned penny to achieve.

More than a building

That flame has continued to burn in the generations of Catholics who have been faithful to that vision, building this mighty basilica and adorning it not only with costly stained glass, mosaics and sculptured marble, but even more importantly with their prayers, their tears, their joys and their hopes. The history of St Mary’s cathedral is not really the chronicle of a building, it is the stories of many, many people, across the years: convicts, settlers, politicians and governors, priests and monks, immigrants, Indigenous, native-born, mothers and children, city professionals, residents, vagrants, saints, scallywags, the living and the dead.

The history of St Mary’s Cathedral is not really the chronicle of a building, it is the story of many, many people, across the years

With the cathedral’s bicentenary now duly commemorated – albeit delayed one year by a global pandemic – the story of St Mary’s Cathedral now reaches forward into untold future centuries.

But the Church in fact is built of living stones. It is for us to make secure the future of St Mary’s by aligning ourselves with the Church’s real cornerstone: Jesus Christ.

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