St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

This article is about Metropolitan Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Sydney. For other uses, see St. Mary's Cathedral.
St Mary's Cathedral
Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians
St Mary's Basilica

A view of St Mary's Cathedral from Hyde Park

Cathedral from Hyde Park
A map of the City of Sydney
St Mary's Cathedral
33°52′16″S 151°12′48″E / 33.87111°S 151.21333°E / -33.87111; 151.21333
Location Sydney, New South Wales
Country Australia
Denomination Roman Catholic
Former name(s) St Mary's Chapel
Founded 21 October 1821 (1821-10-21)
Dedication Immaculate Conception, Mary Help of Christians
Dedicated 29 June 1865 (1865-06-29)
Consecrated 8 September 1882
Relics held First class relic of St Francis Xavier
Events Ruined by fire (29 June 1865 (1865-06-29))
Past bishop(s) George Pell, Edward Clancy, John Bede Polding
Status Minor basilica (since 1932)
Cathedral (since 1835)
Chapel (1821-1835)
National shrine[1]
Functional status Active
Architect(s) William Wardell (present building)
Augustus Welby Pugin (extensions to first building)
Architectural type Chapel (first building)
Cathedral (present building)
Style Geometric Decorated Gothic
Years built 1851 (first cathedral)
1928 (nave completed)
2000 (spires added)
Groundbreaking 1821 (1821) (St Mary's Chapel)
1868 (1868) (present-day cathedral)
Length 107 metres (351 ft)
Nave width 24.3 metres (80 ft)
Nave height 22.5 metres (74 ft)
Number of spires 2
Spire height 74.6 metres (245 ft)
Materials Sydney sandstone, Oamaru stone, marble, alabaster, Moruya granite
Bells 14
Tenor bell weight 1 long ton 63 cwt 78.9 qr (11,510 lb or 5.22 t)
Parish St Mary's
Deanery City Deanery
Archdiocese Metropolitan Archdiocese of Sydney
Metropolis Sydney
Province Sydney
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP
Auxiliary Bishop(s) Terence Brady, Tony Randazzo, Richard Umbers
Dean Donald Richardson
Chancellor Chris Meney (Lay Chancellor)
Assistant priest(s) Emmanuel Seo,
Brendan Purcell,
Pierluigi Passoni
Director of music Thomas Wilson
Organist(s) Michael Butterfield,
Dominic Moawad
Business manager Michael Digges
Liturgy coordinator Donald Richardson
Servers' guild Archconfraternity of St. Stephen

The Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians (colloquially, St Mary's Cathedral) is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and the seat of the Archbishop of Sydney, currently Anthony Fisher OP. It is dedicated to the "Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians", Patroness of Australia and holds the title and dignity of a minor basilica, bestowed upon it by Pope Pius XI on 4 August 1932.[2]

St Mary's has the greatest length of any church in Australia (although it is neither the tallest nor largest overall). is located on College Street in the heart of the City of Sydney where, despite the high-rise development of the Sydney central business district, 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 consecrated the new forward altar.



Sydney was established as a penal settlement on 26 January 1788 in the name of King George III by Captain Arthur Phillip, for prisoners transported from Britain. Many of the people to arrive in Sydney at that time were military, some with wives and family, there were also some free settlers. The first chaplain of the colony was the Reverend 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 Catholics. To redress this, an Irish Catholic priest, a Father O'Flynn, travelled to the colony of New South Wales but, as he arrived without government sanction, he was sent home.

It was not until 1820 that two priests, Father Conolly and Father John Therry, arrived to officially minister to the Roman Catholics in Australia. Father Conolly went to Tasmania and Father Therry remained in Sydney. Therry claimed that on the day of his arrival, he 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.[3] This vision came to pass, but not until after 180 years and three intermediate buildings.

One church after another

St Mary's Cathedral from the west with Hyde Park in the foreground. 1940s

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 Governor Lachlan Macquarie's building projects, the hospital of 1811, the Hyde Park Barracks and St James' Anglican church which was also used as a law court. The site for the Catholic church overlooked a barren area upon which the bricks for Macquarie's buildings were made. The area is now Hyde Park, with avenues of trees and the Archibald Fountain.

The foundation stone for the first St Mary's was laid on 29 October 1821 by Governor Macquarie. Built by James Dempsey, 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, 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 25 May 1864. On 29 June 1865, the church caught fire and was destroyed.

The then archdeacon, 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 Augustus Welby Pugin, the most prominent architect of the Gothic Revival movement. Polding was impressed with Wardell's building of St John's College at the University of Sydney. In his letter, Polding 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."[4] Wardell had also designed and commenced work on St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne in 1858.

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.


Main front, facing south

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. Polding did not live to see it in use as he died in 1877. Five years later, on 8 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 died while in England in 1883.

The cathedral's builder (for this stage) was John Young, who also built a large sandstone house in the Gothic Revival style, known as "The Abbey", in Annandale, New South Wales.[5]

But St Mary's 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. In 1928 Kelly dedicated the nave in time for the commencement of the 29th 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 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.

Since 2000

In 2008, St Mary's Cathedral became the focus of World Youth Day 2008 and was visited by Pope Benedict XVI who, in his homily on 19 July, made the historic full apology for child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Australia, of whom 107 have been committed by the courts.[6][7]On 16 December 2014, Archbishop Anthony Fisher invoked the special prayers in the Roman Missal from the "mass in times of civil disturbance" for the victims of the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis.[8] A memorial service was held at the cathedral on the morning of 19 December for Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, in attendance were the Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, then-Minister of Communications Malcolm Turnbull, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, Premier of New South Wales Mike Baird, and then-Minister of Transport Gladys Berejiklian.[9][10][11]


View from the Sydney Tower


St Mary's Cathedral is unusual among large cathedrals in that, because of its size, the plan of the city around it and the fall of the land, it is oriented 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.

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. St Mary's, when William Wardell's plan was realised, was to be a much larger, more imposing and more sombre structure than the smaller 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 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 cathedral seen from the north-west

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.

St Mary's Cathedral is generally approached on foot from the city through Hyde Park, where the transept front and central tower rise up behind the Archibald Fountain. During the 20th century the gardeners of Hyde Park have further enhanced the vista by laying out a garden on the cathedral side of the park in which the plantings 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 (245 ft), they make St Mary's the fourth tallest church in Australia, after the triple-spired St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne and Sacred Heart Cathedral, Bendigo.


Interior during a service in 2009

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 clerestory which has windows to light the nave. See cathedral diagram The 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 discovered 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 delicately carved in Oamaru limestone from New Zealand. It contains niches filled with statues like the similar niches in the altar of Our Lady located directly behind it. 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 and 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 chancel window depicts a vision of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary enthroned in Heaven.


Because of the brightness of Australian sunlight, it was decided at the time of construction to glaze the clerestorey with yellow glass. This glazing has darkened over the years, permitting little light to enter. The yellow glazing contrasts with the predominantly blue stained glass of the lower windows. To counteract the darkness, the cathedral installed extensive lighting in the 1970s, designed to give more-or-less equal illumination to all parts of the buildings. The interior is lit with a diffuse yellow glow, which, like the upper windows, is in contrast to the effects of the natural light which penetrates through the white areas of the stained glass. The installed lighting counteracts the pattern of light and shade that would normally exists in a cathedral of the Gothic style by illuminating most brightly those parts of the structure which would normally be subdued.

Stained 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 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 Pietà, 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 depiction of a dead soldier sculpted by George Washington Lambert. Although previously visible 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 Melocco and his firm. This design has as its foundation a cross elaborately decorated like a vast Celtic illuminated manuscript, with rondels showing the Days of Creation and the titles of the Virgin Mary.


Western transept rose window rising behind organ pipes

The music team at St Mary's currently comprises the Director of Music, Thomas Wilson; the Assistant Organists, Michael Butterfield and Dominic Moawad; and the Administrator of Music, Hannah Burt.

Pipe organs

The pipe organ and rose window in the western transept


There are two choirs that sing liturgically at the cathedral. The Cathedral Choir sings almost daily. There is also a voluntary adult choir, the St Mary's Singers, which sings regularly for services and occasional concerts.

St Mary's Cathedral Choir

Begun in the 19th century as a mixed voice choir, the St Mary's Cathedral Choir has been a traditional English-style cathedral choir of men and boys since 1955. There are usually 24 choristers (boy trebles and altos) and 12 lay clerks (professional countertenors, tenors and basses). The choir sings Mass and Vespers daily (excluding Friday) and is the oldest continuous musical institution in Australia.[12] They perform works ranging from Gregorian Chant, Sacred Polyphony and Renaissance compositions to 21st century compositions.

Cathedral Scholars

Choristers from the Cathedral Choir whose voices have broken continue their training as part of this special ensemble. The Scholars sing Vespers and Mass on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

St Mary's Singers

The St Mary's Singers is an adult choir of volunteer mixed voices which sings for Vespers and Mass on the third Saturday of every month, as well as at other liturgical occasions, and gives regular concerts.


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.[13][14] 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.[15][16] The old tenor bell (the Moran Bell) became the Angelus bell and is located in St Mary's south-eastern 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 which marked the centenary of Australian Federation. They are also 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, members of The Australian and New Zealand Association of Bellringers.[17][18]

Panorama of the interior of St Mary's, showing views into the chancel and the transepts

Burials in the Crypt

See also


  1. "Metropolitan Archdiocese of Sydney". Retrieved 2011-01-15.
  2. Pope Pius XII (1933). Ecclesia Cathedralis Sydneyensis ad Basilicae Minoris Dignitatem Evehitur (PDF). Acta Apostolicae Sedis (in Latin). 25. Vatican: Holy See. pp. 200–201. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  3. Freeman, James (26 September 1971). "A threat to the bells of St Mary's". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  4. Polding's letter to Wardell, 10 October 1865
  5. The Heritage of Australia, Macmillan Company, 1981, p.2/35
  6. "Pope apologises for 'evil' of child sex abuse". Agence France-Presse. 18 July 2008. Archived from the original on January 12, 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  7. Pullella, Philip (19 July 2008). "Pope apologises for Church sex abuse". Reuters UK. Archived from the original on January 12, 2009. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  8. "Chilling terror act brought central Sydney to a halt". The Australian. 16 December 2014.
  9. "Sydney siege: 'Hell has touched us'". The Australian. News Corp Australia. 16 December 2014. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  10. "Chilling terror act brought central Sydney to a halt". The Australian. News Corp Australia. 16 December 2014. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  11. Kerin, Lindy (19 December 2014). "Memorial service at St Mary's Cathedral for Sydney hostage victims". Retrieved 20 December 2014.
  12. "TV talent shows have nothing on the St Mary's Cathedral Choir when it comes to uncovering our young singing stars". The Daily Telegraph. News Corp Australia. 31 July 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  13. Sydney, Basilica of S Mary in Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  14. The Bells of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, St Mary's Basilica Society of Change Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  15. Adelaide, RC Cath Ch of S Francis Xavier in Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  16. The Cathedral Bells, website of St Francis Xavier Cathedral. Retrieved 2008-07-15
  17. "Bell ringers". St Mary's Cathedral. Retrieved 3 April 2014.
  18. Gibson, Caitlin. "The Bell Ringers of St. Mary's". Into The Music. ABC Radio National. Retrieved 9 April 2014.


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