St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral
Few building projects in Perth have taken as long as St Mary’s Cathedral. When Michael Cavanagh drew up the plans for a new cathedral in the mid-1920s, he could never have imagined the building would only be completed some 80 years later. But the story of St Mary’s goes back to the very early Swan River Colony.
The first Catholic cathedral, which still stands today, was the St John’s Pro-Cathedral. However, it quickly proved too small for the growing Catholic community, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception replaced it in the middle of Victoria Square, on a spot originally allocated to the Anglican Church.
In the mid-1920s, plans for an even more impressive cathedral were drawn up, but limited funds meant only extensions to the older church could be managed at the time. This new cathedral was named St Mary’s, and despite plans for its completion, it was not until the end of the 20th century that sufficient funds became available.
After it reopened in 2009, St Mary’s Cathedral finally completed Cavanagh’s vision of a grand gothic church. Today it remains the centre of focus for Perth’s Catholics, and the most impressive place of worship in Western Australia.
Where St Mary’s Cathedral is located was originally intended as the site for an Anglican church. The first plan of the town of Perth shows Victoria Square (‘Church Hill’) as a place for a Church of England, and it was clearly intended to be the centre of the city. However, the Anglicans chose a more convenient spot, near the Barrack around which the small community was settled, and quickly built a ‘rush’ church. In 1841, the foundation stone of the new Anglican church was laid by Governor Hutt close to the site of St George’s Cathedral, since Victoria Square was felt to be too far away for worshippers.
By 1843, in a population of 3,848 European settlers in Western Australia, only 150 were Catholics. These few were thinly scattered in and about Perth, Fremantle, Guildford and further south beyond the newly-finished Causeway. Even so, Catholic colonists perceived a need for their own priest. Fr John Brady, who had been undertaking missionary work in New South Wales, was appointed Vicar General of Western Australia, arriving in Perth in December 1843. To help, Governor Hutt transferred land near Church Hill to the Catholic Church for use as a church, school and presbytery.
On 16 January 1844, the foundation stone for a Catholic church was laid on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Hay Street. Here, the small St John’s Pro-Cathedral was erected, a church which is still present and is one of the oldest surviving European places of worship in Western Australia. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was finished in 1865 to replace the earlier Cathedral. Bishop Serra was keen to construct a better Cathedral for Perth’s Catholic community, and requested Church Hill, originally set aside for the Anglican Church. The reserve was granted to the Catholic Church on 13 August 1859.
Work on the cathedral progressed slowly due to the lack of funds and builders. At one point, there were only three masons working on the project. By January 1864, at a cost of £2,395, the walls had been raised to their full height, although the bell tower was incomplete. The work then stopped for lack of money. However, the building was completed in January 1865, at a cost of £4,000.
In 1905, to designs by Henderson and Jefferis, alterations and additions were made to the Cathedral to make it look more gothic, which was the current fashion for churches. One of the tasks undertaken by the architects was to make the original building weatherproof. This was undertaken by replacing the roof with blue Bangor slates, together with bands of American green slates. A new belfry was added to the tower, along with a spire over 15 metres high and covered with slates and zinc tiles.
Gibney’s successor, Bishop Clune, was keen to replace the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with an even larger building and, in 1924, he began a series of appeals throughout the Perth Diocese. Michael Cavanagh was appointed architect for the project, having had a great deal of experience designing gothic churches, convents, and schools for the Catholic Church. He designed an impressive Academic Gothic Cathedral. However, due to financial constraints it was decided to use the existing Cathedral as the nave and only build a new transept and sanctuary. The rest of the project was to be left for future generations.
The foundation stone for the new Cathedral, to be renamed St Mary’s, was laid on 25 April 1926. The limestone used was from the same quarry which had supplied Perth’s GPO. The new sanctuary and transept were formally blessed by Bishop Clune on 4 May 1930. Various Catholic dignitaries came from all over Australia for the opening ceremony.
For more than sixty years, Cavanagh’s design remained incomplete, although there were minor changes from time to time. In 1999, after a bequest of $2 million by the estate of Jim and Alice Hassell, the Archdiocese announced that they intended to finally complete the building. Construction was expected to commence in 2001, but it took longer than expected to source funds.
St Mary’s was eventually closed in August 2006 for the commencement of construction. During early work, the remains of Perth’s first Catholic bishops were found beneath floorboards in the aisle, marked only by a small cross. As part of the restoration works, a permanent crypt was to be constructed underneath the altar.
The new design included increased seating for 1,600 people, a new underground parish centre and improved disabled access. It also added a second spire to the church. This was not identical to the original design to ensure visitors could tell new additions from the 1920s ones.
The completed Cathedral was officially opened by the then Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey on 8 December 2009, in a ceremony attended by Cardinal George Pell, 33 bishops and 300 priests.
State Heritage Office assessment, St Mary’s Cathedral
‘Ceremonies at the Cathedral.’ The W.A. Record (Perth, WA : 1888 – 1922) 12 August 1905
‘An Architectural Adornment of Perth: Projected Extensions of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.’ Western Mail 4 December 1924
‘St. Mary’s Cathedral’ West Australian 15 January 1926
‘Official Opening’ The Daily News 6 May 1930
‘A Cathedral Site.’ The West Australian 5 July 1930