Freo Basilica restored to glory

07 May 2008

By The Record

By Matthew Biddle
The restoration of Fremantle’s St Patrick’s Basilica is nearing completion after almost 16 months of vigorous repairs.

The only Basilica in WA is expected to be completely restored by the end of May, according to parish priest Fr John Sherman.
He said the restorations had taken much time and effort.
“It started around early February 2007, so it’s been going for nearly 16 months,” he said.
“But we can see light at the end of the tunnel … we hope that it’s finished for the World Youth Day Cross’ entry – it’s coming on the 21st of May.”
Fr Sherman said when he arrived at the Fremantle parish he never expected such large-scale work would need to be done during his stay.
“When I was sent here I thought ‘It’s a lovely Church, I won’t have to worry about a thing’,” he said.
“Then I saw the paint peeling off, so I asked why, and it was because the moisture building up behind the concrete was pushing through.”
After consulting the experts on the apparent wear and tear affecting the Basilica, it was decided the church needed to be completely restored.
Fr Sherman said the chief restorer responsible for the interior repairs described the Basilica as “a sick building” before restoration work was started.
Two problems from previous repairs to the Basilica were the main reasons for the deterioration of the building.
“Over the years it had been repaired with concrete internally and externally, and painted, and this was the cause of our troubles because you don’t put concrete or paint on limestone,” Fr Sherman explained.
“Limestone is supposed to breathe but by putting concrete on it you’re stopping the breathing, and when you stop the breathing you start the process of disintegration of the stone.
“But they did it with the best of intentions because people didn’t appreciate what they were doing, they didn’t know.”
The only way to restore damage to the Basilica was to strip all the concrete and paint from the walls and pillars – an extensive job.
Amazingly, Mass has been said in the Basilica every weekend despite the ongoing repair work.
“At times it’s been pretty testing; there were five months in which we cancelled all weddings,” Fr Sherman said.
The cost of the restoration campaign has been substantial due to the large amount of work needed to be done to the Basilica’s structure.
“We wouldn’t be doing this except for Government money,” Fr Sherman said.
“We got $1million from the Commonwealth, $600,000 from the State, $100,000 from Lotteries, and the people probably raised about $600,000.
“But if it hadn’t been tackled when it was, it would have been a lot more expensive than it has been to repair it.”
The initial estimated cost has also increased as the restoration team have come across many additional problems during the course of their work.
“There have been over 75 variations – that means they’ve struck something which they didn’t foresee,” Fr Sherman said.
The Oblate of Mary Immaculate priest said he wanted to ensure the same problems don’t occur again.
“My goal now is to raise enough money over the next ten years for a fund … to maintain [the Basilica],” he said.
“We have to make sure this never happens again – if you see some moisture coming through causing damage, you get it repaired straight away.
“Buildings like these have to be cared for if you want to preserve them.”
St Patrick’s Basilica was designed by renowned architect Michael Cavanagh.
Its foundation stone was laid on St Patrick’s Day in 1898, and initial construction was completed in 1900. However, it was not until 1960 when its new sanctuary was built that the Basilica was finally complete.
The church was elevated to the status of a minor Basilica in 1994, and was placed in the State Register of Heritage Places in 1996.