The Last Call

27 May 2009

By The Record

Perth’s Mother church forges ahead as final appeal approaches.


The second phase of construction of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (St Mary’s Cathedral), 1926-1929.


By Anthony Barich
THE Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary -otherwise known as St Mary’s Cathedral – in the heart of Perth CBD has the expression of the faith of Catholics over the space of 146 years since Benedictine missionary, Bishop Rosendo Salvado, laid the foundation stone.
Though it has had its share of problems that are inevitable with such a major project, it is nevertheless a testimony to the faith and resourcefulness of generations of West Australians.
As the third and final appeal is made this weekend for the conservation and completion of St Mary’s Cathedral, the faithful still have an opportunity to join those who have gone before them in contributing to the ‘Cathedra’ – the chair of the archbishop, the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Perth.
While its conservation and completion started in February 2007, plans are still being drawn up. This, along with the fact that construction and material costs have spiralled, and economic instability, have all led to an uncertain completion date.
One thing is for sure, says Monsignor Thomas McDonald, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral for 17 years: “The old cathedral was a very beautiful and prayerful building, and will be even more so when completed.”
The original St Mary’s Cathedral built in 1865 is what the Monsignor calls “Victorian neo-gothic” – though he admits it’s quite far from what we know as ‘gothic’ as Europe’s great cathedrals show.
The main feature of gothic, in simple terms, is that it’s very grand and ornate, with the classical feature a vaulted ceiling. Its externals have flying buttresses that support walls that hold the ceiling up.
The Archdiocese of Perth has no documented evidence of the 1865 architect, or any drawings. There is evidence that Brother Joseph Ascione, a Benedictine lay Oblate, was perhaps the architect. “We know he was the chief of works on site at the time, but no Benedictine monks worked on the cathedral,” Mgr McDonald said. “It was built by convicts who became free men with a ticket of leave who were employed for jobs on the construction of the 1865 cathedral.”
St Mary’s Cathedral is not genuine ‘gothic’ – neither the 1865 section nor the altar end designed by Irish architect Michael Cavanagh and built as the first of a planned two-stage process in 1930 until the global Depression stopped building in its tracks.
Believed to be inspired by the Anglican English gothic Cathedral of St Mary in Salisbury, England, which was built in the Romanesque design from 1220-1258, Perth’s cathedral retains elements of gothic, particularly its tower and the shape of its arched windows at the western front.
Perth Archbishop Patrick Clune’s original plan was to build an entirely new cathedral and demolish the old. The Depression left the first stage – the transepts and sanctuary – complete, but the second stage – the nave – incomplete and on the backburner for the best part of 75 years.
What generations of West Australians have grown up with since is what Mgr MacDonald calls an “unhappy marriage” of the 1865 end – “like a pimple on a pumpkin” – and the “Cavanagh” end. Nonetheless, it has a uniqueness about it, he says.
“It was set in very beautiful grounds with a number of exotic and Australian trees, rose and agapanthus gardens, like an oasis, a virtual billboard for Jesus, for Catholicism, for Christianity, in the heart of commercialism in the city,” he says.
Had Cavanagh’s design been completed, it would have been enormous – the tower alone, to be in the centre of the southern side, would have dwarfed the adjacent Royal Perth Hospital, Mgr McDonald says.
Just completing the first stage was a tremendous effort. Before the Depression hit, Archbishop Clune – a gifted and eloquent orator – rallied the faithful and raised 95,000 Pounds in a short period of time.
Cavanagh’s original plan was “really magnificent”, Mgr McDonald says, but would not have been practical for today’s liturgy, with its very long nave and very poor sight lines to the sanctuary with all the pillars. Even prior to the Dean closing the cathedral for restoration and conservation, people in the side naves on either side saw nothing of the consecration.
“A priest celebrating Mass in the cathedral at the altar is very remote from the people. It’s the case in most cathedrals in the world today. It’s the nature of the beast, unless you pull it all down and start again. This will be one of the big features, that people will have excellent vision of the sanctuary from any part of the cathedral.”
While he affirms that the faithful are not there as the audience of the priest, and it is therefore “not absolutely necessary” for them to be physically close to the priest, it is necessary, he says, that they at least see the sanctuary and altar and be able to adore the Sacred Host when it’s elevated; the same with the Precious Blood.
“That’s what we wanted to improve,” Mgr McDonald said.
Hence the new design, by architect Peter Quinn, will see the altar more centrally located – which goes against the standard gothic design or even any notion of a traditional church – ensuring better sight lines.
Other elements of traditional worship will be retained in the newly completed St Mary’s Cathedral. The original tabernacle that was used in the 1865 and 1930 cathedral that has been in storage since 1973 will be fully restored and placed in a central position where the archbishop’s cathedra (seat) is. The sanctuary of the 1930 cathedral will become the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and there will be kneelers there for people to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
Of the overall look, Mgr MacDonald says: “We believe we have achieved a blending of the 1865 and 1930 ends, with the new extension in the middle the same colour as the 1865 cathedral.
“But it is not desirable to make the whole building look one, as we want people to recognise the cathedral as what it was.We don’t want a brand new building.”
When Church officials spoke to four architects before settling on Peter Quinn, their top concern was to preserve the Cavanagh end, the tower and the western front of the 1865 cathedral, “as testimony to the Catholics of that era who contributed to the building of it, as it was an expression of their faith”.
“We wanted to find a solution not only to the liturgical problems from the old cathedral, but to the juxtaposition of those two buildings and make them become functionally one. The only way to do that was to remove part of the second cathedral to create something with the same dimensions,” he said.
He said they considered building the new section in the same style as the old, but Heritage Council of WA rules forbade it under the Burra Charter. Merging these two sections proved a difficult task. One of the biggest problems was that Church officials had the rough concept on paper that they believed satisfied all their requirements and would achieve their objectives, but the specific designs only started when the actual building started.
The design phase is still going on. For example, the confessionals are still being drawn up. But that didn’t prolong the project.
“What was responsible for the blow-out in time,” Mgr McDonald said, “was the manufacturing of building materials”, and the complications of joining the two sections.
When the project was started at the height of the building boom, the Archdiocese approached four steel companies; three of them wouldn’t touch the project as they had so much work already. They got an initial quote, but costs trebled.
Whatever the problems, at the end of the day cathedrals are more than bricks and mortar, they are an expression of people’s faith, as Mgr McDonald says.
“Our cathedral might not be classic gothic architecture, it might not win any great architectural award for its gothic-ness, it’s very ordinary as far as being a gothic cathedral is concerned,” he said.
Stepping inside the cathedral before he closed it for completion works, people, he said, “walked into a different world that was very peaceful and quiet”, the thickness of the walls keeping out much of the city noise.
“The cathedral was spiritually a very beautiful place, in spite of it being incomplete. It had an enormous attraction to all types of people.” In the course of any one day, the number of people who came to the cathedral would equal one well-attended Sunday Mass, he said. He once surveyed visitors praying before certain sacred images – the Lady Chapel and St Therese’s Chapel, St Joseph’s Statue, Stations of the Cross… and by far the most popular was an old confessional recess chapel on the northern side with a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta with a kneeler before it. “Whenever I went in there, inevitably there was someone kneeling in prayer before it,” he said.
The glory of St Mary’s Cathedral, he says, is the Lady Chapel, which cost 6000 Pounds, raised by people who had such a great devotion to Our Blessed Mother.
“The Lady Chapel is very ornate,” Mgr McDonald said. Its identity and character come from an image that many think is the Assumption; it’s actually a copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s 1678 painting of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, reflecting the true name of the cathedral.
A “beautiful” onyx altar also adorns the Lady Chapel, the stone sourced from Algeria in northern Africa. There is only one other like it in the world, believed to be in a cathedral in the US. The walls of the Lady Chapel are adorned in marble with a mosaic of lilies, a scriptural representation of Our Blessed Mother’s purity.
A mixture of traditional and modern that will please some and intrigue others, the cathedral is the inspiration of generations of Catholics; it will be the inspiration of many more to come.