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St Mary's Cathedral

Victoria Square: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1865-

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CHURCH HILL. The Story of Victoria Square. By 'Cygnet'

EASILY the most dominating feature of the City of Perth (always excepting the Gasometer, of course), the Roman Catholic Cathedral commands attention no matter from what point of vantage the view be taken. No little interest then is being evinced in the attempts being made by the Church and the municipality to beautify its surroundings, and the moment seems opportune to shed light on the problem as to why the Anglican community let slip the opportunity to take unto themselves this prominent and commanding landmark as the site of their own Cathedral. For wild bush though it was, Surveyor-General Roe had at once written "Church Hill" across it on his plans of earliest Perth, and had woven dreams of a towering edifice which would one day grace and glorify this newest of all capital cities.

It is strange that no Minister of Religion was included among the officials and settlers who arrived In the Parmelia and Sulphur in 1829 when we consider how church-minded was our first Governor, Captain Stirling, not to mention his military commandant, Captain Irwin, whose soul simply burned with missionary fire. But it is a fact that the settlement remained minister-less until the arrival in 1830 of Rev. Mr. Wittenoom. With his coming the first church was erected: a building of bulrushes which sprang up on the allotment in Howlck (now Hay) Street, since built over by the Masonic Club. This served presumably until 1836 when we find the Anglican Church functioning in the newly built Court House which must have stood roughly where the Burt Memorial Hall junctions with the present St. George's Cathedral.

The church services continued to be held in the Court House until, with the return of Major Irwin from England later in 1837, steps were taken for a building entirely for divine service. The first public meeting with that object was held on January 10, 1838. It adjourned until the 31st when Governor Stirling promised that he would try to wring £450 from the public coffers, while Irwin announced that be had got £200 from the S.P.C.K. and had privately collected another £65. G. F. Moore, Advocate-General, voiced the feeling against the continuance of holding the church services in the Court House— "a place where the worst passions of human nature were brought into play." He plumped for a new church to be erected "where the Hospital now stands," meaning the Military Hospital which stood in Cathedral-avenue between the main door of St George's and the Lands Department. Finally he regretted to see the meeting so poorly attended, but for all that £375 was subscribed on the spot. The "Perth Gazette" had no illusions about where the new church should be built. There was only one possible site and that was Church Hill. "It is removed from the busy hum of traffic (it goes on to urge and this in 1838!) without being too remote to occasion any perceptible inconvenience; it is not two mlnutes' walk from the old rush church which was attended for some years with out the slightest complaint of its distance. Added to this the view from what is called Church Hill is one of great extent and truly grand and inspiring."

Battle of the Sites.

The Military Hospital site, the "Perth Gazette" goes on to say, has Its advantages; "but we would recommend them to visit the other site before they determine, and if they have any taste for scenery and consider the magnificent effect a fine building would have on this allotment towering to the skies, if their opinion is not altered, we shall be much surprised." Which may be rocky as regards grammar, but firm as to sense. Again it urged as to the hospital site, that its removal presented "a formidable difficulty" as the work would run away with a great part of the funds collected.

The fight continued to hover between these two sites. One meeting would decide on Church Hill and the next on the Barracks site, so that the "Perth Gazette" declared that among the public "there was a degree of indifference manifested." (One might almost be reading about the present Town Hall controversy!) On top of this , and presumably in their eagerness to convince the public that some thing was being done, the committee actually called for plans before they had selected a site. But no sooner had this been done than another meeting decided to purchase the Court House and enlarge it! The public clamour, however, was too great and on June 23, 1838, another meeting rescinded this motion.

Six months elapsed and then finality was reached. On January 24, 1839, a meeting decided to build the Church on the Barracks site in a line with the Colonial Office. Three weeks later the design for the Church was selected. Dr. Hinds was appointed chairman of the committee in charge, and the price was set down at £1,800 — at which point (after pausing to remark that it was eventually built on the Barrack Square, facing St George's terrace, and remained until the eighties when it made way for the present St. George's Cathedral) we may return to Church Hill, or Victoria-square, as we know it.

The Roman Catholics Take Possession.

Still in its virgin state, save for the surveyor's pegs. Church Hill remained until the first Catholic Missionaries arrived in the Colony headed by Father (later Bishop) Brady. They were welcomed with open arms by Governor Hutt who at once allotted them the ground on which the present Bishop's Palace stands. Whether this also included the land across Victoria-avenue, so heavily built on by the Sisters of Mercy, I am not to a position to say; but apparently it did not include Victoria Square, that is the central block on which St Mary's stands today. At any rate it fell to Governor Kennedy, some years after Governor Hutt had left, to vest this magnificent property in the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Serra taking delivery thereof. We know that Bishop Brady in 1843 had erected a church in this neighbourhood. Or rather his energetic flock had, and had erected it so hurriedly that only when the four sides were stood up to be fastened together was it discovered that no provision had been made for doors and windows, which had then to be hacked out in haste! But where this church stood is not known. Nor is it known for certain where Bishop Serra's first church stood, although it was presumably the present Chapel of the Children of Mary in the convent grounds abutting on Victoria Avenue, and which is known to date from 1846 or thereabouts.

With Bishop Martin Griver, however, we began to see light. Invoking the assistance of the Spanish monks from New Norcia, he erected the old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop Salvado laying the foundation stone on February 8, 1863. It was built in the Italian style, in recognition whereof Francis the Second, King of Naples and Sicily, presented the marble altar we see today. It serves to remind us not only of this last King of the Two Sicilies, doomed to be driven from his throne by Garibaldi, but of Bishop Griver and Bishop Gibney, both of whom are fittingly entombed thereunder.

St. Mary's has all but engulfed the old Cathedral, a short time and there will spring to life the Vision Splendid of that unknown scribe who, but two years short of a century ago begged the people of Perth "to consider the magnificent effect a fine building would have on this allotment towering to the skies."

References and Links

Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'Church Hill: the story of Victoria-square', West Australian 7 March 1936: 5.

See also: Victoria.


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