Armidale Catholic Cathedral

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Bishop Michael Kennedy became the tenth Catholic Bishop of Armidale on 9 February this year. Also pictured is Parish Administrator, Monsignor Ted Wilkes. The Diocese’s spiritual heart, the Cathedral of St Mary and St Joseph, will celebrate the centenary of its opening in October. Bishop Michael, welcome to Armidale!

Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here. I came from a rural diocese, Wagga Wagga, where I enjoyed working with country people very much, so it hasn’t been such a big transition to another rural diocese. But it’s certainly a bigger task than being a parish priest, so that has meant some adjustment for me.

Since my ordination as bishop on 9 February this year, I’ve been moving around the diocese – it’s a big place! – getting to know people and seeing what the needs of the diocese are, planning for the future.

Can we look at the past for a moment? The Catholic Cathedral here in Armidale is celebrating its centenary in October. What is a Cathedral exactly?

‘Cathedral’ comes from the Latin word ‘cathedra’, which means ‘chair’. The Cathedral houses the Bishop’s chair. Originally, the chair was the place the Bishop taught from. We still talk about a professor’s ‘Chair’ of Mathematics or History, and so on, at our universities. Teaching is a key part of the Bishop’s role – he teaches, governs and sanctifies in the local Church community. Not many Bishops these days sit in their chair to teach, but he does sit there during worship, presiding over the celebration. The Cathedral, the place of the Bishop’s teaching chair, is usually located in the main town in a particular area, and it’s the mother church of the local Catholic community, called a diocese. It’s usually a building of significant size, as our Cathedral is.

How did the 1912 Cathedral come about?

The original Cathedral, built by the first Bishop of Armidale, Irish Bishop Timothy O’Mahony, opened in 1872 on land that had been made available to the church by generous local benefactors, including Joseph Daly. It had become too small to house the growing Catholic community. So Bishop Patrick J O’Connor, also an Irishman, who had been in Armidale since 1876, and Bishop from 1904, took the plunge and decided to rebuild. The new building was erected alongside the old. The former Cathedral was then dismantled. Many of the bricks were used in the erection of the Cathedral Hall that now stands in Rusden Street, as well as for the building of the school, which is now St Mary’s Catholic primary school. It was a great act of faith in the people on his part. Also, 1912 was the golden jubilee of the founding of the Diocese of Armidale, which had been approved as a new diocese in 1862. The Cathedral, which had cost about £32,000 to build, was opened debt-free in October 1912. This was an incredible accomplishment.

Where did the money come from?

From people, mostly from ordinary people, generous people.

Bishop O’Connor, from all accounts, was very popular and a dynamic priest and bishop. He was a generous man of great energy and was very well-respected across the community, among both Catholics and those not of our faith. He travelled widely across the diocese, particularly over the years from 1908 until 1912, and with the assistance of his then Cathedral Administrator, Monsignor Maurice Tobin, raised the funds to build the new Cathedral.

Support for the building came from a broad cross-section of the community. Fetes, dinners, raffles, cards and games nights were conducted across the diocese to raise funds for the new Cathedral. Even school children held small fundraising events at their schools.  Bishop O’Connor was also well known outside New South Wales, and our records show that donations to the Cathedral building fund were received from Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, and even New Zealand. The names of different donors are inscribed on some of the fabric of the Cathedral, under the stained-glass windows, as well as in various publications. At the ceremony opening the Cathedral, Bishop O’Connor preached, and the amount to pay for the building was finalised there and then. It was a remarkable achievement – a great tribute to the faith and generosity of the people.

Who built the Cathedral?

The Cathedral was designed by the firm of Sydney architects, Sherrin and Hennessy, with Mr John Hennessy being the principal architect. A local builder, Mr George Nott, was contracted to build the Cathedral, and he engaged a team of bricklayers, carpenters and other artisans to undertake the work, under the supervision of Mr S. Davidson as Clerk of Works.

It was a massive undertaking for the day – and particularly for a town the size of Armidale. I understand that at various times around 30 men were working on the Cathedral, and it was completed in less than two years. Cardinal Moran laid the foundation stone on 5 February 1911 and the Cathedral was opened on 6 October 1912, barely 20 months later.

Our records show that more than 1.1 million bricks were used in the building of the Cathedral, and at the time, and subsequently, a number of visitors have commented on the design and standard of workmanship involved in its construction. We must remember too, that the type of equipment and tools used were much more rudimentary than those that would be used in erecting a building of similar size today.  So the Cathedral is a lasting testament to the skills and ingenuity of the architect, the builder and their workmen.

I might add that George Nott was the pre-eminent builder of the town, who not only was responsible for the Cathedral, but built St Patrick’s Orphanage and parts of NEGS, St Mary’s School and De la Salle College (now O’Connor Catholic College), extensions to the New England  and Imperial hotels, as well as many other buildings and residences of Armidale.

Mr Nott was a good Christian man (a practising Anglican), who as well as bringing his many technical and organisational skills to the project, was one of many non-Catholic residents of the town who donated generously to the Cathedral building fund.

Have there been any history changing moments that have affected the Cathedral?

Whilst the building itself has not undergone much modification over the past 100 years, there have been changes. A magnificent marble altar was added by 1919; it replaced a wooden one that had been used in the original Cathedral. The marble for the altar came from Italy and there was a delay in its production and installation, because the original marble for the altar was on a ship that was sunk on its way to Australia during the First World War.

Following the Second Vatican Council, the altar gates were removed from the front of the sanctuary, and a smaller, simpler altar was installed in front of the marble altar that permitted Mass to be celebrated with the priest facing the congregation.

The beautiful stained glass windows are a feature of our Cathedral. They need to be maintained, because they are susceptible to deterioration due to the weather and other environmental impacts, so in the 1990s a restoration program was undertaken.

Also in the 1990s, many parishioners welcomed the installation of a special infrared heating system in the Cathedral that added to their comfort, especially during the very cold Armidale winters.

The hail storm of late September 1996 damaged part of the roof and some windows, and they needed to be repaired. Like all large buildings of significance, ongoing maintenance is a big responsibility for the Bishop, Cathedral Administrator and members of the wider diocese.

You are the tenth Bishop of Armidale. What can you tell us about some of your predecessors?

Yes, I am the tenth Bishop to head the Diocese – the first being Bishop Timothy O’Mahony, who took up his post here in 1871, having been appointed several years earlier. All the men who have occupied the post were men of deep faith and commitment to the church and their parish communities. Like all of us, they had varying skills and abilities, but I think it fair to say that all left a distinctive mark on the Diocese.

Some occupied the office of bishop for only a relatively short time (e.g. Bishop James Freeman was bishop for only three years, before being appointed Archbishop of Sydney, and then later becoming Cardinal. Bishop Kevin Manning was bishop for six years, before being appointed to Parramatta). Three of our first four bishops were Irishmen. Bishop Edward Doody, the fifth bishop, was our first Australian-born bishop, appointed in 1948, having been educated and ordained a priest in Queensland.

If I had to single out any of them for their distinctive contributions, in addition to Bishop Patrick O’Connor, whom I have discussed earlier, I would make mention of his immediate predecessor, Bishop Elzear Torreggiani. Bishop Torreggiani was an Italian, who was a member of the Capuchin Franciscan order and was appointed in 1879, having held positions in England and Wales, where he had been sent as a missionary priest. Bishop Torreggianni was an imposing man both literally (he weighed more than twenty stone) and figuratively.

The then Monsignor Patrick O’Connor was his Vicar General, his right hand man, and together they formed a formidable team.

While one could say that Bishop O’Connor was a builder of buildings, Bishop Torreggiani was a builder of communities, establishing a number of parishes in the diocese, as well as schools. When he came to Armidale, there were only two Catholic schools in the diocese, and no teaching orders of nuns or brothers. In the 1880s he attracted several teaching orders, including the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, whose mother superior, Mother Mary MacKillop, (now St Mary of the Cross) brought sisters from Queensland to establish a school in Tenterfield. In 1882 a group of 10 Ursuline nuns and two postulants arrived in Armidale from England at the invitation of Bishop Torreggiani and established a school in Armidale that was later to become St Ursula’s College, and ultimately part of what is now O’Connor Catholic College.

Bishop Torreggiani was a man of a great energy, a man of patience and charity, who cared deeply about his people. He clearly had great faith and confidence in God. Bishop O’Connor was, to some extent, his protégé and had great admiration and respect for his mentor-Bishop. Bishop Patrick O’Connor was easily able to move among people of all ages and backgrounds. He had a leadership role throughout the community, not just within his own flock. They were priests of a different era, but all were men I would be proud to emulate.

How do you plan to celebrate the centenary?

A group of parishioners under the guidance of the Cathedral’s current administrator, Monsignor Ted Wilkes, has been planning a series of events for a couple of years now, and these will culminate in celebrations to be held over the four days, 19 – 22 October 2012.

Members of the group started an oral history project about two years ago and have interviewed more than 100 members of our diocese, who have recounted stories about their connection with the Cathedral. Obviously these recollections do not cover the full one hundred years of the building’s existence, but a substantial part of its history has been covered. It is planned to publish these recollections in a book, which will be available at the centenary celebrations.

In addition, a well-attended forum was held in May this year, at which a series of speakers presented papers on the role of the Bishop, and the cathedral in church law, the story of the design and building of the Cathedral and its impact on the Armidale landscape, the role of Bishop O’Connor in the instigation and management of the project, and the place of the Cathedral in the lives of members of religious orders of the Diocese. The forum played an important educative role for parishioners and the information provided by the speakers will be of benefit, especially to younger members of our community, in years to come.

During the October weekend, a number of religious celebrations will be held, including Masses of Thanksgiving, a Prayer Service for deceased benefactors of the cathedral, a Centenary Dinner, a Garden Party, as well as special celebrations with clergy of the Armidale Diocese and visiting clergy.

These events will give members of the parishes and schools of the diocese, members of religious orders who have had a presence in Armidale, and the wider community an opportunity to be part of the celebrations. Further details of these events are available at:

This story was published in issue 64 of the New England Focus

One Response to Armidale Catholic Cathedral

  1. Susan Flewell-Smith says:

    My grandfather was Randolf James Nott, I believe his father was George Nott, your builder(stonemason) and my father used to tell me he, Randolf built this beautiful cathedral. Tho not a catholic he was great mates with the Bishop and many card games were played together, no doubt with others! My mother used to tell me of the house they lived in in Armidale that had a huge log fire, and that after they left it became a nursing home. It was a large house. He(Randolf) also was part of Notts Joinery, I believe was very well known. I am looking forward to visiting this very beautiful part of the world and I can’t wait to visit this lovely building. The photos are great, I have seen it, but only fleetingly as my late husband and I drove thru on our way to SE Qld. If you have any information on the Notts I would love it in my search of family records. Thank you.

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