16 October 2022

Restoration’s ‘ah ha’ moment for Goulburn’s Old Cathedral

| John Thistleton
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A hand-written hymnal, holy cards and rosary beads bring reminders of earlier days of worship for Restoration Committee chair Dr Ursula Stephens. Photo: John Thistleton.

In the final stages of Saints Peter and Paul’s Old Cathedral’s stunning restoration, more historic treasures have come to light.

When floorboards were lifted to enable crossbeams to be installed during the $10 million project at the Goulburn church, contractors found prayer cards, music sheets, rosary beads and candlesticks. One special find is a hand-written hymnal in Latin for a formal Mass.

A huge community celebration and High Mass will mark the reopening of the much-loved old cathedral next month.

The prayer cards, rosary beads and hymnal likely belong to girls from Our Lady of Mercy, who sang at Mass many years ago. The choir loft hasn’t been used for a long time due to its unsafe floor.

Restoration Committee chair Dr Ursula Stephens said the memorabilia would be added to other historical items collected over the years, including an early priest’s travelling Mass kit. This leather box contained everything needed to celebrate a Mass. Early chalices are among the collection.

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Beautifully crafted timber structures including modesty boards once used at the front of the pews and an early narthex (a structure that determines a cathedral’s entry), made from deep-red cedar with intricate carvings, have also been uncovered. The narthex will be repurposed in future.

“To find these pieces in storage over time is going to help us tell the long journey of the expansion of the Catholic tradition in Australia,” Dr Stephens said. “This is the first cathedral outside of Sydney. The diocese of Goulburn actually extended down beyond the Victorian border when it was first established. The influence has spread throughout southern NSW and beyond.”

Having overcome extraordinary hurdles and delays, the Old Cathedral will reopen on Wednesday, 30 November, with a High Mass at 11 am, concelebrated by Archbishop Christopher Prowse, Bishop Pat Power (now retired) and 10 priests.

The important liturgy will include anointing the new altar, one of 12 points of consecration to be anointed with oil.

All the religious orders that were in Goulburn over the years, the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Saint Joseph, Christian Brothers and Passionists, will be represented at the Mass. A local Catholic choir will be joined by the Cathedral Choir from Canberra.

“It is going to be a huge community celebration,” Dr Stephens said. “It’s going to blow people’s minds.”

After such a painstaking restoration the new-look place of worship will surprise some parishioners. But for Dr Stephens, one element stands out.

“Of all the things that represent the ‘ah ha’ moment of the cathedral restoration, it has to be those stations of the cross,” she said. “Nobody knew they were coloured. The exquisite painting and repair has been meticulous. They give you goose bumps when you see them.”

A large stained-glass widow from above the main altar is in 14 pieces being repaired at Moss Vale. It will be reinstalled, the 1890-pipe organ will be cleaned and serviced, the stations of the cross returned and the last piece of turf will be laid outside before the reopening.

“Everything that can be done will be done by then,” Dr Stephens said.

“We are optimistically coming in under our original estimate, but it has been a real challenge.”

Many long bursts of heavy rain, COVID-19 throughout 2021, sharp restrictions in materials and attack by intruding vandals slowed the final stages. An example of the delays is the copper downpipe that was stolen.

“Trying to get it remade and refitted and back in time has been a mammoth effort,” Dr Stephens said.

Due to the specialist nature of repairs and restoration, most of the contractors on site are heritage-accredited craftspeople. In high demand, they have had to balance other work commitments across Australia.

Woman in cathedral

Dr Ursula Stephens inside the Old Cathedral, which is gradually regaining its original grandeur. Photo: John Thistleton.

“They have been magnificent in working weekends, evenings and through the rain and the wind that has been Goulburn’s winter to make sure we meet the deadline,” Dr Stephens said.

Meanwhile, the Old Cathedral’s application to become a basilica awaits determination in Rome and the committee is confident it will be successful.

Scrubbed clean and repainted, almost every corner, curved arch and column of the Old Cathedral has historical points of interest. Dr Stephens expects religious and heritage tourists to visit Goulburn, a destination with inspiring historical buildings.

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